Monday, February 28, 2011

Photographing Birds: Digital Ethics

This Red-shouldered hawk was photographed in the Florida panhandle at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  This windy, foggy and drizzly day was hardly ideal for digital photography. The photo above is the unphotoshoped original.  The image below is the photo I produced, and included a step or two that I did not mention in my last four blog entries.

Note the twig that originally protruded from the stump behind the hawk.  I thought the twig interfered with the photo's composition.  I erased it.  Was my erasure ethical?  This edit probably bothers nobody.  But digital photography allows you to change backgrounds, add birds that were not originally in the photograph, and place birds that were not in the original habitat or location.  These later actions probably will appear unethical to most observers.  Drawing the line between erasing an occasional offending stick, a secondary bird in the background, or moving a bird to a whole new location is up to the the individual photographer.  Certainly a difference exists between improving the quality and substantively changing the reality of a photograph. Explanation of major changes in images should probably accompany doctored photos.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Photographing Birds: Photoshop Basics

Once Capture One delivers my TIFF file to Photoshop, I usually perform a few quick tweaks to my photographs. Some photos require more work, a few require less.

First, almost all photos need to be cropped to at least some degree. Gone are the days of leaving sprocket hole shadows to indicate no cropping occurred when printing a photograph.

Next look for “Adjustments” under the "Image" tab at the top of the Photoshop screen.  Click on "Adjustments" and then click on “Auto Levels.”  This action may result in a rather dark photo.  If so, continue to “Curves.”  There you can manipulate a graph.  Raise the graph's curve with your cursor, and the image will lighten. 

Occasionally Auto Levels gives horrible results.  One fix is to go to “Levels” (also under "Adjustments"). Here you will find a histogram.  Moving the carrots on either side of the histogram closer to both ends of this histogram will improve your photo.

Next in "Adjustments" go to “Hue/Saturation.”  Set the saturation to “21.” This adjustment brightens the photograph, but you do not want to overdo this setting. Several readers comment that a setting of 21 is a tad high.

The next step requires the purchase of a Photoshop add-on called Neat Image.  Check out this relatively inexpensive software.  Once loaded into your computer, it will appear under the "Filter" tab in Photoshop. I have set Neat Image to 100% sharpening.  Neat Image, as I understand it, smooths out the image background, while sharpening the bird in the foreground.  The result is usually noticeably stunning.  If it does not improve your photo, go to “Edit” and click “Undo.”  (Remember you can undo almost any action in Photoshop.) 

If you are planning to publish your image on the Internet, the last Photoshop step is to re-size your picture.  Go to the "Image" tab and select “Image Size.”  For publishing on the web, I make my photos 8 x 6 inches in size and 72 dpi (dots per inch).  (You will want to keep your dpi high for printing files, but 72 dpi is all you need for the Internet.) I then go to the “File” tab and click on “Save for Web.”  I save the file, which is converted to JPEG format, to a folder I have named “blog photos.”

I discovered a robust Internet site that often improves my web-ready files (the program does not deal with large files).  This free site is called Picnik.  Upload your photos to this site and select “Auto-fix.”  I also experiment with the sharpening tab, trying to be careful not to produce thin, white halos around my birds.  I then save these photos back to my “blog photo” folder.

Finally, I back-up all my files on to two external, 1-terabyte hard drives.  (I use two hard drives in case one fails. Backing up also allows me to clear up space in my computer.) Previously I backed-up files on to two DVD disks, but finding files on these disks was difficult--I had 50 disks.  With the external hard drives, searching for files is amazingly quick.  Of course, the main reason for the hard drives is to not lose your photos in the event of a catastrophic computer crash. I back up both my TIFF and my RAW files since you can not predict what advances in digital software may be in our future.

My next, and final, bog post on photography will briefly discuss digital ethics. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Photographing Birds: Uploading files

At the end of a day photographing birds, it is time to upload your photo files from your camera to your computer.  Follow the directions and use the software that came with your camera.  I use two additional pieces of software.  Photoshop may be able to duplicate this software, but I use them because of their ease of use and the results they offer.

I upload my photo files into a folder I named "2011 Photos."  Within this file, the camera software automatically places folders labeled with the date the photos were taken. After uploading the files into my computer, I erase them from my camera.  You do not want to run out of camera disk space when you are in the field.

Next I review my photos with a program called Photo Mechanic.  Basically this relatively inexpensive software is like an old-fashioned slide sorter.  First I toss out any poor photos.  It helps to be ruthless in this activity.  Next I rename each photo.  Renaming them allows you to find the photos of particular birds.  Renaming is done with one key stroke.  The program remembers the previously renamed file, so it is easy to number them sequentially.  Later, Photo Mechanic makes sorting files into new folders an easy task.

