Selective Sharpening in Nature Photography: American Black Bear

My typical nature photo post-processing workflow is very short and sweet unless I have to remove sensor dust spots from shoot at a vary small aperture.  I do like to present my images as realistically and un-manipulated as possible.  My still image format is always camera RAW to get the best possible dynamic range and so that I can make my own decisions over noise reduction and sharpening.  I had the great fortune of finding a wild Black Bear descending a tree in Northern New Jersey today.

Here is my finalized and optimized image with my typical watermarks and downsized at 900px as I generally do for web usage:

ursus american

A wild Black Bear descending a tree in North NJ. Photographed with the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC, the Canon EOS 7D, and a Manfrotto tripod.

Taken with a tripod-mounted Tamron SP 150-600mm VC Lens and Canon EOS 7D.  I had no time to prepare for the shot or change my camera settings.  I had previously dialed in ISO 800 F/8.0 +2/3 Exposure Compensation in Aperture Priority Mode, so the shutter speed was to be determined by my camera’s meter.  In this particular shot my 7D did a good job of gauging the brightness and I was left with a shutter speed of 1/80th of a second and a good exposure.  In the world of wildlife though, this is a relatively slow setting and prime for blur of subject movement.

Below are 100% crops to reveal what is really going on behind the scenes in my “digital darkroom”

RAW versus JPEG

On the right is a very unflattering view of my unprocessed RAW at high magnification and on the left is a slightly more flattering view of my output JPEG at the same magnification.

As you can see the eye and fur definition is lacking on the SOOC file on the right.  The Tamron SP 150-600mm VC is very sharp near the 400mm focal length and at apertures like F/8.  Unfortunately AI Servo focus is often less accurate than One-Shot focus.  Other reasons for image softness may include: very slight subject movement, auto-focus sensor slightly off the bear’s eye, shooting in the shade (low contrast on subject), and perhaps the panning movement on my tripod head.

After my initial default global sharpening of the RAW file, I applied an additional low-intensity High-Pass Sharpening layer.  I still was not happy with the definition on the bear’s face.  I created an additional layer of global High-Pass sharpening, but this time I erased the effect off of the background to prevent introduction of widespread digital noise.  I also feathered the remaining sharpening a bit, by tracing the bear’s outline with an eraser tool set to 50% to maintain a natural transition from subject to foreground.  This is one method of performing selective sharpening to optimize images and get the best out of your photos.

Happy to answer any questions about my workflow if you leave them in the comments.

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Free how-to nature photography ebook now available for download.

My 13 page ebook, Nature Photography in 20 Frames, is now available in its entirety.  20 photographs covering my approach to Wildlife, Macro, and Landscape shooting with DSLR cameras and interchangeable lenses.  I have 3 download mirrors sites available, and please let me know if you have any trouble obtaining the book.  I will email you the PDF directly if the links don’t work.

Nature Photography in 20 Frames

My free short but detailed PDF ebook on Wildlife, Macro, and Landscape Photography. Get your $5 PayPal donation ready… but only if you feel like paying for it 🙂 This link will re-direct you to my main website.

Question, feedback, and typo corrections are appreciated too!

Thanks,

Dave

Exposing for backlit photography subjects: Orange Sulphur

I am generally a fan of semi-automatic exposure systems when looking to photograph wildlife.  Specifically, I begin most outings with the camera in Aperture Priority Mode, and having an extra 2/3 stops of lights dialed seems to work pretty often.  However, as soon as I see a tricky lighting situation through my viewfinder I will try to get into Manual Exposure Mode as quickly as possible.

NJ Wildlife Photo

A macro photograph of an Orange Sulphur butterfly in New Jersey. This backlit capture was made using the Tamron SP 90mm VC 1:1 macro lens and the Canon EOS 60D DSLR.

Camera settings: 1/200th F/5.6 ISO 200

Above photo is a handheld capture with one of my typical rigs for closeup photography, the Tamron SP 90mm VC lens and the Canon EOS 60D.  The goal with this backlit photo was to get a good amount of illumination showing on the butterfly itself.  To achieve this, some of the brightest parts of the scene are pushed out of gamut because of the dynamic range restrictions of DSLRs.  As cameras are programmed to expose for the median tonal range of an image, it would require a significant increase in exposure compensation to get what I was after.  Turning the knob to Manual Mode and dialing in my desired settings was a much more succinct process.

“Blowing out the highlights” is not always a sin in my book, as I’ve learned to “see how a camera sees” and envision the end product.  Indeed there is some detail loss on the fringes of the butterfly and also on the petals of the flower, but in this case I think that adds to the “warm” feel of the image.

New Jersey Fine Art Nature Photo: Dusk at the Jersey Shore

This is a recent DSLR image made in Ocean County, New Jersey.  I had seen examples of long exposure photography that exhibited substantial cloud blurring but I hadn’t pulled many off before this.  I still would like to increase the length of this type of shot to minimize shape definition but that will require use of Bulb Mode on the camera and even less light hitting the sensor.

