Two weeks ago, I made a picture that I felt was great, and which is undoubtedly my greatest accomplishment from a purely technical point of view. It was this portrait of a Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus).
First, I want to talk about expectations. This is a highly subjective topic, so this is really my personal take on it.
I take photography very seriously. If someone asked me what I do in life, I wouldn’t say that I’m a software developer, I would clamor “I’m a photographer!”. So you could say that, generally, I have high expectations when it comes to my pictures, although the situation is more nuanced when it comes to details. I like landscapes, but I’m not dead serious about them; I don’t use a tripod for that, I don’t calculate the hyperfocal length I should use… I read about landscape photography, but I don’t work very hard on it. The same applies to architecture photography, for instance.
Bird photography is a different matter: I aim for the best. To be honest, I don’t really know where that obsession was born. Maybe it was my time reading BirdPhotographers.net avidly, ingesting all this precise feedback about shooting and processing bird shots. Many members there really direct you towards excellence, and that probably had a high impact on me. So yeah, now I’m really picky when it comes to my bird photographs, and that was one sole motivation behind upgrading my gear this winter, buying a Canon 7DII and a Canon 100-400II: with my previous gear, I made some good shots, but I felt restrained, I felt I could not attain the quality I wanted. It was mostly about sharpness: I wanted my birds’ eyes to be tack sharp, and they weren’t. I knew that I had (and still have) room for improvement in composition as well (a lot of room, actually), but I had the feeling that I couldn’t work on that at ease if technically, the pictures were not good enough… which brings us to this shot: holy smokes, it’s really sharp! Furthermore, and we’ll come back to that, the background is clean.
I blame my tripod for such awesomeness 😀 I had finally bought a rather good one the day before going to Seurasaari and snapping this fluffy bird. Hence, this was my first day in the field with it, and I came back home delighted. It’s heavy (carbon will have to wait), but it changes so much! The main thing is that, when I’m waiting, the camera is already pointed to the right direction, so I don’t need to hold it: it eases the pain in my arms, and birds aren’t frightened anymore by the motion of the camera going up towards them. Then of course, it’s stable (yeah I know, that’s the point). There’s a lot to learn, but I’m excited!
Theoretically, the tripod allows for longer exposure time without risking camera shake induced blur. In practice, I’m not sure yet how this applies to bird photography. It might be relevant for static subjects, but small birds like tits are seldom static. For this shot, I was so thrilled that I forgot to lower the ISO (I shoot in Aperture Priority mode, controlling shutter speed via the ISO), and kept it at 2500 even though I had left the shade. That resulted in a shutter speed of 1/800s, which is pretty fast. As a rule of thumb, we usually say that the shutter speed should be faster than 1/(effective focal length) for handheld pictures. With 400mm, even on a cropped sensor, 1/800s is more than enough… so imagine with a tripod! Maybe it was a good thing to keep the ISO up.
Let’s talk about sharpness now. Without going into details, keep in mind that the central autofocus point is usually the most precise. Because of that, and of the fact that I don’t handle the joystick very well yet (there was no joystick to choose the focus point on my previous camera), I only used this central point. Indeed, the picture is not cropped, and you can see that the bird’s head is exactly in the middle. Possibly not ideal in terms of composition, but the picture is SHARP.
On BirdPhotographers.net, one of the obsession is the background. “Fine picture, too bad the background is so busy” is a sentence you can read very often. So what is a busy background? Well, it’s basically the opposite of a bokeh: a background with lots of things in focus or almost in focus, usually twigs, which distract the viewer’s attention from the subject. In bird photography, we like smooth and colorful backgrounds, from which the birds stand out.
The essential factor here is the depth of field: the shallower the better, because the shallower, the more blurred the background will be. I’m not completely sure how the aperture you choose affects the depth of field in this kind of conditions, but I usually use the largest possible (f/5.6 at 400mm for me). However, the closer you get to the subject, the more you reduce the depth of field, and in addition, the further the background from the bird, the more blurred it will be. So, to summarize: go closer to the birds, and choose a place where the bird is far from the background. Easy, right? 😀
After some basic editing in Lightroom, my Blue tit looked like that:
Not impressed? Well, I knew that with a few tweaks, I could make it superb.
First, I wanted to remove a few branches. To do that in Photoshop, you have to select the area you want to remove, then go to Edit > Fill, tick “content aware” and click ok. I’m a complete newbie in PS, and I don’t have time to learn it from scratch, so I just watch tutorials that teach some techniques I want to learn, then apply them. I discovered that removing such big parts of the image didn’t work so well at first, so I just ran the same tool a couple of times on the same area to arrive to something rather smooth. Felt like brute-forcing, but I got those twigs out of the way!
The second flaw is directly related to the ISO setting. 2500, that’s high, and that creates noise (this grain you see when you look closer, left).
There are tools for reducing noise, but they come at the expense of sharpness (and by now, you should have understood that sharpness is vital to me). Weeks before, I had stumbled upon this video from Jess Findlay, explaining his technique for selective noise reduction. With such a neat background, I knew I could apply it to my picture, so I did! Thanks Jess for this very didactic tutorial. In short, with a mask, you can apply a strong noise reduction to the background while leaving your bird untouched, maintaining details in the plumage and the eye. As a result, the colorful background, a dogwood bush, is very smooth, as you can see (above, right).
This article is very different from what you’re used to on this blog, but I hope you’ve found it interesting anyway! For some weeks, I’ve felt like I wanted to share what I know about photography. This is in line with this year’s impulse, and I’d like to know how you feel about it: was that article helpful? Boring? Don’t be afraid to hit the comment section below, I’ll be there as well 😉
Long story short? I’m excited about the future 😀