DPS 6-04: Texas Bird Trip Report & Exclusive Tips on Making your Photos "Pop"

DPS 6-04: South Texas Trip Report & Exclusive Tips on Making your Photos POP

DigitalPro Shooter -- April 25, 2008

DPS 6-04: South Texas Trip Report & Exclusive Tips on Making your Photos POP

In this issue we'll share all the fun we had in Texas last week on our bird photo safari, as well as some of our favorite tips for making your bird photographs "pop" with only a couple minutes of work in Photoshop. We're also , and reminding you that we have one last opening for our , and several openings for .

South Texas April 2008

Last week a group of us headed to South Texas for another awesome week on a few of the well situated private ranches in the Rio Grande Valley photographing birds and a few colorful snakes and other reptiles. Like last year the trip was sold out and I had a wonderful group of participants. Their photography and birding skills ranged from beginner to advanced but all of them had plenty of enthusiasm and energy. For those of you not familar with the Rio Grande Valley and the private ranches there available for rent, it is without a doubt the best Woodland bird photography opportunity in the continental US. In a week we photographed over 50 woodland species--which to anyone who has ever chased perching birds around a forest is a real accomplishment. As a bonus many of the species found ther are not found elsewhere in the US, such as the Green Jay, Crested Caracara, Harris's Hawk and others.

South Texas Specialty Green Jay. Nikon D300, 200-400f/4

Day 1: Raptors & South Texas variety

Our first day (at the easy to reach Javelina ranch owned by our gracious hosts John & Audrey Martin and guided by the always cheerful Patty Raney) was a perfect start to the week. We had a great mix of a morning raptor blind which attracted both Crested Caracara and Harris Hawks as well as blinds which brought in plenty of South Texas specialties including Bobwhite Quail, Javelina and Green Jays. We had plenty of other birds as well, including several species of Sparrow and a Golden-fronted Woodpecker.

In a first for us, our daughter Annie was along on the trip to help make sandwiches at each ranch, so we could use every hour of the shooting day without worrying about heading back to town for lunch. The result was more photos and more quality time at the ranches where folks could practice their macro photography, look at their images or just nap when they were relaxing from shooting.

Pyrrhuloxia--relative of the Northern Cardinal. Nikon D300, 200-400f/4


Day 2: More Raptors & The Birdiest Day

We split up into two groups early on Tuesday at the Cozad ranch, with the raptor crowd getting their fill of close up shots including Caracaras with full wing stretch while the rest of us headed off to what might be the single birdiest feeder setup I've ever experienced. We had non-stop birds for the entire morning, ranging from the hard to find Indigo Bunting and Audubon's Oriole to an entire covey of Bobwhite Quail. They were accompanied by quite a few Cardinals, (Pyrolloxia), Red-winged Blackbirds, and the occassional Warbler and a very cooperative Golden-fronted Woodpecker among others.

One of the best parts was the naturally reddish soil which provided some excellent color contrast with the birds. The red was much better at absorbing the reflected light than the gray dust we found in many other places.

Crested Caracara looking at our blind. Nikon D300, 200-400mm f/4

While the afternoon didn't bring too many new birds, we did get some good looks at a Northern Waterthrush and an Armadillo. An Indigo Bunting also teased us all afternoon with a few nice poses mixed in.

Days 3, 4 and 5: Dos Venadas

We spent days 3, 4 and 5 shooting on the premier property of Dos Venadas and also visited one of my favorite new locations, the Jackson family's Campos Viejos. We had plenty of everything. Perhaps our most exciting experience was photographing a Diamond-backed Rattler that Annie found near camp. Without any prompting or handling it was happy to provide us with lots of great images while it coiled up under a bush. Hardy Jackson also caught us an Indigo Snake, a Glossy Snake and a Horned Toad which made for lots of fun to photograph while we practiced macro.