NJ Fine Art Photo

A long exposure DSLR photo facing westward a couple of minutes after sunset. Some low cloud formations briefly reflected vibrant pink and orange hues. Nature photograph taken in New Jersey using the Tamron SP 10-24mm Di II Lens + Canon EOS 50D.

Above photo was taken with the tripod mounted Canon EOS 50D camera and the Tamron SP 10-24mm Di II LD lens.  A Hoya 77mm HDx400 HMC filter is screwed onto my lens thread.  This 9-stop Neutral Density filter greatly lowers the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor.  Exposure time is 30 seconds at F/10 ISO 100.  Mirror Lock-Up and Camera Timer were also set on the camera to reduce loss of sharpness from vibration of the camera’s mirror or from my hand pressing the shutter button.

DSLR Nature Cinematography: Snowy Egret

I recently shot a few very short HD DSLR Video clips of one of the more common and easily recognizable wading birds in New Jersey, a Snowy Egret.  My personal goal for wildlife still photography had as been 2 archival quality captures of any subject that I found interesting.  Archival quality captures to me means focus is spot-on, exposure will not require significant post-processing, and the composition is pleasing to my eyes.  I also try to avoid repetition in my photos.  I’ve “upped the ante” on my nature shooting goals, and will now also try to film 1 or 2 quick sequences when I am in the outdoors.

Back to the point, I had been shooting all of my recent photos with a ballhead on my tripod.  Having no experience with fluid tripod heads, but realizing their importance in the video industry I started doing some research.  I already have Manfrotto RC2 quick release plates attached to most of my cameras and lenses so I wanted a fluid head that was designed for the RC2 plate.  I wound up purchasing a Manfrotto 128RC Micro Fluid Head and it has remained atop my 055x ProB tripod ever since.  This allows me to perform the steady panning motions needed for dynamic video work.

The above video was filmed using the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC Lens and the Canon EOS 7D.  Manual video mode settings include: ISO 100 F/14 and the Shutter Speed set to 1/80th.  I muted original audio from the clips in post-processing because of the loud hissing of the wind.  Guitar playing is me strumming my Washburn D10 Guitar, and I ended up recording this with my Samsung cellular phone.  Audio post-processing involved noise reduction, addition of a Phaser Effect, and overall Volume Reduction.  Video post-processing included trimming video segments, cross-fade transitions between shots, contrast enhancements, and split-tone color processing.

Poplar Leaf on Log

I get very caught up in trying to photograph the wildlife of New Jersey during our summer months.  However, now that the songbirds begin their southern migration out of the Mid-Atlantic and as many insects end their terrestrial lifecycles it is once again time to notice the various and vivid foliage colors brought about by the change of the season.

m43 NJ nature photo

An early Autumn nature photograph from New Jersey using Tamron’s all-in-one lens and an Olympus PEN compact camera.

Above photo was taken with Tamron’s first lens offering for compact Micro Four Thirds digital cameras.  The 14-150mm Di III provides a 28-300mm equivalency (35mm terms).  On the wide end, 28mm is great for drawing in scenery and the telephoto end with a short minimum focusing distance is very useful for honing in on details like individual leaves.  This photo of a Poplar Leaf in New Jersey was taken at focal length of 132mm in Aperture Priority Mode.  -1 stops of light was dialed in, with an aperture of F/9 and the ISO at 200.  My tripod-mounted Olympus PEN E-PL3 was triggered by a 2 second timer to allow for a 1/2 second exposure in this low-light situation.

Nature Photography in 20 Frames; my free how-to ebook on DSLR photography

Nature Photography in 20 Frames

Cover for my free short but detailed PDF ebook on Wildlife, Macro, and Landscape Photography. Get your $5 PayPal donation ready… but only if you feel like paying for it 🙂

Press release for upcoming eBook:

Nature Photography in 20 Frames
By Dave Blinder

I’ve completed the content for my first eBook which will be offered in its entirety as a free download, no strings attached, no trojan viruses, etc.  My short illustrated PDF is currently undergoing quality checks and proofreading.  I will provide download locations as soon as possible.  If anyone finds value in the book, I would greatly appreciate a $5 PayPal donation (info included in book) as I have done this work at my own expense.

Within the book I have provided full DSLR settings for each photo shown as well as a grid overlay to demonstrate the composition.  A focus point is also superimposed on each shot to show where critical focus was set.  The nature photos in my book encompass my personal approach to shooting Macro subjects, Landscapes, Birds, and Other Wildlife.

My PDF eBook will be completely free for non-commercial usage and distribution, but may not be altered in any way.  I will offer the eBook via email, my personal website, and try to have it uploaded to popular file sharing services as well.  I will be available to conduct private and public seminars to expand on the subject matter to support my material.

