November 28th, 2014 – Avian Friday: My Bird Workflow

Happy Friday everyone! I hope you had a great Thanksgiving. I know I did especially watching the Seahawks gobble up the 49er’s 🙂

I thought I’d post something a little different this week and share with you the process I go through to create some of these bird images shared every week.
Finding the birds, tracking them in flight, and using specialized equipment (long lenses and fast digital SLR bodies) to capture them is a whole other part of the process that also goes into making the image. I’ll share some insight about how I go from capture to post-processing the final image and the software tools involved.

First off, I feel that post-processing is usually always required to bring out the best in an image taken with todays digital cameras. I alway shoot using the RAW format which provides the greatest amount of flexibility to manipulate all the qualities of the image such as tonality, sharpness,color temperature or white balance.
For software tools, I start off with Adobe Lightroom. It allow me to quickly upload and convert the RAW files, sort them and pick which ones are candidates for saving for processing or rejecting and deleting those that I’m not happy with how they turned out. It also has a very cool compare feature that lets you look at two or more similar images side by side in an enlarged view to pick the best shots from a sequence. So here’s how it goes:

1) Once I have an image chosen I’ll often crop it to help a stronger composition or provide more detail of the bird. The higher resolution camera used provides the greatest flexibility here as you can crop significantly and still be able to get a high-resolution image. Lightroom has several crop ratio tools, but I usually just stick with rule-of-thirds grid and place the subject near one of the intersections.

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2) I’ll then apply global adjustment to the entire image. White balance is usually taken care of during the capture, so I go with the default. Each image varies, but I’ll typically start out adjusting the shadow slider to bring out more detail and reducing the highlights if necessary. Sometimes I’ll also tweak the white and black points while simultaneously holding down the Option key just to the point of visually seeing the thresholds of these two sliders. I like to also give the Clarity slider a subtle boost. The Vibrance and Saturation are left at zero. I’ll also check on the Chromatic Aberrations under the Lens Corrections tab to get rid of any halos that might occur when there is a high contrast between the subject and background. Usually it’s not so much of a problem when using high quality lenses, but does show up from time to time. It helps to enlarge the image to check the edges for it. Lightroom is pretty good for controlling it. In this example I just checked in on and didn’t have to adjust the Defringe amount slider.

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Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

3) While Lightroom is great for noise reduction, I prefer to export the image to Nik software suite at this point and use Define to apply noise reduction selectively to portions of the image rather than globally. This is particularly true for backgrounds. I find that noise reduction on the subjects sometimes takes away from the feather detail on birds especially. The great thing about the Nik software suite is that all adjustments can be applied selectively with control points used for masking areas.

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4) With some images I might want to create a mood or adjust the lighting to draw more attention to the subject. Viveza comes in handy for this or if there is a bright highlight or dark area of the image the control points can be used to even things out. On this image I didn’t use Viveza, but I did want to remove the small area of sky that I felt was distracting. I used the content aware fill and clone stamp tools in Photoshop to remove it.

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Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

5) For the finishing touches I like to apply a filter or two using ColorEfx. I’ll often start out with the Brilliance/Warmth filter and slightly warm up the image if necessary and give just a small about of Perceptual Saturation. I keep an eye on how this if affecting the image overall if not happy with how it is affecting the background or the bird itself, I’ll use the control points to fine tune it. Pro Contrast is the other ColorEfex filter I like to apply on these types of images. Usually only a small amount of adjustment is all that’s needed to give it a little more pop.

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Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

6) I’ll save the image at this point in Photoshop and the original gets updated automatically in Lightroom. I keep it un-sharpened so if I want to print I can sharpen for the output size and media specifically. The Sharpener Pro module in Nik is great. I sometimes use the Raw Presharpener right after the noise reduction in step 3. Most of the time, the RAW file image will need some sharpening as I keep the sharpening in camera setting at zero.
My typical method of sharpening for web display consists of first reducing to the final display resolution around 1600 to 1800 pixels wide in Photoshop. Then selecting Layer/Smart Objects/Convert to Smart Object. A Smart Sharpen filter is then applied which creates a layer mask that I invert and paint white over just the area of the bird so that the sharpening is not applied to the smooth background.

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Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

And that’s about it. I’ll create a border (often saved as an action), add the watermark and its ready to upload to the web for posting. Here’s what the final result looks like:
Hopefully some of you might find this helpful. This is just one of many ways that nature and wildlife images can be post-processed and some images may require more or less adjustments to prepare them for display on the web. Let me know if you have any questions and see you all next time.

Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)

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Edison, Washington 
700mm | 1/1000th Sec. @f/8.0 | ISO 800

Canon 5D Mark III+ Canon EF 500/4L IS USM + 1.4X Rear Adapter

Processed with Lightroom 5, Photoshop CC, Nik Define, Viveza, ColorEfex Pro.

To see a larger version please click on the image.

Feel free to comment below if you like what you see or have any other observations.

Thanks for stopping by,



One thought on “November 28th, 2014 – Avian Friday: My Bird Workflow

  1. Thanks for sharing this Jay – I am endlessly impressed with your skill and talent in capturing these gorgeous pictures.

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