Ugly Lessons I « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Ugly Lessons I

Take a minute to study the bill and plumage clean-up by giving the animated GIF a few moments to play. Do note that though the optimized image is a bit lighter than the original capture that the exposure of the original image was dead solid perfect: during conversion in ACR I could not move either the Exposure slider or the Black slider even a smidge to the right without getting either an over- (red) or under-exposure (blue) warning (respectively). Learn to convert your RAW files properly in Digital Basics.

Ugly Lessons I

Opportunities for bird photography here at Indian Lake Estates can be good on some days, excellent on a very few. The most dependable subjects are Sandhill Crane and the two vulture species, Turkey and Black. I wanted to do some more fairly tight, sweet light stuff (see Since It Quit Raining) with the cranes yesterday morning, Friday, October 15th but they simply kept walking and walking, never stopping to preen. And I could not will the Limpkin back into the new pond again. So I got in the car ready to give up when I noticed some vultures sitting on some posts by a small boat dock. (More on that in Ugly Lessons II coming soon.)

As you can see by viewing the animated GIF above, the one Turkey Vulture that let me let close had a bright red head with a hint of breeding plumage purple on the back of the head. But the tip of the bill was even uglier than vultures are thought to be. (I think that in the right light–as here–that they are both handsome and beautiful.) I used the Patch Tool and the Spot Healing Brush (along with the Clone Stamp Tool sparingly) to clean the ugly specks from both the bill and the plumage. But the end of the bill was such a mess, surely from the bird’s last meal, that I needed to created several warped Quick Masks to cover the dirty area on that lovely ivory beak. (Did you know that the bare, featherless heads of carrion eaters evolved to lessen the chance of their picking up diseases that might result from constantly having to deal with matted, bloody head feathers?)

Learn the basics of Quick Masking and how to use the Patch Tool, the Spot Healing Brush, and the Clone Stamp Tool in Digital Basics. This e-mailable PDF includes my complete Digital Workflow, my time-saving Keyboard Shortcuts, and dozens and dozens of great Photoshop tips. And Digital Basics includes free updates for as long as I continue to press the shutter button. Advanced Quick Masking Techniques are detailed in Robert O’Toole’s amazing APTATS I (Advanced Photoshop Tips and Techniques Simplified I). Heck, that’s where I learned Quick Masking.

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Turkey Vulture head portrait. Indian Lake Estates, FL. This image was created with the Canon 800mm f/5.6L IS lens, the 1.4X III TC, and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering -1/3 stop (as framed): 1/500 sec. at f/11 set manually. I needed to underexpose to save the ivory white bill tip from over-exposure.

Central Sensor (by necessity) Rear Focus/AI Servo AF (active at the moment of exposure). Click here if you missed the Rear Focus Tutorial.

The lens was supported by the BAA-designed Big Lens Ultimate Beanbag (BLUBB) that was resting firmly on the mostly lowered window of my SUV. You can check out this bird’s running mate in my BPN post “The Young and The Ugly” here.

For a greater appreciation of the image, click on the photo. Then click on the enlarged version to close it.

Your Two Cents

Take a few seconds to leave a comment and let us know your thoughts on Turkey Vulture: ugly or beautiful. And why. And if you like, you can let us know whether you think that bill and plumage clean-up is right or wrong. And why on that too. 🙂

Do know that such clean-up is welcome in the BIRDS AS ART 1st International Bird Photography Competition.

Earn Free Contest Entries and Support both the Bulletins and the Blog by making all your B & H purchases here.

More and more folks are earning multiple contest entries with their B & H purchases. See here for details on that. Eleven great categories, 34 winning and honored images, and prize pools valued in excess of $20,000. Click here to visit the competition home page.

Shopper’s Guide

Below is a list of the gear used to create the images in today’s blog post. Thanks a stack to all who have used the Shopper’s Guide links to purchase their gear as a thank you for all the free information that we bring you on the Blog and in the Bulletins. Before you purchase anything be sure to check out the advice in our Shopper’s Guide.

Canon 800mm f/5.L IS lens. Right now this is my all time favorite super-telephoto lens.
Canon 1.4X III Teleconverter. The new 1.4X TC is designed to work best with the newer Series II super-telephoto lenses but it works just fine with the current lenses.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV professional digital camera body. My two Mark IVs are my workhorse digital camera bodies.

And from the BAA On-line Store:

BLUBB I designed this one myself. Beware of cheap knock-offs; they cost half as much as the BLUBB but …
LensCoats. I have a LensCoat on each of my big lenses to protect them from nicks and thus increase their re-sales value. All my big lens LensCoat stuff is in Hardwood Snow pattern.
Double Bubble Level. You will find one in my camera’s hot shoe whenever I am not using flash.
Be sure to check out our camera body User’s Guides here.
The Lens Align Mark II. I use the Lens Align Mark II pretty much religiously to micro-adjust all of my gear an average of once a month and always before a major trip. Enjoy our free comprehensive tutorial here.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV User’s Guide. Learn to use your Mark IV the way that I use mine. Also available for the 7D and the Mark III here.

