Let's Talk About Editing!

Let's Talk About Editing!

Feb 2, 2018 ~ While I was waiting for the cold weather to end, I did some backing up and organizing of my photos for the new year. Here in Southeast Texas we can go decades without even a freeze but this year we have experienced three separate events with scary low temps. I am in awe of people who live in this all the time; I just hibernate inside until the temp is at least 40F or 50F. So, if you are like me and can't get out and chase birds... let's talk about editing. It is a great time to learn some new skills. 

There are so many simple things you can do in post-processing to improve your bird photography. I use the $9.99 a month Photoshop plan, which includes Photoshop (with a Bridge plug-in for Adobe Camera RAW) and Lightroom but most of these tools are available other image editing programs you might use. Oh, if you are a purist and just do SOOC images, fine, catch you next time.

This is for those other folks who like to tweak their images a bit.

Opening up Shadows

An unexpected bird will often result in less than optimum exposure. You might be surprised and not have time to make any camera adjustments and parts of the bird are too dark, or in deep shadows. This can happen in high contrast situations such as a dark bird and bright background or even bi-colored birds like Oystercatchers. 

Nikon cameras have great Dynamic Range, so I know what I can do in post-processing. Your mileage may vary.

Osprey on a wire shown in Adobe Camera RAW. Straight out of the camera or SOOC

Here is an Osprey, which is a darkish bird, against a bright blue sky. I know, I don't like blue sky shots but a bird this close overhead is begging to be photographed. I took way too many shots waiting for him to turn around or fly or do something. He did call out, so here he is with his beak open. But the bird's back is too dark; there is no detail in those dark feathers. And his foot is in a shadow. It is an OK photo, but it can be made much better.

The high f/stop was partly because it was so bright but also to ensure the whole bird was in focus. He was relatively close but facing away, and I wanted the head (farther) and the tail (closer) to both be in focus. I was focused on his eye. These birds are big; about 20-22 inches long. If the bird had been in profile, or parallel to the camera's sensor, the such a high f/stop wouldn't have been needed for the greater depth of field. 

Use the Shadows slider, move it to the right to open them up

And here is a little tweaking in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR). Raise the exposure just a tad but open up those Shadows. A bit of Clarity and a tiny bit more Saturation to warm it up. I have a preset for my lens to take care of any Chromatic Aberration but there isn't really much more to do.

Just open those Shadows up and crop. Note the new image will be 18 mp, still a very respectable size. The size of your potential crop is in the information at the very bottom of the display, another excellent reason to use ACR. As I mentioned in the Portraits post, crops less than 7 MP should be closely evaluated. 

Same image post-processed with the Shadows/Highlights tool - Look at that halo!

Here is what you do not want to do. Can you see the bright halo around the bird? Look closely, Go ahead, click on the image and it will embiggen. The halo is the result of using the Shadow/Highlight tool. 

Even Adobe notes "Keep in mind that the Shadow/Highlight command applies adjustments directly to the image and will discard image information. For nondestructive image editing, it is recommended that you use adjustment layers or Camera Raw". That means you will permanently edit your original; best make a copy to see if you like the results if you want to use it.

I will say Photoshop CC 2017 has improved the tool since previous versions, but this is often not a satisfactory way to brighten dark images. The dark feathers are lighter, but now his head is a dirty white. Also, look how it changed the blue sky to some awful over-saturated mess. Plus the bonus halo!

For me, I had rather use the one slider in ACR that doesn't make halos or ruin my original. 


First, you know by now that sharpening cannot save a soft or out-of-focus image. But, it can be useful in certain circumstances. I sharpen ONCE after all the editing and changes have been made to the working copy (.psd) after reducing for the final size. For blog and web, the image is first reduced to 1500 px on the long side and only then is sharpening applied before saving as a jpg.  I use Photoshop's Smart Sharpen at 50%. Your mileage may vary so I suggest you try a few different ways and evaluate.

Keep in mind lot of sharpening goes on without your knowledge. Even ACR has some default sharpening. Presets you buy can include sharpening, and FB and other applications compress and sharpen your posts. Each time you save an image as a jpg, the image is compressed and sharpened. Open, change, save ....then change you mind and ... decide you want to do something else so... open, change, save ... each time sharpening is applied and it degrades your image. 

Over sharpened Tricolored Heron - click to enlarge

What does over sharpening look like? A crispy bird with blotchy feathers. People mean well when they exclaim "Oh, it looks like a PAINTING". Well, no. A good bird photograph has feather details and sharp edges, not smears of color and psuedo-brush strokes. Sure, you can do special effects with filters and plugins to make Photo Art, but go easy on the sharpening for serious bird photographs. 

Crooked Water, Reflections and Horizons

This is one that once it is pointed out to you it is a mistake you will never make again. Until you notice, it doesn't even register that it is wrong. But it is. 

Clapper Rail along the edge of the marsh; tripod and camera were not straight on the subject

Now, what is wrong with the image above? Nice exposure, a bit of interest in the raised foot. No harsh shadows or blurry foreground distractions. So, what is the problem?

Crop and straighten image in ACR

Remember reflections go straight down from the subject. Not at an angle, and water ripples are level and not slanted. Either adjust the crop in ACR (hold your mouse over the corner of the crop and it changes to a curved two-headed line so you can rotate the entire selection) or use the straightening tool to draw a new horizon. 

Straighten horizon in Photoshop during crop selection; make sure Content Aware box is checked.

See the Straighten icon across the top of Photoshop when the Crop Tool is enabled? Looks like a little level? Select that, click on a starting place and draw a line across for the new horizon. Adjust the size of the crop as needed. If you have the Content Aware box checked, the program will fill in any blank areas that are outside the image. 

Using Content Aware Tools

Content Aware is such a huge subject (Fill, Move, Scale, Patch) I will do a complete post on it one day, but I will leave you with this little tip. And I think it is worth the cost of Photoshop just for this one thing. Ever have a great image that is spoiled by a thin branch across the front of the bird? Nothing big but you just know it would look so much better without it.

Red-shouldered Hawk in my backyard looking for a snack

This is the original of the Red-shouldered Hawk I post in my last adventure. Nice, but look at those branches in the way! At least they are sharp which will make them easier to remove. In the old days you would take the Clone Stamp tool and carefully paint it out of the way. Well, you would try but it was not always successful.

Using Content Aware Fill from Photoshop

Using Content Aware Fill from Photoshop

It is easy to remove thin, sharp obstructions. 

  1. Zoom in close
  2. Select the Polygon Lasso Tool (it is hiding under the Lasso tool). Make sure it has a + next to it as you are making a selection.
  3. Carefully go around the object you want to remove. Work in small sections instead of trying to do it all at one time. 
  4. Edit > Fill brings up the Fill dialog
  5. Select Content Aware from the Contents drop-down 
  6. Select OK

Continue to remove branches, and pay attention to any fine shadows from objects you have removed. If it doesn't look clean, then use your Clone Stamp to smooth out problem areas. Or just make a new selection and try again. It uses voodoo algorithms to match the selected part with pixels from the surrounding areas, so a new try might yield different results. 

Hawk no longer obscured by small branches.

Now, isn't that much better? And who would have known? That is the point with editing; it should be subtle and enhancing to the subject. No one should even suspect you did a little tweak here and there to make a good photo a great one. There are countless ways to edit images; these are just a few simple things I wanted to share. 

Do you like editing your photos? Are you tempted to try a bit more after this? Have you watched any of the YouTube videos on photo editing? Let me know in the comments below. 

BIFs or... Birds in Flight

BIFs or... Birds in Flight

Perched Birds

Perched Birds