Capture One is the next software I use.  This program is used by professional photographers and has a high learning curve.  (Capture One is not inexpensive.  Erika took one look after I used the program and said it was definitely worth the cost!)  Usually my photos look good, but Capture One can tweak them in many ways.  If needed, I fiddle with my exposure.  I also usually sharpen my pictures.  A slightly out of focus photo can be rescued.  Capture One's next task is to convert the RAW file into a TIFF file.  Capture One places these new files into my folder called "2011 TIFF." (Photoshop can also convert RAW files to TIFF, but does so much less robustly.) Finally, Capture One automatically opens the TIFF file in Photoshop.

There is more work to be done, but that is accomplished in Photoshop, which I will describe in my next post. (The photo below is a Double-crested Cormorant.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Photographing Birds: Camera Settings

In my last blog entry, I forgot to mention two pieces of equipment I use when taking bird photographs.  As I mentioned, I usually carry two cameras.  I also bring along a spare charged battery, which I can swap out with a low battery in either camera.  Both cameras carry two-gigabyte memory cards.  Bigger cards are available. Although I also have a spare memory card, I have never had to use it. (Some cameras have trouble with even larger cards.)  I always transfer my photos to my computer at the end of the day, so the cameras always start out fresh. Make sure that your trash is empty on your computer, in case trashed photos are stored on your memory card.

Trying to get a shot of an exciting bird is no time to be fiddling with camera settings.  I set my camera for an ASA rating of 400.  Presumably a lower setting would give me better quality images, but, for me, setting the camera lower results in many more blurred images.

I always set my camera for automatic function.  I have been disappointed in my results whenever I have experimented with shutter or f-stop priority settings.  One problem I have is that, unlike previous cameras, my Canon, with the Leica scope, will not shoot photos in automatic mode--there is no diaphragm.  With this camera, I match the speed with the 400 ASA setting, at a 400th of a second. On a bright day I set the speed a little higher, on a cloudy day, sometimes much lower.  Most days I take an experimental shot at the beginning of fieldwork.

The Carolina Wren below was taken along the boardwalk at Corkscrew Sanctuary near Naples, Florida.  The conditions were not ideal.  The bird was in the shade, and, although the wren was standing at attention, he was boisterously singing and moving up and down. The photo was taken through the spotting scope.  The speed was at a 60th of a second.  Despite using a tripod, this speed is about as low as you want to go.  Even at this speed, the resulting photo is not very sharp. The ASA, as always, is set at 400.
Finally, I always take photos in RAW format.  Using this large-file format often results in superior images.  RAW files contain more data than jpegs.  You can always delete data from files, but you can not add what is not there.  Check that your file developing software, to be covered in my next post, can handle the type of RAW file that your camera takes.  To figure this out, look at the ending of the file name.  CR2 appears at the end of my RAW file names.  Then read the small print on the software.

The next steps in producing digital photos of birds are to be covered in my next blog post.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Photographing Birds: Equipment


I recently read an interesting book called National Geographic Photographing Birds.  The book was basic but inspiring.  To my disappointment, the book did not include a flow chart on how to create bird photographs.  I thought I would do so in a short series of blog entries.  One caveat: these are not necessarily the best or only way to produce photographs--just how I make them.  I will be happy to hear of better or different ideas from other birders.

Before you can take a bird photograph, you need a camera.  I use the least expensive, best camera I could find (I do have a budget)--a Canon EOS Rebel XSi. Other cameras may be just as good or better.  I am pleased with my camera.  It takes photos with 12.2 megapixels, which I think allows you to blow up  far away subjects better than with cameras with fewer megapixels.

I use two lenses.  One is a Leica spotting scope with an adaptor for the Canon
Camera.  Undoubtedly I could take better photos with a fancy, image stabilizing, Canon lens along with a large flash attachment. But I can not afford those.  The Leica scope gives me about 800 mm magnification.  This size lens gives me great results.

One  drawback to this setup is that the scope can not be hand held.  I must use a tripod (find the lightest, most durable you can) or a car window mount.  (My hybrid car, with a motor that cuts off when stopped, makes a great blind/four-wheel tripod.) You might notice that the scope I use has a straight eye-piece.  A bent one would be almost impossible to use from a car window.

Finally I use two cameras.  One is dedicated to a 55-250 mm lens, the other for
the spotting scope.  The advantage here is that you do not have to fumble with changing lenses while a bird flies away.  Generally speaking Erika takes photos with the smaller lens of close-by birds and wildflowers.

