Case Study: Bird Photography

I have finally been able to more or less clean up my mailbox and sort through most of the emails that keep pouring in from our readers. The case studies that our readers are sending have been piling up in my mailbox and my to-do list, so I will try to do a better job in posting these on the blog from now on. Let’s start with a case study from our reader Gaurav Rajaram, a bird lover and photographer from Bangalore, India. Here is what he sent me:

I use a Nikon 300mm f/4 paired with a Nikon D200 for my bird photography. While shooting, I notice that I do not get a clean background, which I would expect from a prime lens. I have got such a background in one image of mine, however, the subject is a little too soft for my liking (the picture is attached). Is there any way to get a clean background so as to help the viewers’ focus remain on the subject (the bird in this case)? Could you share a tutorial with us? I’m attaching sample images for this case study in JPEG format with full EXIF info.

And here are the two images Gaurav attached:

Bird with clean BG but too soft

The first image above is cropped, showing a pleasant out of focus background (bokeh) with a slightly blurry bird.

Bird with distracting BG

The bird on the second image is sharp, but the background is busy.

So Gaurav’s question is why does the first image have a nice-looking background, but a blurry bird, while the second image has a sharp bird, but busy background?

Before I talk about the background blur, let’s first see why the first image is sharp and the second is not. Looking at the first image, the exposure is 1/350, f/4, ISO 100, while the second image is shot at 1/250, f/4, ISO 200. Both are shot in Aperture Priority Mode using Spot Metering. I am assuming that Gaurav was using a tripod or a monopod to get the above shots, because the shutter speeds are a little low to be hand-held for this lens and camera combo. As I explain in my “how to photograph birds” article, if you want to get sharp photographs when shooting hand-held, your shutter speed should be at least the total focal length of your lens multiplied by the sensor crop factor. So in this case, Gaurav would approximately need a shutter speed of 1/450 and above to get good results if he hand-held the camera + lens. But this is an approximate “suggested” value – with a good hand-holding technique, one could certainly get sharp results even at lower shutter speeds.

Why did I think that Gaurav used a monopod or a tripod to take the above images? Because the bird on the second photo, as well as the branches on the first photo appear sharp. The source of the problem on the first photo is focus – it is not on the bird, but a couple of inches off on the branch. Therefore, the only thing Gaurav could have done better, is reacquire focus and try taking another picture. If the lens he was shooting with has no front/back focus issues, he could have gotten good focus on the bird after several tries.

Let’s now talk about the background blur – the bokeh on both photographs. Why does the first image have a nice, clean bokeh, while the second photo has a busy bokeh? The explanation here is very simple – there was nothing close behind the bird on the first photo, while you can see leaves and branches of a tree behind the second bird. So the problem here is proximity of objects behind the birds. If you want to have a beautiful, creamy bokeh, you should pay attention to four things: focal length of the lens, aperture/depth of field, camera to subject distance and subject to background object distance. The longer the focal length of your lens, the larger the aperture, the closer you are to your subject and the further away your subject is from the background objects, the creamier your bokeh will be. Phew…that sounds too darn complex and too long! Basically, try to stay close to your subjects and move them away from the busy background. How could Gaurav have accomplished this on the second photograph? Aside from moving closer towards the bird and filling the frame (which would have probably spooked it), he could have changed the angle. If I see a busy background behind birds, I will move around the bird and try to find a spot that will have the least busy background. It is obviously not always practical, since the bird might not tolerate you walking around it, plus the environment you are in might not be suitable for circling like that. But you hopefully get the point.

The only other thing you can do, is try to fix the image in post-processing. Now this would require some advanced Photoshop skills, but if you have the time and patience in your hands, you can do it with pretty good results.

Here is my quick attempt to clear up the background on the second photo (took me 5 minutes):

Cleaned up background

And here is what I did in Photoshop:

  1. Create a duplicate layer
  2. Select the second duplicated layer
  3. Select Filter->Blur->Gaussian Blur
  4. Radius: 125 pixels, Click OK
  5. Select the second layer and set it to “Overlay” in the Layers panel
  6. Pick the eraser and start erasing the bird
  7. Work on the edges with the eraser tool and get rid of extra branches
  8. Set the second layer back to “Normal”
  9. Merge both layers
  10. Sharpen the image
  11. Crop the image
  12. Resize the image
  13. Save for Web

I did it very quickly and obviously did not do a good job with feathers, but I hope this shows what you can do with the background in situations like this.

Hope this helps. Please let me know if you have any questions!


Avatar of Nasim Mansurov About Nasim Mansurov

is a professional photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. He is the author and founder of Photography Life, along with a number of other online resources. Read more about Nasim here.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) sm

    hi Nasim,

    Awesome info as always. Can you advice a nice source to learn Photoshop? I know Lightroom pretty well but am scared of layers/ mask and everything else in PS? Any recommendations for books or other online sources?

    Thanks,

    Sm

    • SM, I don’t even know where to start – there are so many different places where you can learn Photoshop. I would probably get started with watching some videos on Youtube – just search for a particular subject like “masking in Photoshop” and you should be able to find plenty of videos. You can also buy some good books – Scott Kelby’s Photoshop books are very good.

