It’s quite a treat to be able to photograph a species of bird throughout the spring and summer seasons. At least six pairs of barrel chested Rose Breasted Grosbeaks nest in or near our yard each year. They arrive in late April/early May around the same time as the Baltimore Orioles. Most are bold individuals, rarely willing to wait in line at the feeders or the suet. The fledglings start following their parents to the free food in mid-June- lots of them all at once. (NOTE: My bird books note that Rose Breasted Grosbeaks produce only one clutch per season.) The females of this species look quite plain compared with the males and can be mistaken for a large female Purple Finch..until you get a look at their size and sturdiness at close range. Rose Breasted Grosbeaks head south for Central and S. American while it’s still warm….. in early September.
Masking in Post Processing
Anybody who spends a lot of time reviewing images and examining them for detail and sharpness is bound to (over time) develop a more discriminating eye. With my newest camera, the Canon 1D X Mark II, I find there is less need in post processing to use the Lightroom sliders that impact sharpening, clarity, vibrance, highlighting, saturation, shadows, and noise reduction. Once in a while though, I like to experiment with the sharpening sliders, especially the one labeled “masking”.
When I first started loading my images into Lightroom, I never really paid much attention to how the process of masking affected my images. I knew that this Lightroom post processing slider was not intended to fix out of focus photos…. I knew procedurally that I had to hold down the option key while I moved the slider to the right…. and that I was to stop moving the slider when the pebbly background looked completely black.
Post processing is very time consuming and not especially fun. It’s best to know the what and why of those procedures before spending time on them.
A few thoughts about the process and benefits of masking:
When in Lightroom’s Masking view….. while you are holding down the option key (or alt key with PC) with one hand and moving the sliding bar with your mouse, you will see only a grey scale overlay of your image. In this mode, you can observe that the areas in white will be sharpened and the areas in black will remain unsharpened. No distracting colors are observable.
When the slider is set to 0, everything looks white so the entirety of the image gets the same amount of sharpening, as specified in the 3 sliders directly above the masking slider (amount, radius, detail).
When the masking slider is set to 100, only the strongest whitest edges of the image get sharpened. (You can see these edges when you hold down the alt or option key while moving the slider.)
How do I know how much masking to use? As you move the slider toward 100, watch how the graininess in and around your subject and in the background slowly turn SOLIDLY dark. At the point where you see the graininess disappear and only a black background remains, you stop moving the masking slider. Lightroom will then apply sharpening only to the white areas… and leave the dark areas unsharpened.
It’s important not to go overboard with any of the sharpening tools in Lightroom. Over sharpening brings out more noise, zigzag lines and/or unnatural looking borders around your subject.
Sharpening your subject and not the other parts of the image helps to make it stand out more.
NOTE: It is important to note that the detail quality improvements brought about though the process of masking will likely not knock-the-socks-off the typical fan of bird photography. In fact, I have learned NOT to expect people who are not photographers to notice or care.
It pays to persevere when you are looking for a bird that is usually not seen in SW Michigan, but you know is there. My friend John (a most excellent nature photographer) and I spent more than a few early mornings in our separate vehicles canvasing the road where a pair of blue grosbeaks was spotted. Other anxious birders were out on this road as well, binoculars and cameras at the ready, watching and listening; hoping for a glance of this rare bird.
Blue Grosbeaks Nesting Out of Their Usual Range
This is the first time I’ve seen and photographed a blue grosbeak. They are not common birds, even in the southern states, the southwest and southern Mexico where they nest. Blue grosbeaks are long distance migrators, wintering south of the U.S. in Mexico down through Panama. A confirmed Michigan sighting (in the Allegan State Game Area in Fennville, Michigan) is very exciting news indeed.
My First Sighting of a Blue Grosbeak
The first time I saw the male blue grosbeak, he was perched on a mullein flower on the west side of the road as I was heading south. The morning sun was mostly behind the clouds, though it did occasional peak out. My camera and 500mm lens were on my lap. Since the bird was closest to the passenger side window, I hurriedly propped the camera up on the bin next to me before stopping the car. I was so excited and fearful of losing the moment, I took the first burst of shots before turning off the car’s engine. The tall grasses around his mullein flower perch were blowing back and forth in front of him, causing the auto focus on my 500 mm lens to work its crazy back and forth search routine. I could hear the image stabilizer (IS) whirring away before I took the shots, no doubt trying to compensate for the movement caused by my fast beating heart.
Day Two – Photographing Blue Grosbeaks
John and I went back the next day, hoping to again spot and photograph the male and female blue grosbeaks. The sun stayed behind thick clouds most of the morning but the wind was less fierce. We waited three hours and were rewarded with a couple sightings. The female made an appearance for a very short time, but she chose to nestle within the flowers and grasses, making it very difficult for my lens to achieve a sharp focus. The male appeared on the very same mullein flower, but did not stay long.
All in all, searching for and finding new birds is a very gratifying experience. I hope to go back again this summer to photograph the female and perhaps a juvenile blue grosbeak.
To read more about “bursting” to capture the action, see this post.
To read more about image stabilizers, see this post.
Some days, it’s nice to just stay home to watch and photograph the bird activity in my own back yard. Thanks to my husband’s long term planning, serious study and countless hours of hard work, our home’s landscaping is a beautiful and welcoming refuge for wildlife. Full of many different, shade loving, colorful, indigenous trees, bushes and plants, this inviting outdoor space provides an abundance of water, food, cover and nesting areas to attract a wide variety of wild birds. As our yard has blossomed and grown over the years, it has become a safe habitat for nesting birds and also weary migrating birds just passing through SW Michigan and needing a place to rest.
Photographing Rose Breasted Grosbeaks
Having this place, this wonderland in which to photograph birds, is a blessing. One of the most beautiful birds in our yard is the Rose Breasted Grosbeak. These large billed, stocky, medium sized birds are forest dwellers, and bold enough to be attracted closer to the house by the seeds in the bird feeders. The males are black and white, with a definitive bright red patch on their breasts. The females and juveniles have very different coloration, streaked brown and white feathers, but the same triangular bill.
Design Your Own Back Yard Bird Refuge
You can’t beat the convenience of staying home to photograph birds, whether you are sitting comfortably with your camera and cup of coffee inside your home, or setting up your blind and tripod outside in the yard.
Our property is an official Certified Wildlife Habitat®. The template for designing a wildlife habitat in your own yard is available from the National Wildlife Federation at this link. An essential component of this program is avoiding the use of chemical poisons. The diversity of plant life in our yard attracts many different species of wildlife that, in turn, help keep away damaging pests. Non-chemical, integrated pest management solutions are used when a pest problem is discovered. For a good resource on safe alternatives to the use of chemical pesticides, see this link.