Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Make A Suet Log For Better Photographs

While we’re on the subject of cheap, effective, easy to make feeder stands, I wanted to pass along one of my favorite perches for Woodpeckers (and loads of other birds). While the previous stand I blogged about was cheap (less than $20 - link on the right side of the page), this one is darned near free! Below is a wide-shot of the feeder:
As you can imagine, it doesn’t take a degree in feeder-building to construct this thing. EVERYTHING you need to build this is as follows:

      o  1 log about 3 feet long with a diameter of 4 or 5 inches
      o  1 scrap piece of 2x12 board maybe 2 feet long or a similar piece of plywood
      o  2 decent sized nails
      o  Hammer
      o  Hand Drill with 1/4 inch and 1 inch drill bits
      o  Suet or Peanut Butter

      o  2 Cans of Beer (optional - see following paragraph)

If you don’t have these larger drill bits – DON’T BUY THEM! Your next door neighbor has them, just borrow them and share the beer. The diameter of the holes you use isn’t terribly important. Larger or smaller is fine:

Not to insult your intelligence, but here’s what you do with the above pile of stuff. Nail the log to the board - go crazy and use both nails. I use a smallish log for this purpose because it's easier to move around the yard. Drill a 1/4 inch diameter about an inch deep in the top of the log. Cram it full of peanut butter or suet (that's the brown muck in the middle):
Drill a 1 inch diameter hole on the side of the log about an inch deep and about 6 inches from the top. Cram it full of peanut butter or suet too:

Place the setup near your regular feeders for a day or two so that the woodpeckers learn how to use it. Once they figure it out, they will check it out often for goodies.

I like to position the holes so that they are just out of sight of the camera. This also puts the birds at the perfect angle for photos. I place the feeder where the light is good and the background is nice. Below is a focused shot of the background I used for most of the shots below which makes a nice, colorful background when it’s out of focus:

When you put this device near other feeders, all sorts of birds that aren’t looking for peanut butter or suet will use the top for a perch going to or from someplace else. Here's some of the shots - Downy Woodpecker (the 1 inch hole is in front of the bird, just out of sight):
Hairy Woodpecker:
Red-bellied Woodpecker on the top hole:

White-breasted Nuthatch (the hole with peanut butter is near the tail):
Tufted Titmouse:
Bluebird using the top for other purposes (eating an insect):


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Photo Feeder Stand For Better Photography

Photo Feeder Stand For Better Photographs

It’s been far too long since my last blog. Hopefully this latest effort will give you something that you will find useful. I’ve gotten a lot of favorable comments on my Flickr Photos recently along with questions about how I manage to get them. Below, I’ll tell you how to make a copy of one of my favorite photo accessories – an inexpensive and very useful stand that I use to get some of the best photos. The total cost of this stand should be comfortably under $20 and should take less than an hour to make. I recently built one in about 15 minutes (not counting the trip to Home Depot to buy the supplies and a stop at McDonald’s for lunch).

Let’s start with a few photos of the stand that I will describe:


This is made from 3/4 inch PVC pipe that comes in 10 foot lengths at most home-improvement stores like Home Depot. The stand sits on a rectangular base that is 2 feet wide and 3 feet deep. It is very stable and weighs just a few pounds at most. The upright portion is 4 feet high with a lower crossbar 1 foot off the ground. Just above the lower crossbar, you will see a T Joint on each side. These are 1 inch joints that hold various perches and can be moved up and down as I will describe later.

