Rich Ditch's Photography Blog

January 15, 2012

Achieving Quality Images

Filed under: Birds, light, technique — richditch @ 10:42 pm
Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren. Anthem, AZ. Nikon D300, Nikkor 300/2.8 AF-S lens with TC20E (2x), ISO 400, 1/400th second at f/11, 92% of frame

Avian photography can be a difficult specialty. Many of us struggle to achieve quality images on a consistent basis, and even when we develop the skills necessary to do so we sometimes still fall short of our own quality standards. People just beginning to photograph birds are often overwhelmed by the challenges; or worse don’t even recognize that it takes time and energy and self criticism to get good at it. So, I’ve put together a list of ten factors that are critical to creating a quality image. This list isn’t complete, nor will everyone agree that these factors have equal weight.

1. Good Optics

The most important piece of gear for any photographer is a quality lens. The lens forms the image, and any lack of quality in the lens will get embedded in the process and limit the quality of the final result. A quality lens costs a lot of money, especially one that is long enough and fast enough for avian subjects. A quality lens will outlast the camera that hangs off the back. A quality lens will stand up to years of wear and tear in the field. I purchased my 300/2.8 AF-S Nikkor in 1998 when we were all shooting film. I’ve used it on my first digital camera (Nikon D70), on my Nikon D200, and now on my Nikon D300.

Novice photographers almost always try to enter the world of bird photography with inadequate optics, trying to use a general purpose zoom that tops out at 200 or 300mm, or a lens from an independent manufacturer (Sigma, Tokina, Tamron) that is a comparative bargain to a Nikon or Canon lens of the same reach.

2. Get Close

Birds are small subjects (often tiny) with fine detail in the colorful plumage. To show this in an image the photographer needs to get the bird fairly large in the frame. To get the subject large in the frame a photographer needs to use a combination of long focal length lens and reducing the physical distance between camera and subject. It takes a lot of optical power to make small birds (warblers, sparrows, kinglets, chickadees, thrushes, etc.) large in the frame: most bird photographers typically work with at least 400m and usually rely on 500, 600, or more. I personally use a high quality matched 2x converter (the Nikon TC20E) on almost every shot I take with my 300 – it gives me an effective 600mm f/5.6 optic that still auto focuses and focuses on a subject just a few feet away.

Even with a lot of optical power it is still necessary to get much closer to small birds than most people who haven’t tried it can imagine. Birders whose primary experience is viewing birds through 8x binoculars are often astounded by howw much closer a photographer needs to get even with 600mm of optics. So learning how to get close to birds without scaring them away is a vital skill to develop.

Novice photographers often try to compensate for lack of optical power or not getting close enough to the subject by excessive cropping of the image. Although I find some cropping necessary on almost every image that I make to adjust composition, cropping is never a good substitute for getting a large subject on the sensor in the first place. Yes, digital camera continue to push the number of pixels on the sensor and it is tempting to think a 10MO crop from a 20MP sensor is just as good as a full frame image from a 10MP camera, but it is not. A lens can only deliver a certain amount of resolution (measured in lines per millimeter or line pairs per image height) – cropping essentially reduces the resolution of the lens.

3. Tripod or other Support

Big lenses deserve solid support. With practice a lightweight 300 or 400mm lens can be used without the use of a heavy cumbersome tripod. And technology has done a lot, with Image Stabilization (Canon) and Vibration Reduction (Nikon), to increase the stability of handheld lenses by two or three stops. But I find no substitute for a solid tripod for my work at 600mm. A good tripod (like my carbon fiber Gitzo 1325) relieves me from the strain of trying to hold a heavy lens steady and lets me shoot at shutter speeds of 1/100th second and sometimes even lower.

Yes, tripods are a pain to carry, wet up, and use. But for me they are an essential part of maintaining overall image quality. A high end carbon fiber tripod helps minimize the frustrations of using a tripod, but at a penalty of high price.

4. Light

Light is obviously a necessity for any photography, but other than the amount of light novice photographers generally don’t pay much attention to light’s other properties. But for quality images it is important to note the contrast and color of the light. Best results are almost always achieved in the early hours of the day, just after sunrise. Light in the first hour is softer and warmer than at later times (especially mid-day); some of this same quality occurs again near sunset. If you want to avoid blowing out the subject’s highlights or blocking up the shadows then get used to being out as close as possible to sunrise.

With the exception of the most overcast days light also has direction. This is another quality of light that has an impact on image quality. The direction of the light controls where the shadows appear in the image and thereby defines form in the subject. Directional light is necessary to best define feather texture on a bird.

5. Focus

It is imperative to get the subject sharp when taking the photo. Pay attention to the auto focus point in the camera viewfinder, and be sure to place the AF sensor on the subject’s eye (or at least the face). Precise focus will maximize the amount of detail recorded. Missed focus cannot be “fixed” in post processing by applying stronger Unsharp Mask filtering. Learn to pay attention to focus, and reject any image in the editing stage that doesn’t show precise sharp focus.

6. Composition (Subject position, angle of view)

Small position changes of the subject can make a large difference in the image. In almost all cases the light needs to fall upon the subject’s eye to give it life and draw the viewer into the image. It is necessary to pay attention to the eye through the camera viewfinder so that the shutter is released only when there’s a good catchlight showing.

The angle of view is also an important consideration. shooting from the same level as the subject, rather than employing a steep up or down angle, can give the subject dignity and make it look more natural.

7. Setting

Showing the subject in appropriate habitat gives context to the image. The setting also gives more options for the composition and reduces the need to make the subject so large it fills the frame with little else showing in the image.

The challenge of habitat is keeping it from becoming merely clutter and a distraction to the subject. Carelessness with habitat should never be excused with a statement of “well, that’s where the bird lives.”

8. Exposure

Proper exposure is important to showing the subject’s color and features naturally. Over exposure will cause loss of important highlight detail that cannot be recovered in raw conversion or post processing. Under exposure will block up shadows and lead to very pronounced noise if exposure correction is applied later.

9. RAW conversion

Any photographer hoping to maximize image quality needs to be shooting in raw rather than jpeg. Raw conversion allows the most information to be extracted from the digital file created by the camera. In raw conversion the exposure and white balance should be fine tuned, but saturation, clarity, and vibrance should be left alone. The raw conversion plug-in that comes with Adobe Photoshop does an excellent job.

10. Post Processing

Every digital image needs some degree of post processing to bring out the best quality. Any small imperfections from dust on the digital sensor should be fixed. Tonal range should be adjusted with levels and curves. Using selections and masks allows small troublesome areas to be adjusted separately as needed.

Once all tonal issues have been taken care of the image can be resized for final use. Only at this point should any sharpening be considered.


All of these factors work together to determine overall image quality. Falling short on any factor will impact the final image. For maximum image quality it is necessary to pay attention to every step in the imaging process.


1 Comment »

  1. Excellent post Rich, all good points, the trick is remembering to do these items once in the field and for me the only way is to practice, practice, practice and really get to know your camera gear.

    Comment by Jim — January 20, 2012 @ 9:25 am

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