If you’d like personal notification upon release of my eBook send me an email – daveblinder@yahoo.com

Thanks very much,
Dave Blinder
Denville, New Jersey
http://twitter.com/daveblinder
https://daveblinder.wordpress.com
http://flickr.com/davidraymond

Expressing motion in photography: Laughing Gull in flight

Plenty of terms for the type of DSLR photography illustrated in the main image below and to tell you the truth I don’t even know what to call them.  Panning blurs may be the most logical terminology in my opinion.  Anyways, I often forget how much I enjoy looking at this type of capture.  It seems to boil the bird down to its very essence: shapes and colors.

Larus delawarensis

Photo demonstrating intentional use of a slow shutter speed along with panning of a telephoto lens.

Picture taken using a Canon EOS 7D and the Tamron SP 150-600mm VC telephoto lens.  Tripod lens collar is mounted to Manfrotto 055xProB tripod and Manfrotto junior fluid head.  Camera settings: focal length at 600mm, Manually set shutter at 1/30th, aperture at F/14, ISO 100, Camera RAW, Auto White Balance, VC On, Servo Focus Mode, High Speed Motor Drive.  Photography location: Ocean County, New Jersey.  Atlantic Ocean that is…

This type of photo can sometimes be performed in Aperture Priority mode by using a low ISO and large Aperture number to slow down the shutter.  The shutter speeds that usually work best for me are between 1/13th and 1/50th.  Your mileage may vary.  My goal when preparing for this kind of shot is to get a good amount of definition on the wildlife while emphasizing some motion (in this case the wing beats).  I also want a nice bright exposure that will retain a lot of details in the highlights but still have my histogram as far to the right as possible for maximum detail.  Compositionally speaking, I may be looking to place the bird prominently in the frame without cutting off any appendages or I may want try to include some scenery like showing the bird flying across the water’s surface.  There is a great deal of trial and error in this style of photography.  Patience, persistence, and studying other photog’s successful photos will go a long. way.

Expressing motion in photography: Beach Grass and Crescent Moon

When I first began doing photography, I thought that the prime objective was to freeze all action to record a moment in time.  Getting a sharp capture of a fleeting moment can indeed be difficult, whether it is a closeup view of the supermoon rising on the horizon, a sports photograph like a MLB baseball player nailing a fastball, or a bird photo like trying to shoot a tiny Tree Swallow mid-air.  There is also great validity to having motion within your frame.  In some cases, this can evoke moods like quickly fleeting action or on the other hand, serenity.

NJ Shore Night Photo

DSLR Nature Photograph from New Jersey showcasing how motion caused by wind can express time and add further dynamics to an image.

The above image was taken recently at the New Jersey Shore using a tripod-mounted Canon EOS 60D camera and the Tamron SP 90mm VC 1:1 F/2.8 Macro Lens.  Camera settings in manual exposure: 2.5 seconds F/7.1 ISO 100.  VC off (lens stabilization motor), Mirror Lock-up, 2 Second Timer, One Shot Autofocus (near the middle of the grass), and Auto White Balance.

I think the crescent moon has a really great distinctive shape, a shape I generally associate with a peaceful sky.  The grass that I have included within the frame is typical vegetation of the mid-Atlantic shoreline, so this gives a nice sense of orientation for the viewer.  For others, the grass may be reminiscent of a prairie or meadow.  The back and forth motion of the blades of grass tell us that time is passing, and also gives the photo a much softer edged appearance than a motionless capture.  I did shoot several similar frames, but in the other images I actually felt there was too much motion and not enough definition on the grass.

Pandora Sphinx Moth Caterpillar

This photo was taken recently in Morris County, New Jersey.  I can’t identify many caterpillars “off the cuff”, and I was pretty sure this was one I had never seen before.  Whenever possible I put some effort into putting the proper common name to any insect, bird, or plant that I take pictures of.  The hardest IDs for me are moths and nondescript plants.  Often I will “throw in the towel”, and ask someone else for help in identifying the organism.  My Google Search for “brown caterpillar with green spots” eventually led me to a dead ringer for this one, a Pandora Sphinx Moth Caterpillar, luckily for me a distinctive larva.

Eumorpha pandorus photo

Micro Four-Thirds photograph of a large brown and green caterpillar feeding.

Photo taken with the Tamron 14-150mm f/3.5-5.8 Di III Lens and the Olympus PEN E-PL2 Micro Four-Thirds Digital Camera mounted on my Manfrotto 055xProB tripod.  Settings: 150mm focal length, 1/20th shutter, aperture at F/8, ISO 400.  One Shot focus with continuous motor drive, Image Stabilization Mode 1 (in camera), RAW image format.  Less than 5% of the image was cropped off because of a very distracting leaf hitting the frame of the image.

I prefocused the lens on some nearby leaves, which allowed the lens to find the caterpillar faster than going through its entire focal range.  My subject was pretty stationary and I felt confident that I had a few moments to spare so I bent down a couple of leaves in the background to eliminate a little clutter.  I’d still prefer better separation from the background and foreground, but such is the way of nature photography, you take what you can get and make the best of it.