The only tools that you will need are a small saw (hack-saw or jig saw) to cut the pipe and a power drill. The pipe cuts very easily and goes together easily. You could glue the joints, but I would recommend against it. The pieces fit together snugly and you might want to take the unit apart for storage or to make minor adjustments in the future. The list of parts is as follows:
       o  3 - 10 foot lengths of 3/4 inch PVC pipe (standard weight, not heavy duty)
       o  6 – 3/4 inch PVC 90 degree elbows
       o  6 – 3/4 inch PVC “T” Joints
       o  2 –1 inch PVC “T” Joints
       o  2 nails or screws about 2 inches long

Cut the 10 foot lengths as follows:
       o  2 – 3 foot lengths
       o  3 – 2 foot lengths
       o  4 – 1.5 foot lengths
       o  2 – 1 foot lengths
       o  2 – 11.5 inch lengths
       o  1  - 8 inch length

Assemble the base using 2 of the 2 foot lengths, the 4 1.5 foot lengths, 4 of the elbows and 2 of the 3/4 inch “T” joiners. Turn the “T’s” so that they point up when the base is on the ground. Put 1 foot lengths into each “T” joined with another “T” and a 3 foot length. Slide one of the 1 inch “T” pieces over each 3 foot pipe. Use 90 degree elbows and the last 2 foot length to complete the top. Use the remaining 5 pieces to form the bottom cross-member by connecting the two 11.5 inch sections with a “T” and placing the 8 inch section into the “T” and capping it with the last “T” piece.

Drill a series of holes in the two 3 foot lengths of pipe as shown in the photo below using a drill bit just a little larger than the nails. Drill corresponding holes through the top side of the 1 inch “T” pieces. This allows you to position the larger “T” pieces at various heights with a two foot branch for the birds to land on, as you will see in the later photos. Use the nails or screws to hold the 1 inch "T's" in place:


Now, you’re almost ready to go! The bottom cross piece with the 8 inch section coming off it is perfect for balancing a platform feeder of some sort to hold seed for the birds. I like to use the white top of an old bird bath which not only holds seed, it also reflect light up to the birds on the perch to fill in shadows and provides wonderful light!

I further modified my platform by drilling a hole in the birdbath top which allows for a small cup to hold extra treats like mealworms for Bluebirds. I made this holder by cutting a 1 inch section off the bottom of a pill bottle and taping it to a 1 foot length of a coat hanger wire. I keep it at the right height using a clamp.

I change the height of the branch based on two factors. I want to photograph the birds at something close to (or slightly below) eye-level and I want a nice background. I use a blind for most of my shots where I sit in a chair, so I generally place the perches between two and three feet high. I set up my blind with the sun at my back and place the stand in front of me. I move it closer for small birds like Hummingbirds or Chickadees and a little further away for larger birds, depending on their size.

So, let’s take a look at some of the shots. The first photo is of a Bluebird feeding a baby. The cup with the mealworms is just below the frame, The background is green(ish) lawn:

The next shot is another Bluebird, but this time I placed a basket of flowers on a stand about 10 feet behind the perch for a nice effect:

For the Cardinal shot, I moved the perch to one of the higher settings to use a tree that was turning yellow in the fall for the background. The Cardinals often stop on the perch before dropping to the feeder:

For the next shot, I placed the perch at a height that used some of the tall brown grass that you can see in the first photo of the stand as a background:

A Nuthatch just above the feedeer using another basket of flowers for a background:

For this Hummingbird shot, I attached a feeder to the branch which I raised to eye-level. I tied the feeder down securely so that I wouldn’t turn or move and placed another pot of flowers in the background. Again, I put the empty bird bath below to provide fill light to the bird:

For this final shot, I hung a peanut butter-stuffed pinecone from a hook on the top crosspiece and used a pine tree as the background:

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Thursday, May 2, 2013

100 Creative Photography Exercises

Nothing says “fun” more than a TODO list – especially if that list was put together by someone else. The mere fact that you are reading this means that you either clicked on the wrong link, or are intelligent, good-looking and interested in self-improvement – of course, I could be wrong.

Everyone gets into a rut sometimes. One day I was bored and decided to try to get a photo of a hummingbird drinking from a straw. Little did I know that getting the bird to drink from the straw would be the easy part. Getting the sugar water to the top of the straw, keeping it separate from the water in the glass, and keeping the straw from moving around were much more of a challenge.

I decided to put together a list of exercises while trying to take a nap today. I should have been doing something more productive, like watching television, but I had a migraine and was tired of playing games on my computer.

