Little Owl and Photoshop Technique

23rd July 2013
Locally there are a pair of Little Owls that live in an almost dead, Ivy-clad Oak tree. Sometimes they will sit out and show well but usually they hide amongst the Ivy. This makes it very difficult to get an unobstructed image. The only solution is to take the best image you can and then attempt to remove some of the offending foliage. This is not easy and some images are unworkable and are made worse by over-processing and in these cases they are best left unprocessed.
However, this week I took a shot of one of the Owls that I felt I could do something with.

There are two obvious problems with this image: an Ivy leaf near the bird's head and a thin branch in the foreground running through the bird's tail and perch. Also there are numerous out of focus branches and leaves making a very cluttered background.

There are two options here - one is to use Photoshop to attempt to remove these obstructions, the other is to leave the image as a record shot.

I decided to try and remove the obstructions and improve the general image and background. The background of a photograph, I think, is at least as important as the subject and makes the overall image much more pleasing. A cluttered or badly contrasting background takes the viewer's eye away from the subject so I always try, where possible, to achieve a complimentary background. This is obviously something that needs great attention when you are taking the photograph because it can save you a lot of time and effort later on in post processing.

Some people may ' sniff ' at post processing but this is after all digital imaging and many a potentially good photograph has been unnecessarily consigned to the recycle bin.

The best way to remove unwanted clutter is to use the Quick Selection Tool in Photoshop which allows you to "ring fence" the subject whilst working outside on the obstructions.

1. I always attempt to remove the obstructions first before thinking about exposure, composition etc. If you can't remove the offenders there is no point in proceeding.

2. I Isolated the subject first using the Quick Selection Tool, it is best to 'tighten' the "ring fence" around the subject to avoid a 'halo' effect. Then using the Clone Stamp Tool (small brush) I attempted to follow the tail feathers over the branch that was obscuring part of the tail, taking great care to maintain feather lines and markings. In order to achieve any success here it is best to enlarge the image as much as 200% so a small area can be greatly magnified and then concentrated on.

3. I then reversed the Selection Tool and removed the branch obscuring the perch using the Clone Stamp Tool. I also removed the Ivy leaf and out of focus branches using the same procedure. Increase or decrease the brush size as appropriate. I left some green leaves that could be duplicated to form background colour also by using the Clone Stamp Tool.

4. I adjusted the background contrast and exposure without affecting the subject because I was working outside the area "ring fenced".

5. I reversed the Selection Tool back again so that I could work on the subject inside the "ring fence". This is particularly useful for altering the contrast and sharpening etc. of a subject without affecting the background, thereby avoiding the dreaded 'noise' which can make a background appear very 'grainy'.

6. Finally, I adjusted the image to size and saved under a different file name. It is always best to save your image after every procedure so that you can always return to the previous "platform" to start again if necessary.

This is the processed image, not perfect, but better than just a record shot.