Birds : Post Processing Photoshop

Previous: Genre:Birds : Resources and References Birding Tutorials and Information Index Next: Genre:Birds : Photography Processing Tutorial (Lightroom)
This page is a chapter in the book Birding Tutorials and Information Index.


Hopefully this brief tutorial may benefit some of our bird photographers, although many of the same techniques used here, can also be used on any wildlife images. I believe a good photo and good processing skills need to come together to produce a top-shelf image, and although it may seem daunting, it's a lot of fun learning and you'll be surprised how quickly you'll pick things up and develop your own methods and techniques.

I've divided the tutorial into sections, so you can jump to what areas interests you most. However, I think it's best when followed from start to finish, going through the various stages in the process in sequential order. If you want to return to a section at some point, you can use the contents below. A discussion thread has been created where you can post comments or ask questions about the tutorials or any other post-processing questions/problems that you may have.

Allan has kindly contributed a bird photography processing tutorial of his own, using a different set of applications and techniques using Lightroom and is found Birds : Photography Processing Tutorial (Lightroom). Check it out!

There's no single, correct way to process a photo, these are just a few of the steps I might go through when processing one of my own images. There's many other tools and techniques I use, and combinations of, but it's impossible to show them all when processing just a single image.

If the tutorials prove to be of use, I'll add some more tutorials or 'add-ons' to this one later, where I'll process a different image and apply some different techniques and tools. The idea being, someone can take a look at their own images, decide what needs to be done then take snippets from these tutorials to apply to their own workflow if they don't already have the skills to do so.

[top]File Importing and Adobe Camera RAW (ACR)

OK, lets begin! For this tutorial I'll be using Photoshop CS4 (though any version, including Elements should be sufficient) and Neat Image for noise reduction, though something similar like Noise Ninja can easily be substituted. I think a good noise reduction application is essential for digital photography.

This is an image I've already processed previously, so I'll roughly go through some steps I've used to process this one. Here we have a capture of Australia's smallest bird, the Weebill - Smicrornis brevirostris. This is our RAW file, not a bad image, but it does have one major flaw, that branch running through the bird, I'll deal with that later in the tutorial.

The first step is to open up your RAW image in Adobe ACR (Adobe Camera RAW). Take a look at the images below. The line of text at the bottom of the ACR screen should reflect the image's colour space, bit depth, image size and resolution.

If it doesn't match, click the line of text and change it to suit. It should read sRGB (were processing images for web, so we need to use the sRGB colour space), 16bit, in my case my 40D is 10.1 megapixels, this may need adjusting from the default setting to suit your camera.

Back on the main ACR screen, the first two tabs of sliders are the only tabs I tend to use. I like to leave the Detail tab with it's sharpening and noise reduction tweaks untouched, or rather I'll set them all at zero as these are settings I like to change later in the workflow.

The first tab offering 'Basic' alterations, such as; Exposure, Fill Light, Contrast and Brightness for example, allows you to make some significant changes to your image. Likewise, the second tab 'Tone Curve' is very useful for taking the edge off highlights or recovering some detail otherwise lost to the shadows.

Take some time to look at your image and try to identify areas that may benefit from the adjustments available at this stage, then tweak away until you're happy with the result. There's a couple of sliders here that boost this image a little, so I'll tweak them now and then open the image in Photoshop.

[top]Cropping and Cloning

Now I've applied some initial adjustments to the image and have sent it Photoshop, the next step I'll look at is cropping the image, this can be done in ACR, but I choose to do it in Photoshop out of habit more than anything else.

Choose the crop tool from the side menu bar.

Once you've selected the crop tool you can force photoshop to crop to a defined ratio if you wish. Looking to the top of the screen you can see the toolbar associated with the crop tool. In this instant I've chosen a rather standard crop-ratio. Leaving the resolution box blank means Photoshop won't resample your image. No pixels are lost unnecessarily this way.

Now drag the crop tool out on the screen and move it around until you find a crop that's tasteful to your eye. It darkens the surrounding areas that will be cropped out giving a clearer idea of your crop than if you were to use the marquee tool for cropping.