A couple of notes, before we get started. You are not required to do all 100 exercises – you probably do most things in a half-assed manner, so why should this be any different? Also, it’s best to ask permission before taking pictures of people, or someone’s property, and, it’s a very bad idea to take photos of minor children without their parent’s permission (and is even illegal in many places).

Most of these exercises take a fair amount of time. Unless you are willing to ignore your job and family, it could take the better part of a year to get through all 100 exercises. Of course, if you DO make the investment of time and effort, at the end of it all, you will be able to proudly say, “What the HELL was I thinking?” The first two items might better fall into the category of “taking better pictures” rather than unleashing your creative inner self, but I want to make sure you get off on the right foot. Let’s get started.

1. Spend a day shooting in “Manual.” If you don’t use manual mode, it’s time to start. It’s really not that difficult. In an hour or two, you should really have the hang of it. ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed – not all that complicated. Many serious photographers never progress past Aperture Priority. The problem is, in every mode other than manual, the camera makes decisions for you. It tries it’s hardest, but it makes a LOT of mistakes and can turn you potential masterpieces into second-rate snapshots. Remember, there is no law that you have to get the shot perfect the first time. Shoot, review and adjust. If you pick a sunny day where the lighting conditions aren’t changing much (as they do when the sun peeks in and out from behind clouds), manual is the way to go. Besides, it lets you sound snooty – “Oh, I shoot in manual.”

2. Turn on the Histogram. Oh, quit whining! Find the manual to your camera, or download it on the internet and learn how to turn the histogram on. While you’re at it, find the feature that makes the photo on the display blink if you have over-exposed anything. THIS IS THE SINGLE BEST WAY TO MAKE SURE YOU EXPOSE YOUR PHOTOS CORRECTLY. If you don’t know how to read a histogram, do a little research on the internet – there are lots of sites that explain histograms. Most people think that you want to make a histogram that looks like a bell-curve – WRONG!!!!!! If you take a photo of a black crow in snow, the histogram will look like the letter “U.” The goal is to push the photo to be as bright as possible without over-exposing anything. Too light, you get “blinkies” that tell you that you have blown out the whites and you can’t get them back. Too dark and you end up with a mediocre shot. If you have to brighten your photo on the computer, you will hurt the quality and introduce noise. If you haven’t used the histogram function before, take your time to learn it. It will improve the quality of your photos immeasurably! Take a test shot, check the histogram, and make adjustments.

3. Try to reproduce a photo you like. This can be fun at places where they sell postcards of the local sites. Copying a professional can give you some insight as to composition, lighting and such. In grade school, it was called “cheating” and you’d get expelled. In business, they call it “benchmarking” and reward you. Of course, you shouldn’t be afraid to add your own creative touches as well.

4. Find a lens that you never use. Better yet, borrow a lens that you’ve always wanted and spend an afternoon playing with it. Explore the strengths and weaknesses of an unfamiliar piece of equipment. When you load the photos on the camera, review them from last to first. Hopefully, you will notice the photos getting WORSE as you go back in time, meaning that you got better as you went along.

5. Get Low. Pretend that you are a puppy or a snake and take photos from THEIR perspective. I once watched a video taken by attaching a video camera to a cat and let it run around the neighborhood. It was amazing to see things from the perspective of the animal. Take photos of everyday items from the view of the animal. Trees, furniture and even people look very different from down there. From a practical standpoint, a ground level shot of a duck on a lake can be very dramatic. A picture of a duck taken from a boardwalk looking straight down on that same duck is just a picture of a duck.

6. Custom Modes. Time to get out the manual again. Many cameras have one or more custom modes that allow you to save settings. If your camera has these, they are worth their weight in gold! When I was in Yellowstone, I set C3 for birds in flight (multiple focus points and AI Servo focusing), C2 for more stationary subjects like elk (single focus point, single shot focusing), and C1 for HDR landscape shots (single point focusing and bracketed exposures). When I saw something I wanted to photograph, I would just turn the dial to the right mode and start shooting – no need to make any major adjustments. If a bear popped out on the road, or an Eagle flew overhead, I was ready to shoot in less than a second with exactly the settings I needed to get great shots. If your camera has these, learn to set them and spend a day exploring different situations that allow you to switch back and forth.

