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Challenge: Catch-up Post


Well, it is the last day of March, and I am just getting around to posting an update for the photo challenge I am participating in. In short, late last year, my friend Amy reached out about participating in a monthly bird photo challenge. Each month features a different challenge. Photos are submitted and then Amy and a guest critique the photo on how well it meets the criteria of the challenge. Tips are discussed, and it is interesting to see and hear what others think of your photos. This month, I will be the guest critic; so, I am sweating it a bit. But, what about the previous two months? Well, I have been a bit busy since I got back from India; so, let's catch up on those first.

January was the "Rule of Thirds" challenge. ROT is the one thing just about every budding photographer has heard about. It is a good guideline, but it is not one I use often. I find it positions a bird too far in a corner a lot of times. For an environmental shot, it can be fine. For a 4:5 or 1:1 crop, it looks good. For a 2:3, I always struggled. I frame a lot of my shots based on feel, and ROT in a 2:3 format (which is the ratio of most full-frame camera sensors), "feels" weird. I would fidget with a photo for a few minutes; constantly moving the bird more toward the middle and then thinking "I have to move it back to the 1/3 line." Again, the bird would end up out on the edge of the photo, and the photo would look unbalanced a lot of times. I would often move it to where I felt it should be and then feel like I was doing something wrong, afterwards. In the end, I finally figured out my issue. I happened to run across a video that showed different overlays that are available in Lightroom. To see them, hit R to start cropping a photo and then press O a few times. Most likely, you are already at the ROT overlay. 5 "O"s from there is the overlay I use. It is based on natural logs. Once I saw this, I realized what I have been leaning towards all along but always fighting against, because - "ROT!". Looking at older photos, they all pretty much line up with this overlay. Anyway, it is just my preference, and I thought I would mention it for anyone struggling with the mindset that ROT is the only way to layout a photos. For the record, this is what the overlay I used looks like. Again, even this is a guideline. I start here, but I will adjust based on the feel of the photo.

So, what does this have to do with January? Well, it was ROT, and not, "what do you prefer", but I did what I prefer anyway. My submission was an Eastern Towhee perched on a stump in the snow. If you read my previous posts, you have seen it.

Feedback was generally positive. A bit too magenta, which I do struggle with. There is a bright yellow something in the lower-right corner that probably should have been cloned out. The bright dangly twig should probably have been cloned out. I am not huge on cloning things out. For this challenge, I am going to have to be better about that. In then end, they were right, and I do not think the bit of cloning hurts the authenticity of the photo any. It still portrays the bird in its environment, which is what I liked about it to begin with.

As for the ROT, well, Amy pulled up the guide that showed the ROT overlay, and I heard a "eh...", but the other reviewer said, "looks good", and Amy rolled with it. :) For the record, this bird's eye sits right on that top corner of the box in the layover. It pulls the bird in closer to the middle yet does not center the bird. It also helps even out the weight of the scene and keeps my eye from wondering out of the photo. Anyway, that was January.

For February, I was in India. As a matter of fact, I did not even really have time to go back out and shoot before we left for India. February's challenge as "details". You need to show the details of the bird. Not a hard challenge. You just have to be decently close and get a tack-sharp shot. Luckily, I got a shot that would work for this on the same day I took the Towhee shot. This shot was of a female Dark-eyed Junco in the snow. I chose to submit a black-and-white for this.

I have always loved the look of a good black-and-white. I was never happy with how my BW photos looked though. To paraphrase David Yarrow on the subject of BW photography, "the photo should be black and it should be white". Most of mine always came out a bit gray. I spent some time looking over the internet and watching videos. Eventually, I found a technique that got me the results I was looking for. As for the critics for February's challenge? They liked it. Feedback was to remove the small white ice pellets on the lores of the bird and on its back. The photos appears to be a bit over-sharpened. This is probably true. It could be a little softer. I had also processed the photo to ensure that a small horizon of snow was maintained across the image. At the time, I felt this was important. They suggested that just leaving the snow around the bottom of the bird and letting the rest fade out into the background might have been better.

I agree, and it would have solved the things I do not like about the photo. I was working to keep the small horizon of snow, but this meant that I kept a somewhat washed-out gray tone to the background. See the paraphrase of David Yarrow, above. I think I did well with incorporating blacks, but the washed-out gray background bothers me. It should be white. Unfortunately, I have not had time to reprocess this photo based on feedback. I hope to do that soon.

Which, brings us to March. You have already seen the March photo above.

The challenge for this month was a fairly easy one. You needed a smooth background. Basically, you need to control the distance between you and the subject and from the subject to the background. Getting close to your subject with a wide-open aperture helps a lot. From there, you just need to ensure there is a relatively large distance from the bird to the background. I knew when I set out to take this photo that I would be getting a good background, but I had not planned to use this photo for this month. There is a later challenge requiring more than one bird to be in the frame. This is tricky, which is why I set out to get this shot. I was going to save it. So, why use it? My only other shots were a bit bland, or they were from India. I already have next month's shot picked out, and it is a shot from India. I did not want to be the guy who constantly submitted photos from my vacation this year.

About those bland shots? Well, while it is easy to get a good background, it does not always make for the most interesting shot. If the background is bland, the bird better be exciting. The reverse works, too. You can have a bland bird on a nicely mottled but smooth background. It is harder to pull off. Something has to provide some interest, though. Here, I opted for an interaction between two birds to provide something a little more interesting than a single bird perched against a smooth background. The only other smooth background shot I have (that is not from India) is of a singing Red-winged Blackbird against a golden background. A background of blurry cattails would have been better. I tried to set that shot up, but blackbirds are a bit shy....

As I am the guest critic for this month, let me go ahead and tell you what I would change about this shot. I think there are two minor things. 1) I should have lightened the stick in the foreground. It is a bit bright. 2) The black edge along the raised wings of the closer bird could be lightened (I think). Other than that, I think it is a fun interaction and meets all the criteria of the challenge. I just have to come up with something for the flock challenge later in the year. Hopefully, Amy does not find too many things wrong with it.

Stay tuned for more updates as the year progresses. Next month is bird behaviors. Pretty sure I know what mine is.

Thanks for reading,




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