But once again the highlights were the birds. With nearly three dozen species of woodland birds photographed in the three days there isn't space to list them all, but they included plenty of highlights including the local rarities Yellow-headed Blackbird and Northern Parula as well as Roadrunners, Orioles, many species of Sparrow, Buntings and even a couple coopertive Screech Owls.

Northern Cardinal perched on a twig we placed over one of the Sunflower seed piles against a distant, solid background. Nikon D300, 200-400f/4

The group had a mix of 200-400f/4, 500f4, 600f/4 and even a 70-300f/4-5.6 as their longest lenses but there was really something for everyone to photograph. One of the many nice things about shooting from blinds on private ranches is that we can craft our shooting scenes, placing the perches and even the blinds at an appropriate distance for the cameras and lenses being used. And with each blind typically seating two or three people it's simple to divide up based on subjects of interest and the cameras and lenses in use.

Between shooting days we were pleased to be able to call Campos Viejos our home. The Jacksons took great care of all of us with plenty of home cooking and lots of opportunities for us to socialize as a group before and after dinner. Images and instruction both looked good on their big screen TV.

All too soon it was time to head back but we also wanted to share with you some of the most useful tips that we went over during the week. All the participants will also get a hard cover book featuring lots of all of our photos and our exploits.

After two very successful and sold out years of leading a trip to South Texas we're pleased to announce that we'll be doing it again next year. For 2009 the trip will be structured very similarly to this year, starting by meeting at the airport on April 12th, followed by 5 full days of shooting on rented private ranches on the 13th through the 17th, with folks flying back out on the 18th. Just like this year we'll provide the lodging, local transportation and meals--although if someone wanted to bring an RV to sleep in and save a few dollars that'd be fine also. I hope we can see you on the trip next year. .

. We'll be posting a participants' photo gallery as well

In the meantime here are some of the most popular tips from this years' trip:

Making your Photos Pop

All of us are frequently faced with the desire to get the subject of our photographs to "pop" off the page and grab the readers' attention. Nowhere is this more common than when photographing wildlife in desert environments. It is often difficult or impossible to get a sunlit subject and a shaded background. The result is an evenly list scene with very low tonal contrast. And because both the subject and the background are likely to be brownish earth tones there isn't much color contrast to work with either. Fortunately there is a fairly quick way to address these issues in Photoshop--that is effective not just on wildlife photos but on any images we have where the subject blends into the background.

I gave a demo of this technique to the participants in my recent Texas Bird Photo Safari and they were like kids in a candy store experimening with this technique to enhance the images they had taken that day.

Original image of a Glossy Snake on an overcast day (Nikon D300, 18-200mm lens)

Image enhanced using the simple steps outlined in this article

As Simple As One, Two, Three

The technique I'll show you in this article is as simple as One, Two, Three. Step One is to create a Curves Adjustment layer, Step Two is to create a layer mask so the curve only affects the desired part of the image, and step 3 is to re-use that mask on another layer to increase the color content of our subject. Of course, like most tips for Photoshop the first trick is to start with a well-composed and well-lit image that can use a little tweaking, not to try to salvage a mediocre image.

To the right is the original image with the bright background

 Step One: Create A Curves Layer for your Background

Assuming your background is too brightly lit so that your subject doesn't pop off the page, start by creating a Curves Adjustment Layer (Layer->New Adjustment Layer->Curves) and simply pull the middle of the curve down until the background looks more like what you'd like. Don't worry about what it does to your subject.

Step Two: Create A Layer Mask for your Curves Layer

Photoshop may have automatically created a Layer Mask for you (shown as a small icon to the right of the layer icon), or if needed you can create one now by selecting your curves layer and then clicking the tiny "Layer Mask" icon in that same pane. Once you have a White Layer Mask (which means that the curves effect will apply to the entire image) then you can paint on it with a soft black brush over your subject where you want to eliminate the darkening effect of the curves layer. It is surprisingly easy to softly brush most natural subjects, although you could also use some fancier selection or extraction techniques if you prefer. If you accidently paint part of your background black it is a simple matter to use the "X" key to switch your brush to white and then paint the effect back onto the background.