7. Black and White. You can always turn a color photo into black and white, but try setting the camera to B&W and have at it. Not having color to use forces you to look more at light and the impact it has on your photos. Besides, it can be fun.

8. HDR – High Dynamic Range. HDR photography combines multiple exposures of the same scene to make dramatic photos. Before trying this, you need to make sure that you have software that can create HDR photos and might want to look at some tutorials on the internet to learn a bit more about how to take HDR photos. Play around with HDR – it can be a lot of fun. More important – rather than making over-the-top HDR photos, you can use HDR to make subtle enhancements to your photos to improve the overall quality of a shot. I often use HDR to improve my shots of flying Bald Eagles by using multiple copies of a single photo processed overly bright, overly dark and right in the middle. This allows for the brown tones on the body to come through without over-exposing the white head and tail. The result is a photo the way your eye sees the bird rather than dark black and bright white.

9. Shoot at Night (without a flash). Mount your camera on a tripod and take long exposure shots. A remote shutter release is helpful. Exposures may be several minutes long. Oceans and moonlight can be spectacular! There is no rule of thumb for this. It’s all trial and error.

10. Time-lapse Photography. The idea is to take a series of photos to combine into a video to create a scene over time. Easy to do and very cool. There is a lot of info on the internet explaining how to make these. You will need to find some software that puts the photos together (you might already have it on your computer). The low tech way to take the photos is to place your camera on a tripod and take pictures at regular intervals. You can buy a device called an Intervalometer that hooks to the camera that does all the work for you. Beginners might want to start with clouds moving across the sky. More ambitious folks might like to try star trails.

11. Ugly Ducklings. As a wildlife photographer, there are certain species that are often overlooked as being “undesirable” such as Starlings, Pigeons and such. If you take the time to photograph these birds in flattering light they can really be quite handsome. Same goes for photographing people. Not everyone has the looks of a runway model, but think of how many stunning shots you’ve seen of old people. Think about the subjects that you might have overlooked due to your own prejudices and give it a whirl.

12. Slow Shutter Speed. Using a slow shutter speed (say 1/50th of a second) on a moving subject can be used to show motion. Look for subjects like flowing water, cars, bike races, etc. A tripod is a must. Also, pretty girls jogging in tight shorts can usually hit harder than you might think. A bag of ice and a first aid kit might be helpful.

13. A Day In The Life. Follow someone around for a day and document what they do. This can make a great gift for how you spend a special day such as a birthday or anniversary and can be fun to look back on years later. Another option is to document the day in the life of a pet. How does Fluffy spend her day?

14. Video. Many cameras and cell phones have the ability to shoot really nice quality video, especially if mounted on a tripod. A still shot of a Hummingbird at a flower can be beautiful. Imagine the same bird on video with sound. Give it a try – you might just get hooked.

15. Fireworks. Get out the tripod and head to the fair. There are a lot of different ways to shoot fireworks, but most involve leaving the shutter open for several seconds. A remote shutter release is helpful.  You can open the shutter, wait for a rocket to explode, then close the shutter. Alternately, leave the shutter open, cover the front of the lens with a piece of black cardboard and remove the cardboard repeatedly to capture multiple explosions. Lots of trial and error and it may take a couple of events to get the hang of it. Hint – remote shutter releases can be bought on ebay for far less than the manufacture charges. Expect to pay about $10.

16. Moon Shots. There are lots of things to play with here. Full moon rising, crescent moon setting in the sunset, clouds crossing the moon. A long lens can make the moon look larger against the foreground. A full moon throws off a lot of light, but a crescent moon may require a fairly slow shutter speed. If you lens has image stabilization, you might want to turn it off when using a slow shutter speed to avoid the lens “hunting” and causing a blurry subject.

