Improving BirdCam Photos with Photoshop

Northwestern Crow Before

The Wingscapes BirdCam is a popular tool for birding enthusiasts.  It is a sensor-activated, 8 megapixel digital camera hardened for outdoor use.  It has a fixed f/2.8 aperture with shutter speeds 1/8 to 1/400 of a second.  Set it up aimed at a feeder and see who is visiting your yard when you're not around.  For birds like these clever and perceptive crows, it would be impossible to capture such a relaxed demeanor if there was a person with a camera in the yard.

There are many variables involved in producing a great digital photo.  Since they can't all be controlled, the BirdCam sometimes produces hazy, softly focused shots.  If the lighting is less than ideal, photos might be under- or over-exposed.  All is not lost, however, since these problems can often be fixed with a good photo editor.  Click on the 'Before' and 'After' photos here to view them full-sized.  These methods will also work for Trail Cam, Game Cam and Plant Cam photos.

The longer I do this, the more I learn.  These are the tools I am now using:
With advice from some expert photographers, this is the editing work flow I have settled on:
  1. Straighten and crop the photo in that order
  2. Adjust histogram levels
  3. Edit shadows, highlights, brightness, contrast and color saturation if necessary
  4. Remove spots, marks and distractions
  5. Resize the photo
  6. Sharpen the photo
Never edit the original photo in your files.  Always make a copy for editing and keep the unedited original intact.  Excessive editing will degrade the quality of a photo and you won't be able to restore it to the original state.  When you get good at this, you will be able to perform all of the steps in a single pass and this is best.  Pick a few great but poorly resolved shots for practice.  You may be surprised how good you can make them look.

Black-headed Grosbeak Before

Before you begin editing with Photoshop Elements, locate the Undo and Redo buttons.  These are twisting arrows at the top of the PSE window.  They might be handy if you regret the action you just took.  Another option is found in Edit >> Undo... where the specific action you just took is indicated.  Next, familiarize yourself with the effects caused by Actual Pixels, Fit Screen and Fill Screen buttons.  Finally, when you use a tool, your mouse pointer and the work area will change to suit the task.  To clear them, click on the hand in the toolbox on the left side of the window.

Step 1:  Straighten and Crop

Unless your BirdCam is set up a bit cockeyed, you won't need to straighten the photo.  If you do, PSE has a nifty tool.  Locate it in the toolbox on the left of the screen, next to the Cookie Cutter star.  Click on the tool and your mouse pointer becomes a cross.  Be sure Rotate All Layers is checked and Crop to Original Size is indicated in the drop-down above the photo.  Use the pointer to draw a horizontal line across the photo you think should indicate level.  Presto!  Straightened.  Too much?  Use the Undo tool to reverse it.

As in the Grosbeak shot above, cropping a photo can greatly improve its presentation.  Find the cropping tool in Image >> Crop.  Set the Aspect Ratio dropdown to Use Photo Ratio and the Overlay dropdown to Rule of Thirds.  This provides grid lines to help orient the subject in the photo following the "Rule of Thirds."  Use the handles (little boxes) to size and position the crop box.  Keep in mind that excessive cropping will reduce the quality of the shot.  To complete the process, click on Image >> Crop again or the green check mark.

Step 2:  Adjust the Histogram Levels

This will make your photos pop and it is often the only enhancement needed.  The histogram is a graph showing the dark-to-light exposure levels of your photo.  BirdCam shots often drop off at the dark (left) end.  Click on Enhance >> Adjust Lighting >> Levels...  There are three pointers under the Input Levels graph.  If there is any space between the graph and the left and/or right axes, slide the left and right pointers inward so they align with the ends of the graph.  Click on OK to keep the changes.  For BirdCam photos, I have found that just using Enhance >> Auto Levels does the job nicely.

Pileated Woodpecker Before

Step 3:  Adjust Lighting and Color Saturation

I want to emphasize that you can easily ruin a photo by overdoing these steps.  The axiom "Less is more" should be kept in mind here.  You will want to experiment with each photo to find the best combination of settings.

Start with Enhance >> Adjust Lighting >> Shadows and Highlights...  The dialog will open with "Lighten Shadows" set to 25%.  You can move the sliders to see the changes that will result or enter the values directly in the boxes.  In the Pileated Woodpecker photo above, you can see the effect of lightening the shadows 25%.  Other settings will depend on the specific photo and your personal taste.  If you have messed up the photo, just click on Cancel to close the dialog and undo all the changes.  Click on OK to keep the changes.

Next, do the same with Enhance >> Adjust Lighting >> Brightness/Contrast...  You can test the results by unchecking and rechecking the "Preview" box.