The next step for me to complete with this image is the removal of the nasty branch in the foreground that's running vertically through the bird. This is where we need to use the clone tool in Photoshop. Select it from the toolbar.

Change the brush to a soft brush from the toolbar at the top of the screen and the size of the brush to something quite small, particularly if your doing delicate areas as I am here around the bird's tail. Take your time and clone small areas at a time. Patience is the key to a good result here.

As you clone larger areas you'll find it easier to use a larger brush. The easiest way to increase or decrease your brush size is by using the shortcut keys of either the [ key to decrease or ] to increase the brush size. I like to keep my left hand on those two keys quite often as it'll make the processing of your images much quicker as you'll be changing brush sizes very often!

Next I'll clone out the part of the branch that falls just behind the bird's bill. This isn't really a necessary step looking at the image as a whole, but I think it might improve the image a little so I'll save my image (I make multiple saves with the image in various stages of development as I go) and go ahead with removing it. Once again work with a small brush close to the areas of detail and work to a larger brush as you move into clearer areas of an image.

Once I've removed the two branches I found distracting I'm left with this image.

[top]Background Blending

An extra step that you might want to consider with an image, is background blending. This can really improve an image if you have some minor background elements that are out of focus but still produce noticeable artefacts in your image such as the straight lines of grass stems or tree branches. It's not something that needs to be used often and when I've processed this image before I've not bothered with it, but I'll demonstrate the effect it can have.

This is the image with the branches removed, however it has some noticeable greenish branches/vines in the lower right corner and some straight lines around the top of the screen. You can create a faux-bokeh like effect by blending out the straight edges.

To blend the background I'll generally use a combination of the clone tool and the healing brush. Choose the healing brush and work the edges of the lines with a medium sized brush to smooth the transition between the colours.

Repeat the steps as necessary using the healing brush and/or clone tool until you've created something that goes some way to looking like a nicely out-of-focus background. Once you're happy you should end up with something resembling this. It's not perfect here, but with a little more effort it'd be undetectable from the 'real' thing.

[top]Shadows and Highlights

I like to try to keep the colours in my photos fairly close to true-to-life. I will on occasion give them a little boost to make them 'pop' a bit more than if they were left flat, but I don't go in for really gaudy colours. In this photo they're quite accurate to begin with, but since it's not the brightest bird around, I might help it a long a little.

There's several ways I could do this, but one technique I find myself using often, is the boost to saturation (as a side-effect) created by the shadow and highlights tool. It's found in the menu bar in Photoshop under; Image>Adjustments>Shadows/Highlights...

Dragging the Highlights slider to the right has the effect of reducing harsh highlights and will assist in bringing detail back into very bright areas, whilst dragging Shadows to the right brightens up dark areas, shadows. As you can see, apart from changing the shadows and highlights, it'll give a little boost to the colours too.

Using the above setting on this image has bought some detail back into the branch and lighter areas on the bird, particularly around it's face and neck. I like the result so I'll click OK to apply it.

[top]Masking and Selections

Applying noise reduction across the whole image will simply destroy detail in the bird and branch. It's best applied to an image by taking advantage of a mask, this way we can dictate the areas where noise reduction will be applied, whilst avoiding those areas we want untouched. You can mask off the bird, branches or even grass stems and heads, for example.

Have a look at your image and try to identify where noise exists. The background is a little noisy here, and with some noise reduction applied selectively we can reduce it, smoothing it out and further causing the subject to 'pop' from the background.

To create a mask or selection, we'll look at using quick masks. Just as the name says, they're quick and very accurate! You might like to use the magic wand for part of a selection, then finish off and tidy up with quick masks. I like to use them from the beginning.

Click on the 'Edit in Quick Mask Mode' button, or press the shortcut key of Q. Whilst in this mode, select the brush tool and paint over the bird and any areas you want untouched by the noise reduction.

Zoom right into the image, take your time and be patient, the more care you take the better your image will look! Use a smaller brush for fine details like feathers that stick out and for going around the outside of the bird, then increase the brush size (use the [ ] keys, remember?) to fill in the middle of the bird quickly.