My next post will cover camera settings.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Blue-footed Booby


Blue-footed Boobies are tropical seabirds that breed on the Galapagos Islands.  They  barely build nests, laying their eggs in a shallow scrape on the ground.  The scrape is surrounded by a ring of guano.  I have read that this ring is caused by the incubating booby always facing the sun.  I notice, however, that this booby is not facing the sun.  The guano ring may discourage predators or vermin.  Stephen Jay Gould, in his collection of essays, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, writes that the ring serves another purpose: recognition of young.  If a young bird, for whatever reason, trespasses out of the ring, the adult not only ceases to care for it but will also  prevent the young from returning to the nest.

In the Galapagos, we also found nesting Red-footed Boobies.  You can tell the photo below is the red-footed species because it does not nest on the ground--it is up in the mangrove bushes--and, by the way, this booby sports red feet.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Woodpecker Finch


Of the birds of the Galapagos Islands, the most amazing is the Woodpecker Finch.  Similar in color to the other Galapagos finches, this bird uses a tool to forage for its prey.  It breaks off long spines or twigs and digs out the grubs upon which it feeds.  Woodpeckers would be more efficient at capturing grubs.  However, woodpeckers never colonized the Galapagos.  Tool use was once thought to be a hallmark of the human species but is now also known from a number of different birds and some of our fellow primates.

I recommend The Beak of the Finch if you are interested in learning more about Darwin's Finches and evolutionary biology.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Trash Birds

This post gives a new twist to the definition of "trash birds."  The term usually refers to birds, like starlings or House Sparrows, that are so ubiquitous that they are hardly worth noting.  In this case, however, the reference is to birds on trash bins.  Above is a male Satin Bowerbird in southeastern Australia.  This bowerbird builds a stick structure (the bower) and collects all things blue to entice his mate.  "Come see my blue stuff," he seems to proclaim as he dances in front of his bower.  Satin Bowerbirds collect all sorts of trash--feathers, buttons, clothespins, pieces of plastic, ballpoint pens, cellophane wrappers--all sorts of trash. Rival males even steal from rival's bowers.  If the female, who has visited the bowers when the male is absent, is interested, she enters the bower and copulation ensues. 
Our 17-month Ecuadorian research was interrupted by the opportunity for a two-week tour of the Galapagos Islands. Here Darwin began to hatch his theory of evolution and speciation.  He became impressed that the birds of the islands were not as diverse as those on the mainland.  Instead they appeared to have descended for a common colonizing ancestor.  Immediately upon landing on the islands, we encountered our first Darwin's Finches.  The birds, like the Medium-billed Ground Finch in the foreground and the Small-billed Ground Finch further back, although similar in appearance, had evolved slight differences..  Had Darwin never lived, I doubt that I would have been sufficiently brilliant to discover evolutionary biology.

Monday, February 7, 2011

White-breasted Nuthatch 2

One usually thinks of White-breasted Nuthatches as up-side-down feeders on tree trunks.  Occasionally they are found on the ground, especially if attracted by bird seed or corn. White-breasted Nuthatches don't excavate their own nests.  They use either natural cavities or those made by other birds (especially woodpeckers) or other animals.  My colleagues, Eric Liknes and David Swanson, discovered a White-breasted Nuthatch breeding in a rock cavity in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  This type of nest was unknown for this species.  Only Old World Eastern and Western Rock Nuthatches and occasionally Eurasian Nuthatches nest in rock cavities (Liknes and Swanson 2002, South Dakota Bird Notes 54:61-66).

Friday, February 4, 2011

White-breasted Nuthatch 1


White-breasted Nuthatches, upside-down birds that often spark an interest in birds by nonbirders, are common in Minnesota woodlands.  Surprisingly, this species' biology is not well known.  One reason is that their nesting cavities tend to be difficult to study. Pairs hold permanent territories throughout the year.  They also hoard large amounts of food, caching it, one item at a time, throughout their territory.  Western and northern populations show migratory or irruptive movements, but little or nothing is known about the details of these journeys (Grubb and Pravosudov 2008). White-breasted Nuthatches that I have banded in South Dakota and Minnesota seem to remain in the vicinity of my banding stations. I photographed this male White-breasted Nuthatch at the River Bend Nature Center in Fairibault, Minnesota.  It conveniently posed in front of a snow bank, allowing for the white background.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Northern Cardinal

The sight of a male cardinal on a frigid day always warms a birder's heart. Since the early 1800s, Northern Cardinals have expanded their range northward.  During this time temperatures have warmed and the species does well near human development (especially bird feeders).

Male Northern Cardinals pair with just one female.  Nevertheless, DNA studies demonstrate that up to 35% of cardinal nestlings do not share the same father. Both males and females feed the young, the males more than the females.  Brown-headed Cowbirds' laying their eggs in cardinal nests are a major problem for cardinals.  When they lay their eggs, female cowbirds remove cardinal eggs from the nests (Halkin and Linville. 1999).