Color accuracy is important for bird photos and the BirdCam does a pretty nice job with this.  The only color enhancing I use is Saturation, but even then, just a little.  Use Enhance >> Adjust Color >> Adjust Hue/Saturation...  Saturation is the middle slider.  I never change this more than 5 or 6 points, if at all.

Step 4:  Remove Spots, Marks and Distractions

This is a fun tool in PSE.  Birds are messy eaters and there were always bits of suet on the tree bark in these photos.  The Steller's Jay had food on his beak that I found distracting.  Also, notice the smudgy mark behind the eye of the upper crow in the first photo above.  I removed these using the Spot Healing tool in the toolbox.  Click on the Bandaid icon and your mouse pointer becomes a circle.  Change its size using the dropdown above the workspace, but don't make it larger than necessary.  Touch the photo with the blemishes inside the circle, and like magic, Photoshop Elements makes them disappear.  Click on the hand to clear the Spot Healing tool.

Steller's Jay Before

Step 5:  Resize the Photo

I set my BirdCams' photo quality to 'High' which produces shots that are 3264 x 2448 pixels.  For posting to the blogs, I reduce them to 800 x 600 pixels.  Smaller images will load faster in web pages.  Using this example, click on Image >> Resize >> Image Size...  Be sure all three check boxes in the bottom of the dialog are checked.  In the upper Width box enter 800 pixels and the Height box should automatically change to 600 pixels.  You can use any dimension you wish but it is best to stick to the standard sizes (1200 x 900, 1024 x 768, 640 x 480 etc.).  Blogger will always reduce large images to 1600 x 1200.  Click OK to accept the size.  At this point, the image will shrink in the workspace.  Click on Actual Pixels to restore it and to prepare for the next step.

Step 6:  Sharpen the Photo

This should always be the last step after cropping, enhancing and resizing.  You cannot sharpen a photo blurred by movement, but you can improve the clear ones.  Virtually every photo editor has a "Sharpen" tool.  The photography experts, however, will use "Unsharp Mask" to produce crisp looking photos.  First, be sure the photo image is set to Actual Pixels in the workspace.  Click on Enhance >> Unsharp Mask...  In the dialog, there are three settings with slider bars.  For BirdCam photos, I use these:
  • Amount:  60-100%
  • Radius:  0.5 pixels
  • Threshold:  1 levels
You can find explanations of these settings on the net.  If they are correct, you will have a nice crisp photo with no shiny spots or halos around the edges.  Change the amount to 500% and see what happens.  Start with 80% and make adjustments according to your own preference, but avoid making images look like shiny plastic.  Explore the entire image using the scroll bars to make sure it all looks good.  Click on OK to accept the changes.  The pair of crows in the first photos may be slightly over-sharpened.  What do you think?

Now, click on File >> Save or Save As... to file your edited image.  Save As... allows you to rename the edited image.  If you try to exit without saving, PSE will remind you.

American Crow Before

A final step, if you wish, is watermarking.  I use Bytescout for this because I find it faster and easier than the PSE text tool.

If you publish your BirdCam shots on a blog or website or share them on a site like Flickr, you may want to polish them up a bit first.  Photoshop Elements 10 is a wonderful, easy-to-use tool to help put your best foot forward.

Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus):  These shoreline inhabitants are smaller cousins of the American Crow who live as beachcombers.  I have a pair that visit the feeders regularly.  They always appear very loving and gentle with each other.  I felt I caught that in the first photo.

Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheuticus melanocephalus):  From the Cardinal family, these attractive woodland birds are frequent visitors during the summer.  I even caught some fledglings with the BirdCam this year.  This one is the brightly-colored male.

Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus):  These large, magnificent birds nest in the woods across the road where I often hear them tapping.  When they come to visit, they announce their arrival with calls, cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk.  It's a call that makes me think how a Jurassic forest must have sounded.

Steller's Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri):  These are iconic birds of the far west.  Like all Corvids, they are active, intelligent and crafty.  A peculiar habit is imitating the calls of hawks.  Our local birds have those light blue streaks on the forehead.  This one in the photo seems to have one gimpy toe.  My birds have learned to spot me when I refill the feeders and will suddenly appear out of nowhere.

American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos):  American and Northwestern Crows are very difficult to tell apart.  Some consider them the same species.  The bird in the bottom photo appears larger to me which is why I have now identified him as an American Crow.  I could be wrong.  I left the suet on his beak on purpose.  It made him look like he was just caught with his beak in the cookie jar.  I never expected to catch crows at the BirdCam, and when it happened, it was a great surprise.