Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Enhancing an "Upstanding Bird"

During a visit to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans I came across a black-crowned night heron standing on a railing. It looked like a wild heron since it didn't have a leg band and it was able to fly. The bird seemed quite used to people, so it just calmly stood there while I managed to get eight shots of it before some kids came up and scared it off. This one is my favorite. I find the red eye quite captivating.

Original Black-Crowned Night Heron Photo
Original Black-Crowned Night Heron Photo

Canon EOS 5D Mark III
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens
Canon Extender EF 2x III
400 mm, f/8, 1/250 sec, ISO 400

Since the colors in the photo are a bit dull and the bird is slightly out of focus, I decided to do a little enhancing and ended up using a couple of techniques I hadn't used before. 



Step 1 - Cropping and Improving the Contrast

I started off with cropping close to the bird to make it the focal point while maintaining a 2x3 aspect ratio, then adjusting the contrast to bring out colors and detail. Instead of using the Curves tool, I chose Colors > Brightness-Contrast and upped the contrast by 10.

Cropped and Contrast Adjusted
Cropped and Contrast Adjusted


Step 2 - Fixing the Background


Improving the contrast did some ugly things to the lower part of the background, making it look blotchy. After pondering the problem for a while I opted to add a layer mask containing a linear gradient with white at the top and black at the bottom which would keep the strong green colors at the top of the background while letting the original image show through at the bottom.

Gradient Mask for Background
Gradient Mask for Background


Masked Background
Masked Background


Step 3 - Masking and Enhancing the Bird


Adding the gradient mask also affected the bird, so I copied the contrast-adjusted image to a new layer and added a mask to remove the background, leaving the bird and the railing. At the same time, I improved the contrast by another 20 and used Colors > Hue-Saturation to up the saturation by 30.

Bird Mask
Bird Mask


Bird Separated from Background
Bird Separated from Background


Step 4 - Adjusting the Color of the Background

Though the dark green background looks OK, I thought I could improve on the color a bit. I added a new layer below the masked bird layer and above the masked background layer, filled it with a solid color, and changed the layer mode to Soft light. I then used the Hue slider under Colors > Hue-Saturation to adjust the color until I liked what I saw. I ended up using color 3faebf and a layer opacity of 31%.

Color Adjusted
Color Adjusted


Step 5 - Sharpening the Image

Once I was satisfied with the general look, it was time to sharpen the image. I used my usual Gaussian Blur method along with layer modes Grain Extract and Grain Merge to create a sharpening layer, choosing 9% for the blur and a layer opacity of 48%. (See A Non-Destructive Adjustable Way to Sharpen a Photo.)

Grain Extract
Grain Extract


Sharpened Image
Sharpened Image


Step 6 - Making the Eye Pop


To finish off the picture and bring out the red eye that I find fascinating, I added a highlight layer on top, painted white over the eye, then changed the layer mode to Soft light.

Eye Highlight
Eye Highlight


Final Image
Final Image


Here's my Layers list:

Layers List
Layers List


These are easy techniques you can use to enhance a photo, though figuring out when and how to use these techniques can actually take more time than simply performing the steps.