    • 3
      ) Amit

      You can start with these two:
      1) Video tutorials at Lynda.com
      http://www.lynda.com/Photoshop-training-tutorials/279-0.html

      2) Adobe help pages:
      http://www.adobe.com/support/photoshop/gettingstarted/index.html

      After you have become comfortable then you can try books on Photoshop by Scott Kelby or Martin Evening

      • 4
        ) Amit

        Just noticed a bug. sm’s comment was #1, yours was #2 hence my comment should have been #3. Instead of ’3)’ it is just showing ‘)’. This is small bug but it looked a bit funny :)

        • Amit, it is not a bug – your previous comment went to an approval queue and did not get assigned a number. Now it looks fine.

  2. 6
    ) Peter

    They’re beautiful photos, why get carried away with the Bokeh details?

    I actially like the “busy” background, it adds context.

    • I agree – sometimes busy backgrounds look good too. We should not be obsessed with bokeh so much!

  3. 7
    ) Junaid

    Nasim,

    I have quick question, it’s not related to this case study I just didn’t know where to as that’s why I am asking here.

    I have canon 1ti camera, two days ago i bought me a canon 50mm f/1.8 lens, but I am getting very discourage by my co workers they know about photography more then me ( i am just a beginner). They all saying its not worth it since my camera is not full frame. They also saying something like its not 50mm its actually 80mm some crop factor not sure exactly what they mean. Can you please give me advise what to do I am thinking about returning it I have 4 days left before i can return as you know B&H has 7 days return policy.

    by the way Gaurav nice picture I wish I could shot something lke this with my 70-300mm lense.

    Thank you
    Junaid Afzal

    • Junaid, I have plenty of articles explaining crop factors – see my Nikon DX vs FX article (which also applies to Canon). Don’t listen to your friends – a full-frame camera will cost you $3K for body-only. Canon T1i, T2i, T3i are great cameras to get into photography.

      • 10
        ) Junaid

        Thanks for the reply, I will definitely read those article. Your website is source to great info about photography everytime I come to this site find something new.
        Thank again
        junaid

        • 13
          ) Diane Burchfield Johnson

          Hey Junaid,
          Don’t listen to your friend as they are trying to get over your head and try to say something boastful if they have their best camera which is higher up so call camera. Everyone has their issues by being pride like their saying “My photos or camera is better than yours” What the heck!!! Let them do all the talking just go with one ear to another. All you have to do is keep on learning and learn different angle of shots.
          I’ve had problems with people when I have my nikon camera and they have their canon camera. They say my canon is better than yours and my question is when I ask them. How long have you be a photographer and they says couple months or few years. I’ve been a photographer since the age of 15 and now I’m 54 yrs old. Count that years I’ve been shooting with beginning the manual camera til now with the digital. Manual camera is fun to do since we had to use the meter to match the lights and focus with our own hand. Now everything is in digital it’s all automatic with focus and apertures. The very first thing I had to learn how to take good photo during the manual times which like over and under exposures. All I would say Nikon vs Canon, is all the camera we had to communicate by learning how to do better job. My opinions I love Nikon and am not bragging to anyone who better or what so ever!!!! I’m just being a humble person if someone ask me how to work with Canon. Honestly, I dont know much about it but give it a try then it works to make them happy.
          You CAN do it and find someone who is more friendly to help you out. Don’t go with someone who try to brag and tell you. Find a better person or keep searching all the tutors you can with the website. I pray you be a successful person to be a good photographer… Not easy for the first beginners but it take times….

          *WINKS*

      • 26
        ) tom

        to nasim, may be a minor issue but fx camera bodies actually start at about $2k, ie, the Nikon d600. I do not know about the d600, I shoot a Nikon d800, but one feature that I really use a lot is the menu option of being able to access four image areas from a single camera. you can choose from fx, 1.2, dx or 1.5, and 5/4. Nikon does not overly advertise this feature but you can how handy it would be to be able to access any of these modes at any time. hope this is useful.

        tom

    • One thing for sure crop sensor is the choice of the wildlife photographer. My friend ,its as simple as this. It’s not the gear you know..it’s the photographer! Get to know your gear inside out…prrof will be in the pudding!

  4. 11
    ) Raj

    Dear Nasim..

    Great post and great tips as always.. Thanks for your lessons..

    I am very much new to the world of DSLR photography.. Recently purchased a Nikon D7000 and trying my best to get sharp, good pictures..

    I have a very basic question (may sound funny to you). As Nikkor 300mm is a prime lens, I will have to move physically to get the object in frame.. Suppose I am using that lens and want to take a picture of a bird like this photos by Gaurav.. What should be my approximate distance from the bird ?? Please clarify me..

    God bless you both.. Take care..

