Friday, October 24, 2008

Owling at the Marin Headlands

During a recent business trip to the San Francisco Bay area, I made a trip up to Point Reyes National Seashore, and on my way back to my hotel in San Jose (on the opposite end of the bay--quite a haul), I stopped off at the Marin Headlands to take some sunset photos of the Golden Gate Bridge.

While walking near some old bunkers built originally to defend the bay against hostile ships, I heard the distinct sounds of an owl--and given the sole clump of trees atop the ridge, I set out to find the source of the hooting.  I had to climb from the old concrete fortification (where once a large piece of artillery had apparently stood) and follow a deer trail--yes, I even saw the deer, a nice 6-point buck!--through the low coastal scrub about thirty feet to the trees.

I still couldn't see the owl, but he obliged by hooting several more times.  And then there he was, perched on a limb about six feet in front of me at eye level!  I can't believe I missed him or that he let me get so close.  I managed to snap a couple of photos before backing up, trying not to frighten the owl, but unfortunately, he took (silent) flight before I could go more than a few steps back.

Warning: for the non-Photoshop geeks out there,  I suggest skipping ahead several paragraphs...

Now, it was close to dusk, and we were in the shade beneath several branches, so my camera (set to aperture priority at f/8) didn't have a great shutter speed: 1/50th of a second, or just less than half what I need even with my Canon 300mm f4L lens' image stabilizer activated: at 420mm effective (I always use a 1.4x teleconverter) and two stops' worth of stabilization, the reciprocal rule says I should have a shutter speed no slower than 1/105th of a second (I try to avoid less than 1/125; using 1/3-stops, the next-slower stop is 1/100).  That meant a generally soft image overall even with my monopod, as I was obviously a bit shaky at seeing this wonderful owl so close up!

Enter Photoshop.  In post-processing, I ran a light bit of noise reduction (Noise Ninja with the luminance and color noise reduction and their smoothness values all set to 11), then began sharpening.  My first (and perhaps most important) sharpening step involved building an edge mask and then using the Smart Sharpen filter--with the filter's "Remove" set to "Motion Blur," a special setting which helps compensate for loss of sharpness due to motion by the camera or subject.  (In contrast, I typically use either the "Lens Blur" or "Gaussian Blur" removal settings for normal edge sharpening; each has its strength for particular applications.)  My motion blur compensation layer was set to "Luminance" blending mode as I always use for edge sharpening adjustment layers.

I then did a normal edge sharpening pass (using the same edge mask and basically the same sharpening settings, though I used the "Lens Blur" removal and cut the opacity for the layer slightly to soften the effect).  To help bring additional sharpness, I ran the High Pass filter on a duplicate of the (noise-reduced) background layer with a high radius--around 25--and set it to "Overlay" blending to act as a midtone contrast boost.  As the background thus ended up with way too much visible noise, I added a black-filled layer mask (hiding the layer's effects) and painted in the owl's outline and fill in white, limiting the contrast boost to the owl itself.

To help smooth the background a bit more (there was still some fairly visible noise, between the high ISO I'd shot at, the low light and slight underexposure, and all the sharpening done so far), I added another copy of the background layer, then ran the Gaussian Blur filter on it (radius 5), and added 1% monochromatic Gaussian noise back in to make the effect more natural.  Using the inverse of the layer mask I had made for the midtone contrast boost (touched up slightly around the edges), I limited the blur effect to the background only.

So, re-enter the Photoshop-averse: simply take a look at my end results.  Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.  And a new "lifer" for me in the Great Horned Owl!  I still can't believe how close I got to him without spotting him or having the owl fly off--that is, if I hadn't had a similar experience at Payne's Prairie near Gainesville, Florida, a couple of years ago, when I spent an afternoon's walk "communicating" with a Barred Owl, calling out "who, who cooks for you, who cooks for you aaaaalll?" before turning around and finding the huge owl perched just a few feet away.

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