20 comments to Ugly Lessons I

  • Michael Nelms

    mea culpa on the quote…interesting distinction. And I know you mention ethical issues occasionally in your books, but are there books/pamphlets (NAS?) devoted to these kinds of issues?

    on another topic, will you be commenting on the new EOS 1-DX announced today? Have you had a test run?

  • Ugly beauty (*).

    (*) For non-jazz lovers, it’s a piece by Thelonius Monk.

  • Jay

    My wife doesn’t seem to agree, but it is a beautiful bird.

  • Only 22 months into photography, and knowing so very little, I am intrigued by the recurring “there is no right or wrong” motif. Then made more intrigued by Artie’s comment about things “clearly out of bounds,” including playing a tape to attract a bird. I don’t think I would have ever thought of such a thing, but if I had, I don’t think I would have guessed I was breaking a clear boundary. I like the notion that some things are right, and some things are just plain wrong. Nobel Prize winning scientist, Stephen Weinberg, an agnostic, once said that while he did not agree with religious conservatives, at least they, like goo scientists, were to be given credit for thinking there was such a thing as right and wrong.

    With that said, given my ignorance, is there a book specifically on the ethics of bird photography, a book that talks about things like playing a tape to attract one?
    Finally, I do also believe there are a host of issues for which, indeed, there is no right or wrong, and, in this instance, I would agree that cleaned up bill versus “as it was” is a purely subjective matter. Personally, I like the non-cleaned up version.

    Michael, Please be careful when quoting me :). What I said was that “I have striven and succeeded for more than 25 years not to step over any clearly defined ethical boundaries such ……or playing a tape to attract an endangered species into photographic range.

    Though I rarely use recorded song I have no problem with the judicious use of playback to attract birds into range for photography. I believe that I mentioned playback as early as ABP and surely in ABP II. artie

  • Bill Richardson

    Artie, to find Puppet Warp, click on the Edit button in Photoshop CS5. The drop down menu contains Puppet Warp. The trick to using it is to add sufficient anchor points to keep the warp from affecting areas you want to leave untouched. You can show or hide the grid which is sometimes confusing. You will want to clone onto a blank layer so the warp only affects the patch and not the original image and remains editable for subsequent fine tuning. Anchor points can be added by clicking on the spot you want one. After adding anchor points, click to add a point where you want to drag it to warp the patch. Anchor points are activated by clicking on them. To delete an achor point, just click and drag it away.

    As to the ethics of cleaning up a photo, I am continually perplexed why this is an issue. To me it is simple. When taking a photo for journalistic purposes, you cannot ethically change anything except what may be necessary to show the photo as the subject was, such as exposure. For art, you can change anything you want.

    Thanks for the info Bill. I’ll give it a try but have a feeling that for me using warped Quick Masks will prove faster and simpler–no anchor points with those. artie

  • cheapo

    A very nice image, and the only part of this enhancement that I object to is the clean bill. A vulture with a clean bill? Hmm.

  • Richard Curtin

    I was recently looking through a local artist’s gallery and wondered why a painter can leave out imperfections and we supposedly shouldn’t. I would think that if the purpose is artistic rather than documentation it should be pretty equivalent.

    P.S. As we say in Alabama, somebody hit that bird with an UGLY stick!

  • Brian,

    might be it be reasonable to take the view (not putting words in Art’s mouth here, but my gut tells me he might feel the same way) that we’re not recording them for history – this isn’t documentary work – but simply because we’re trying to create an attractive image?

    If this has any resonance with Art (it’s surely true for me) then it isn’t at all incompatible with the principle of “portraying nature as in real life” to clean an image up like Art has with this handsome fella.

    Bear in mind too, that birds are in fact scrupulous in their cleaning behaviour, and that in fact the “polished” rendition of the image is probably closer to the bird’s own ideal – if we can allow ourselves a little bit of harmless anthropomorphism!


    As an aside, it wasn’t until I got the idea from Art that I started dealing with (for example) the reflected highlights on waders'(shorebirds’) bills – and I have to say that even without any other change to the image over and above “normal” post processing, the end result is always a better image, and as true to nature as was the original.

  • Nice clean up job Artie, I like that you included the animated gif so we could see the before and after, sometimes when you scroll down you forget what the original looked like 🙂

  • Brian E. Small

    I like that……… gave your bird a digital bath. 🙂 Very clever and I see the point.

    Sorry to be a pain, but I want to ask one more time………what determines for you, the desire to bathe or not bathe a particular bird? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen you post images of birds that aren’t totally cleaned up……… why one over another? What factors go into your thinking?

    To be 100% honest (as always :)), I have no clue…. And the funny thing is there are times that I choose to leave one small distraction just so an image in not perfect…. Not so with the vulture image here. artie

  • Brian E. Small


    My original question was not really based on ethics………..that’s another discussion. I really am/was interested to know why you may choose to clean up one particular image rather than another? Is it simply a matter of trying to make things “perfect” in your mind? Is it thinking that a cleaned up image is more saleable than one that isn’t cleaned up? I agree 100% that once you clean up or “fix” anything on an image you’re changing it so it makes no difference how much you do. I know you’re good about your captioning and are always straightforward with telling folks about your PS work. As for how images are obtained, or what techniques a given photographer may use everyone has a different level of what they feel comfortable with. Some people hate the idea of “baiting” at all(live animals, food, water, etc.), others have no problem with it. Same goes for the use of sound recordings, etc. Again, that’s a different discussion.