    • Raj, to fit a small bird into your frame with a 300mm lens, you would have to be less than 10 feet or so away from it, so you physically need to be very close. That’s why bird photographers long for 600mm lenses with teleconverters…

  5. 12
    ) Diane Burchfield Johnson

    Nasim,
    Can I send you the photo of the mocking bird that I took couple weeks ago here at my work site. The mommy was just about ready to feed their babies and I have 2 or 3 different mocking birds with their food holding. And also looking at me like would you just go away so I can feed my babies. LOL Let me know so I can send you one or two. I use my spot meter to focus the bird.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/7363677@N04/5924094648/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/7363677@N04/5924094494/

  6. 18
    ) Gaurav Rajaram

    Hi Nasim,

    First of all i thank you for posting this so soon. I did have a clue but i wanted to be sure about the answer to my question. Im glad you answered my question very well. And Nasim, the shots were both handheld in pretty bad light (the sun was covered completely behind the clouds). I prefer to shoot hendheld as im more flexible that way, esp when i shoot fast moving subjects like birds.

    Just wanted to say that i find your site very informative. Keep the good work flowing

    Gaurav

  7. 19
    ) Robert

    Hi Nasim!

    I apologize first off for posting this in the wrong place. I was going to use the Contact Us button but I don’t think you questions asked there.

    My question/dilemma is as follows.

    Re: Landscape Photography

    Sometimes when I am shooting a landscape (say, top half sky/bottom half land) during an overcast sky (very grayish/whitish looking) the camera meters the shot incorrectly. If I meter for the overcast sky, the sky turns out okay but the land is grossly underexposed. If I expose for the darker land, the sky is totally blown out/over exposed.

    Someone mentioned using an ND filter to “balance” things out? I wasn’t sure what that meant. Can you direct me to some information on these types of filters or could they be the focus of one of your near future posts?

    Thanks!

    Robert
    Faithful Canadian Reader

    • 21
      ) Rahul

      Robert,

      I think an ND filter is the wrong tool here, and a polarizing filter might be better but not optimum. An ND filter will darken the entire scene and you will have to use longer exposure, whereas you’re facing of a problem of reaching the limits of the sensor’s dynamic range – the span between the brightest and darkest recognizable intensity of light. Depending on which model you are using, you can use either the adaptive dynamic lighting feature, or the in-built HDR mode (D5100 has this), or use the bracketing feature and combine the separate images in post-production.

      • 27
        ) tom

        regarding the nd fileter; I use a “graduated” neutral density filter quite often. it only softens the sky but not the landscape.

        tom

  8. 20
    ) Wildlife Photographer

    Hi,

    I just wanted to take a minute to tell you that you have a great site! Keep up the good work.

  9. 22
    ) Vilas

    Dear Nasim,

    I thank you very much for this nice advise on Bird photography.
    I am an amateur photographer and I will be obliged by getting your suggestions for improvement after checking the photographs posted below,

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/vilassali/6828686537/in/set-72157629197577789

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/vilassali/6828687573/in/set-72157629197577789

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/vilassali/6828692153/in/set-72157629197577789
    while shooting this I was lucky to get plain sky as background.

    Thanking you with high regards.

    Vilas

  10. Very, very good. The techniques post production described can assist to give you the effect of faster glass. Great!

    Many a time I have passed a shooting subject by due to the following:
    Nikon f4 300 with 1.4/1.7/2tc telecoverted add ons – the latter 2 giving more of a problem with busy bokeh (as idescribed in the second shot in this article).

    When we have punchy light (rare here in the UK ) the shutter speeds are faster (obviously as more light about to gather) so hand held at 2xlens as golden rule for me. Most of the time the lens is supported on bean bag or tripod with quick release Manfrotto grip head, but tripod through the undergrowth is very impractical!

    I’ll not pass a chance again of a great subject wiith busy backgrounsd as this post production sure will assist where a 2.8 or f4 VR longer lens financially (at this stage) was so cripling to buy.

    So, not only have you educated me, I have saved money too!
    You are a star!

    Thanks so much.

    Robert

  11. 25
    ) shine

    Dear All,

    Hi Nasim,

    I cant thank you enough for the stream of information you have posted on this website, you have answered some of the most complicated querries with so much of ease for learners.

    I use a Nikon D80 with 18-135 lens and have been a little dissapointed with the zoomed pictures, when i am zooming the lens to the fullest or partial and taking the picture of an object/person at distance, the image is blur when i am zooming and viewing it on my laptop.. I went for a out door shot last week and took some long distance shoots of Cranes and brids, mountains, lake etc , but when i zoomed to view the picture on laptop, the face of object is becoming blur even though the pictures were taken in Raw format, i didnt use any tripod to capture these images as the camera is quite fast and it was a day shoot. I would also like to mention that the close up pictures are coming very clear and good and i am satisfied with it.. but the distant images are mostly blur when i zoom it on laptop.. Need your advice badly as I am very disappointed after my 4 hour shoot I am getting nothing out of it, even the pictures taken in one of my recent trips were of poor quality..

    On a different note, since my intrest primarily lies in out door shoots, lakes, moutains, Brids, wildlife etc.. i am planning to get myself a Nikon 70-300 vr lens, pls let me know if that suits my requirement.. I m not going for a camera upgrade as of now as I am short of cash, but if I have to in 6months down the line, which camera would you suggest looking at the requirement..

    Greatly appreciate your comments and suggestions on my queries..

    Thanks
    Shine

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