If you make any mistake when painting on your mask, press X, this reverses the effect of the brush and you'll be able to paint off the mask where you've spilt over an edge. Once you've finished painting on the mask, it'll look like this.

To turn the mask into a selection, simply click back on the quick mask button or press Q once again to return to standard mode. The image will now have a selection overlaid, the little marching ants happily roaming around the edges... or something.

If you want to retain the selection for further use down the track, you can turn it into a channel. Handy if you want to apply some other effect to the masked areas later on. With the marching ants of the selection flashing, simply right click on the screen and choose the 'Save Selection...' option. Enter a name for the selection and click OK. Now under channels you'll see the 'bird n branch' selection saved. Save the file in the Adobe .PSD format and the selection is saved along with it. If you remove the selection or want to use it later, hold down CTRL and click on the 'bird n branch' channel in the channels menu. It'll reappear on screen.
Note: in newer version of Photoshop (CS5+), to save the selection you will need to go to the Select menu and choose Save Selection...

[top]Noise Reduction

With the mask still flashing, lets go ahead and apply some noise reduction and smooth that background out!
I'll be using Neat Image as a plug-in within Photoshop for this step, you could equally use Noise Ninja or any other noise reduction plug-in, Nik Software's, Dfine for example.

I'll do some very basic noise reduction with little to no tweaking, and pretty much all automatically. Choose Neat Image from the filters menu in Photoshop. Click on the 'Auto Profile' button at the top of the interface.

It will automagically look for an area of noise and in this case has honed in on a section of background. I'm happy with it's choice, though you may want to spend more time manually configuring the selection.

Next click the 'Noise Filter Settings' tab so we can see and change the level of noise reduction on our image.

Follow this by pressing the 'Preview' button. A window will be overlaid on the image and we can drag it around to observe the level of noise reduction that will be applied to our image.

On the preview screen choose 100% on the magnification setting so we can see the final effect on the image. Now simply increase or decrease the 'Luminance channel' and 'Chromiance channel' sliders to change the amount of noise reduction. Move the preview square around the image to check the effect on all areas of the image. Once you're happy with the effect, click on the 'Apply' button.

Note: Now remember the areas we painted will not be affected by the noise reduction, they were masked off. However, in the preview of most noise reduction plug-in's it'll appear as if the bird and branch will also be affected. Once you've applied the effect and returned to the main Photoshop screen, you'll see the bird will have been left alone. It's just one of those curiosities I guess...

Once you've applied the noise reduction you'll be returned to the main Photoshop screen. I'll save my image again at this point (as I've been doing all along) and then move onto resizing the image for web and sharpening the image.

[top]Resizing and Sharpening

Now were getting close to the end. It's time to resize the image for web use! From the Photoshop menu choose; Image>Image Size... (or use the keyboard shortcut; CTRL+ALT+I). I like to leave the Resample Image combo box set to 'Bicubic (best for smooth gradients)' at this stage, and only sharpen the image once it's been resized as I find it gives the most pleasing results.

For most situations on the web (and this forum) an image with the longest side being 1024 pixels is most appropriate I find. Enter 1024 pixels in the 'Width' box, you'll notice the height will be scaled appropriately (when Constrain Proportions is ticked). Click OK to resize the image.

Finally we need to sharpen the image. There's of course several ways of doing this, but I favour the smart sharpen method. From the Photoshop menu choose; Filters>Sharpen>Smart Sharpen...

I find the 'Lens Blur' setting works best for me. I'll set the radius to around 0.3 pixels. Whilst looking at your image in the main Photoshop screen (with the preview button chosen) drag the 'Amount' slider up and down observing the changes to your image. Be careful not to over-sharpen the image! Once your happy with the effect in the main screen, press OK to apply the sharpening.

Yippee!!! Our magnum opus is complete!!!! Here it is with the noise reduction and sharpening applied, from the final steps. Not a bad result if I do say so myself, just a few extra tweaks here and there to really polish it off I think. Of course, the longer you spend on an image the better the result, so remember if you want it to look the best it can, take your time and be patient. Now we just need to save the file and upload it to the forum or your image host.

the before...

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