17. Self-portrait. These can be both fun and humbling. Set the camera on a tripod and hit the self-timer. Get creative. Go to the park and photograph yourself sitting on a bench wearing a tin-foil hat or explaining to the police that you are not a danger to yourself or anyone else. Use the video function to record yourself getting thrown out of the park and use it as evidence in your suit charging that your first amendment rights were violated and use the proceeds from the settlement to buy some really cool stuff.

18. Cars. Go to an antique car show and go wild. Try low-angle shots with a wide angle lens or close-ups of cool wheels, chromed engines or manufacturer emblems. Ask permission and/or offer to send the owner photos. I’ve never had anyone say “No.” They work hard on their cars and are usually flattered that you take an interest.

19. Flowers. Cloudy, windless days are best for flower shots. If you haven’t photographed flowers in a while, get out there and get creative. Find a lens combination that allows you to get close. Again, a tripod is a must. Play around with depth-of-field, different angles, etc. If the flowers are labeled with their names, take a shot of the labels too for future reference.

20. Insects. Again, you probably want to get close, so use the same combination as above. Insects can be very cool. Variations include dragonflies, butterflies, spiders and whatever you happen to find. Shoot them on flowers, white paper or a polished surface of a dark car. If you really want a challenge, try to get them in flight.

21. Join a Critique Group. This can be done through a local club, or on-line (Flickr has a number of these groups). Find somebody that will be brutally honest (probably someone that doesn’t know you). This can be humbling or sometimes aggravating. What you don’t want is for someone to stroke your ego here. You want someone to hit you between the eyes and tell you how to improve your photos. One person likened it to having someone tell you that your kids are ugly. What you want is to have someone say, “Your kids are ugly, and having met you, I know why.” My wife and I went to a class on taking travel photos, and every photo the woman put up on the screen sucked. It’s a shame she had to go all the way to Europe to take such lousy pictures.  

22. Volunteer to Shoot an Event. Many local groups hold fairs, picnics, or parades. Meet with the organizers and volunteer to photograph the event for them. Provide them with photos for their website, newsletter, etc. Going to the clean-up of a local park is more fun when you are holding a camera rather than a garbage bag. Be a cub reporter for the day and document the proceedings.

23. Go to a Sporting Event. It’s important to get permission first, especially if minor children are present. Many organized team sports require all participants to have signed releases in advance. The coaches can tell you. Ask them if you could take some shots and give them copies. Adult softball games might be a safer bet.

24. Traffic – Day time. Play with motion blurs, movement, etc. In a big city, you can show traffic and congestion.

25. Traffic – Night time. Play with blurred lights and motion. Be careful where you stand – drivers won’t be able to see you.

26. Body Parts. If you are taking photos at a sporting event, think about focusing on a player’s feet in a soccer game or the arm of a pitcher throwing a ball. Legs and feet can be some of the more interesting subjects. Maybe just the feet of a diver entering the water.

27. Visit one of your favorite photo locations, but take a step ladder. Shoot all the familiar scenes from a few feet higher. As long as you act with confidence, people will not think that it is too strange.

28. Macro Photography. Get your hands on a macro lens, grab the tripod and plan on getting dirty. Every-day objects can look very cool when you shoot with a macro lens. An alternative to a macro lens is to add an extension tube to a longer lens to allow for close focus.

29. Super Macro. If you already use a macro lens, try adding a teleconverter, maybe even two, for super close shots. 1 to 1 shots are for sissies! Think ginormous!

30. Take a photo outdoors of the exact same subject from the exact same position every hour for an entire day to see how it changes as light and weather change.

31. Shoot a magazine cover shot. Choose your subject and create a photo with space for titles, etc and make sure that your subject fits.

32. Rule of Thirds – read up on the rule of thirds, if you aren’t familiar with the concept and practice composing shots with this in mind.