    As for your question, I don’t know that I can answer it with certainty. As you well know, I do exactly what you’re describing all the time in my photography. Is it portraying nature as in real life? I think it is in that birds land on open branches with clear backgrounds all the time in nature. I provide the branch and open background and they choose to land on them or are attracted to land on them. But again, I don’t know that there is a right or wrong answer. It’s how I CHOOSE to create the image. I provide the opportunity for the bird and he or she takes advantage of that opportunity. If I didn’t place the branch there, clearly the bird would have landed somewhere else. Again, I don’t think I can answer the question.

    I have photographed at set-ups at times. And I urged Alan Murphy to share his set-up techniques in “Guide to Songbird Set-up Photography.” The images produced at set-ups are beautiful, and they sell; there is no doubt about either of those statements. To my mind, images made at sets-up are not at all natural. You provide the branch. I give my birds a bath. Had my vulture just come from bathing it would have looked exactly as it did when I was done with him :). artie

  • Brian E. Small

    Artie, This question is not meant to be confrontational or critical in any way so please don’t take it as such. I’m really interested in your thinking and thought process when it comes to “clean up” on an image like this. Why do you find it necessary to do such extensive clean up on this type of image? I certainly agree that the after is better than the before……….but somehow it seems like you’re not really portraying nature as it is in real life………a little bit dirty. Birds get dirty and are imperfect and that’s how we most often find them in nature. If this image were mine, I probably would have done a very little clean up of the brightest spots but not nearly as much as what you’ve done. Again, I’m very interested in your thinking and for lack of a better term, where YOU “draw the line”. We all have our own ideas on that question and there is no right or wrong answer…………just curious about your thinking. 🙂

    Hi Brian, I do not find it necessary to do bill and plumage clean-up on every image. It is, however, often what I choose to do. And I often create two optimized versions. If someone wants a vulture with blood and guts on it, I have those in my file. Here the bird struck me as beautiful, so my first choice was to make the bird as beautiful as possible. From where I sit, once someone clones out one tiny bright spot they are in the same boat as I am. When the bird looked clean and beautiful enough for me, I was finished. I always let folks know what I do; on the blog, in BAA BUlletins, and in the image captions (the latter when I have done anything more than minor improvements). I do think that letting folks know exactly what we do is of great importance. I have striven and succeeded for more than 25 years not to step over any clearly defined ethical boundaries such as entering a closed area to get closer to a desirable subject or playing a tape to attract an endangered species into photographic range. And I do make it a point to always let folks know exactly what I have done. artie

    ps: this question is not meant to be confrontational or critical in any way so please don’t take it as such: Are birds attracted by a variety of means to land on hand-picked perches put in place by the photographer an set against perfect backgrounds “portraying nature as it is in real life?”

  • Ted Willcox

    Detail. Up Close and Personal. You can look right into the Vultures beautiful eye. Incredibly sharp.

  • Bill Richardson

    Artie, I noticed your comment about warping your patches. Have you tried the Puppet Warping Tool? I had ignored it as a gimmick until Matt Kozlowski demonstrated it on PhotoshopTV. I have started working with it and it is a really powerful tool for warping patches and/or image items. I don’t think you could Puppet Warp a vulture into a beauty though! ;-0

    How/where do you access it? artie

  • Bill Clausen

    This is in my view a beautiful image, even befor correction. The natural state of the beak is what it is like in nature!

  • Bill Richardson

    Great exposure, excellent editing BUT still ugly as sin!

  • Jim Cash

    Only God, its mother, and a TRUE BIRD LOVER would think this creature is beautiful!

    You can only be one of the above … oh, and a lover of “what is”, too …

    I’m with Ray Stevens, in the old song, “Everything Is Beautiful In Its Own Way”.

    And even more beautiful with a little help from its friends … that is: touch-up.

    Heck, almost everybody wants a little retouching on their portrait …

  • Harriet Gleaton

    Beautiful to my eyes. Nice job. Good detail. The Turkey Vulture has such an interesting head with much to look at. Turkey Vultures soar overhead where I live from spring through fall but only once have I had a chance for a closeup with a 400 mm lens on a DX camera when one perched on a post at the edge of my yard. Through the branches of intervening trees I was able to get a decent image of the head.

  • Beautiful portrait and clean-up too! We get lots of these birds up here during the summer months, but never find them this cooperative. Vultures are such a fascinating and valuable species. I’ve read that their dietary habits can also prevent disease outbreaks by their ability to ingest enough botulism that could wipe out a small village. Have you ever read Vulture – Nature’s Ghastly Gourmet by Wayne Grady?

  • Ugly but after cleanup much better.