At this point your image should already look like a big improvement over the original. But you take take the technique a step further by increasing the color content of the subject. This can be done in a couple different ways. The simplest is a Hue/Saturation Layer.

To the right is the image after the background has been darkened with a masked Curves Layer

Step Three: Increasing Color Contrast using Saturation

The trick to creating our Hue/Saturation layer will be to re-use the mask we created in Step Two to only increase the saturation of our subject. To do this we first load the layer mask into the selection. To do that we select our Curves layer and use Select->Load Selection and choose Curves Mask from the drop down box. Then we invert the selection (Select->Invert), since we want the Hue/Saturation Layer to effect the subject instead of the background. Finally we simply create the Hue/Saturation layer using Layer->New Adjustment Layer->Hue/Saturation. We can pick a saturation amount that looks good on the dialog that pops up. When we hit okay our image is complete.

 Finishing your Image

Of course at this point you can add finishing touches like lightly sharpening the eyes and other features of your subject, but for the most part you've taken a flatly lit image and in only a minute or two transformed it into a eye-popper using Photoshop--all without removing anything from the image or altering its content in any way.

To the right is the finished Image.

Sample Images

It isn't as easy to follow along reading on the web as it is when we teach this technique in person, so we've posted a couple sample images that illustrate the various stages of the process. You can find them and download them for your own personal use in our . (Note that they have been down-sized to a fairly low resolution to help make them easier to download).

Event Update

Cardinal Photo Safaris Update:

Grizzly bear female
Alaska bear safari

Alaska Grizzly Bear & Puffin trips, July 2008:

Our 2008 sessions are nearly sold out but we have 1 opening left for week 1 (week 2 is sold out), so . We'll have plenty of Alaskan Brown "Grizzly" Bears, as well as visit rookeries for Horned Puffins, Tufted Puffins, Common Murres and Kittiwakes. We're also likely to have some good Bald Eagle photographic opportunities and of course scenic shots of mountains, coastline and lovely flowers. This is a great trip for couples or non-shooting companions as the lodge is in a beautiful setting on the coast with plenty of opportunity for other activities.

Africa :
May 2008 trip is SOLD OUT

Other Dates for 2008 & 2009 are TBD

Our trips feature plenty of mammals & birds. We'll see lions, elephants, giraffe, leopards, cheetah and quite a few varieties of antelope along with several dozen other species of exotic animals. For more details email safaris [at] cardinalphoto.com.

Asia Photo Safari, January, 2007

Burma and Cambodia, December 2008:

We're excited about returning to Burma (Myanmar) and Cambodia. The main trip will be divided between the temple areas in Cambodia (especially the Angkor temple complex including Angkor Wat) and Burma (including historic Mandalay and the plain of temples at Bagan, as well as the capital Yangon, nee Rangoon). . We'll also have an optional post-trip extension to Laos, featuring Vientianne & Luang Prabang.

We just finished a second very successful 2007 trip and are ready with what we think will be an even better itinerary for next December and next December. .

Crested Caracara
South Texas Safari, 2008

--Sold out in 2007 and 2008

South Texas Birds, April 12-18, 2009

After another great safari this year I'm anxious to get back to "The Valley" in south Texas and join a few of you to really focus on bird photography for a week again next year. There is no better way to improve your shooting skills, hone your flight shot technique and come home with lots of great images than by spending a week with us at these awesome Lens & Land properties.

Just like this year we'll be including luxury accomodations at a brand new game lodge close to the ranches. The small trip size (maximum 6 shooters), private ranches, and full service structure (all your local transportation, room, meals and drinks are included!) make this the premier trip to South Texas for bird photography. or .

events updated 4/24/2008

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--David Cardinal, editor DigitalPro Shooter

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