33. Look for Great Light. Take a walk, looking for objects that are in great light. It doesn’t matter what the object is, only that the light is good and take a photo of these items.

34. Play with Depth of Field. Take numerous shots of the same subjects using progressively more or less depth of field by adjusting the aperture.

35. Shoot on an Angle. Forget about horizontal and vertical. Take photos at a 45 degree angle. Vary the angle as well.

36. Play with a Polarizer. Use a polarizer to see how it changes the look of the sky, water, reflections on glass, etc.

37. Spend a day with a friend shooting photos of that friend in artistic ways in different locations.

38. Photograph your Pet. Spend some time photographing a pet. Think about shots that might look good on a calendar or magazine. As an added bonus, you will have a lot of photos of your pet.

39. Photograph streets. City streets, country roads, highways, dirt roads – have at it.

40. Panorama – If you have a software package that will stitch together multiple shots into a panorama, get to it. If you are really ambitious, try a 360 degree view. BTW – it’s best not to use an extremely wide angle for this as the photos will be hard to fit together.

41. Zoom While Shooting. Using a long exposure, zoom in on an object while the shutter is open to cause a blurred photo. Subject you might want to try could include automobiles and lights.

42. Make a Softbox. Search on line for how to make a simple softbox/lightbox from a cardboard box, paper, plastic, etc. Make one and photograph some common objects.

43. Concert in the Park. Go to a local concert and photograph the performers.

44. Photograph Moving Water. Streams, rivers, waterfalls, sprinklers, faucets, whatever.

45. Reflections – Glass, Windows and Mirrors – take photos where the reflection is the main focus of the shot.

46. Reflections – Puddles – Photograph the reflections in puddles

47. Reflections – Sunglasses – you get the idea.

48. Abstract Patterns – look for patterns in object to make the focus of your shots.

49. Take photos where color is the main subject of the photo.

50. Water and Mirror Shots. Find an old mirror with a rim or frame, lay it on a flat surface so that it is parallel to the ground.  Pour water onto the mirror until the water is at least a quarter of an inch deep. Shoot photos of the reflections in the mirror. Flowering trees look fantastic!

51. Cloudy Days. Cloudy or hazy days when there is no wind are perfect for taking close-up shots of flowers.

52. Break The Rules – take a series of shots that completely break the “Rule of Thirds.”

53. Break The Rules – take a bunch of shots where the sun is behind your subject.

54. Flash It. Dig the flash out of the closet, or use the pop-up flash on the camera and play with it. Use the flash to fill in shadows in the sun. Go out at night and look for unusual things in the yard to shoot. You get the idea.

55. Continuous Focus Mode – Find a reason to use the continuous (or AI Servo) focus mode and start shooting. Moving people, cars, birds, animals – anything that stays in motion.

56. Old People. Find somebody old to photograph

57. Children. Find some children to photograph – make sure that it is OK with their parents first!

58. Models. Find someone willing to pose for you and act as a model. Direct them as to how and where to stand, what to do with their hands, etc.

59. Couples. Any two people will do. Take photos of them interacting.

60. Unusual Angles. Take photos from up high, down low – anywhere but the usual.

61. Shadows. Take photos where shadows are the main subject of the shot.

62. Frames and Borders. Find natural frames (trees, buildings, etc.) that serve to frame your photo.

63. Photograph Food – Not just apples, go for the GOOD stuff.

64. People Eating. Who looks good eating? Find out.

65. Photograph Trash. Not the garbage in the can, take a walk around and take photos of things that have discarded. Maybe even consider picking it up when you are done.

66. Doors. Find different doors and start shooting.
67. Rooms. Photograph different rooms and try to make them beautiful. When photographing rooms of a house, try to make photographs that would sell the house if they were in the real estate section.

68. Water. Look for all different kinds of water (lakes, rivers, streams, puddles, waterfalls, drops of water on cars, etc.)

69. Architecture. Take shots of buildings that show off something different.

70. Walk 100 paces and take pictures of 20 things from that spot.

71. Light. Take photos of anything that shows remarkable light.

72. Off Center. Take a series of photos where the subject is well off-center.

73. Using a zoom lens, take multiple photos of the same subject. Change YOUR distance from the subject and use the zoom to make the subject the same size in the photo. Note how this changes the background of the photo.

74. Shoot several photos of the same subject, but from the perspective of a giant, and adult, a toddler and a frog.

75. Take as many photos as you can of an object such that each photo is unique. Try to select an object that will give you additional flexibility.

76. Take 76 photos of objects that have something in common (same color, shape, size, begin with the same letter, etc.)

77. Pan with a moving object (bike, car, jogger) to show motion - the subject is in focus, the background is blurred.

78. Take photos that portray emotions (love, anger, happiness, etc.)

79. Photograph textures.

80. Take photos of weather – rain, snow, heat, cold, etc.

81. Do a photoshoot with a friend/model.

82. Light and Dark. Shoot a light subject on an almost totally dark background.

83. Dark and Light. Shoot a subject against a totally white background. Try to get the background as bright as possible without blowing out any highlights.
84. Go For A Walk. Every 100 steps, take a photo of something of interest.

85. Go For A Walk. Take a photo of an object that begins with each letter of the alphabet in order. If you can’t find something, take two shots of something beginning with the next letter.

86. Go For A Walk. Take a photo of every object you see that begins with the letter “B.”

87. Go For A Walk. Take a small stuffed animal and photograph it enjoying the area - seeing the sites, stopping for a rest, a drink, etc. If someone asks what you are doing, just pretend that you don’t speak their language.

88. Go To A Park. Sit on the toys (swings, slides, etc.) and take photos that are unique because of where you are sitting. Swing your legs and take photos of the sky, ground, etc. If you are clumsy, wear a helmet.

89. Produce. Take photos of produce in a farmer’s market (ask permission first)

90. Clouds. Figure it out.

91. Chamber Of Commerce. Take photos of a community that would draw tourists or business to the area.

92. Something Old. Take photos of old structures, cemeteries, cars, etc.

93. Something New. Take photos of new things (construction, seedlings, baby animals, etc.)

94. Fire. Take photos, don’t burn anything down or hurt anyone.

95. Stones. Find the beauty in a pile of rocks.

96. Leading Lines. Take photos with leading lines that draw your attention to a particular area or object in the photo.

97. Country Scenes. Go to farm country and capture photos that really should be in a calendar.

98. Come up with five exercises that are not on this list.

99. Make a list of ten exercises that you will actually try.

100. Buy yourself an ice cream cone and enjoy life for a couple of minutes.
Steve Byland is a wildlife photographer living in suburban New Jersey. His photos can be seen at . You can email him at

Sunday, January 13, 2013

An Alternative to Noise Reduction Software

Winter is here and some of my most memorable shots were taken during falling snow. The problem I often run into, however, is that, despite all the falling white stuff, it is often very DARK during a snow storm – even in the middle of the day. To compensate for the lack of light, most of us boost the ISO on our cameras, lower the shutter speed, open the aperture and cross our fingers. After a few bone-chilling hours in my blind, I take my precious (hopefully) treasure-filled memory card to the computer, plug it in and start reviewing my photos. Lots of birds, falling snow and NOISE!!!
Yes, noise. Those annoying little spots and flecks of computer-generated junk in the dark areas behind my subjects. Under snowy conditions, there is sometimes so much noise that it is difficult to remove with the noise reduction application that came with my photo processing software or even the expensive plug-in that I bought. RATS!!!

What to do? What to do? I COULD go back outside and shovel the sidewalk to make it safe for the neighborhood children, or I could try to save some of my better photos. No contest – fire up the software. Here is a shot of a Cardinal I took in a recent snow storm. I cranked up the ISO to a modest 640 and used a shutter speed of 1/320 with an aperture of f/6.3. I thought I was safe from noise, but, as you can see from the close-up, I was not. Noise and lots of it! Noise is especially apparent in the dark areas in the background.

Fortunately, the photo is not too dark. If it needed to be lightened, that would introduce even more noise. As it is, most shots taken under these conditions are a little flat and need a slight boost in saturation. Guess what that does? Yup, it puts in even MORE noise.   

For this photo I tried some of the standard Photoshop techniques, including using noise reduction software (it couldn’t get it all out) or blurring the background (I ended up with waves and ghosts). Then, I reverted to a simpler method. First, I made a duplicate layer in Photoshop and set to work adjusting the brightness and contrast of this new layer. I reduced the contrast A LOT – to minus 40 and reduced the brightness to minus 30. I know this is a huge adjustment, but it did get rid of the noise. If you want to get really aggressive, apply your noise reduction software to this layer. The result looks something like this:

Next, I want to get the main subject (the bird) and some of the detail on the larger branches back. I apply a mask and mask off the bird and the branches I want to keep:
As you can see in the close-up, there is far less noise in the dark areas of the background:
The overall photo is still a little dull (it was rather flat to start with). I fix this by putting BACK some of the brightness and contrast I took out before (about plus 15 for both brightness and contrast) – this introduces very little noise to the now-flat background. I also boosted the saturation a bit – maybe plus 15 to put some color into the bird. If this had been almost any bird other than a bright red Cardinal, I could have gone way up on the saturation. Finished product:

Side by side (click Here to see a larger version of this photo:

Close-up (click Here to see a larger version of this photo):
Total time – maybe 5 minutes.

Steve Byland is a wildlife photographer living in suburban New Jersey. His photos can be seen at . You can email him at

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Salvage A (Nearly) Great Shot Using Layers

Eventually it’s going to happen. You find yourself faced with the “perfect” shot and you reach down deep and blow it. The moment passes and you don’t get a second chance. Such was the case when I took the shot below. The subject was perfect, the light was just right and I managed to get the shot crooked. To be honest, I was lying on my back in a wet parking lot and I took this shot from underneath my truck. I was lucky to get anything at all, so a crooked shot was OK considering the circumstances. Here's my original shot:

I was so close and the owl in the picture filled the frame so well that simply straightening the picture in Photoshop was going to cut too much out. One option was to add a lot of canvas to the shot, clone in a bunch of stuff on the sides, then use the Straighten Tool. The problem is that this leaves a lot of evidence behind and takes a lot of work. There is another way to approach this problem using layers. I’ve choses a photo that is very busy (providing a lot of opportunities for mistakes). Shots with less going on are FAR easier, but even this shot is not that difficult. THIS is what happens when you use the "Straighten Tool" to try to fix the shot - my little owl is moving out of the frame:
So, we need to fix this photo using layers instead of the "Straighten Tool."

Step One – Create a new layer and drag the top layer so that the subject (the Owl) is positioned in approximately the right place – you can adjust this a bit later if necessary. If you look closely, you can see parts of the bottom (original) layer on the left and bottom edges of the photo.
Step Two – Rotate (straighten) just the top layer to get the subject where you want it. If necessary, you can move the top layer to reposition the subject. Using “Free Rotate” saves more canvas than “Straighten” and gives a little more flexibility, but either tool will work.

Now the subject is straight, but there are obvious lines around the edge of the top layer from rotating/straightening the photo. I have hidden the bottom layer so that you can clearly see this in the photo below.

Step Three –  What you want to do now is to blend the top (crooked) layer into the original layer below. With both layers showing, apply a mask to the top layer, choosing a mask that makes the top layer visible. Use a black paint brush on the mask to hide the edges of the top layer to blend the top layer into the layer below.
You can spend a lot of time blending with a small brush to make the photo perfect – I spent about 1 minute on this shot. The main evidence of my handiwork is a duplicate of the large blade of grass to the left of the owl, so I went back and cloned it out. All done and ready to move on to the next masterpiece.

Steve Byland is a wildlife photographer living in suburban New Jersey. His photos can be seen at . You can email him at