Swooping Rays - Birds At The Batu Caves
1 year, 10 months ago 13

Swooping Rays – Birds At The Batu Caves

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Patience While Shooting

One thing I pride myself on in photography is patience. I believe that patience and planning are two immensely important ingredients to consistently creating good quality images. In the past I would jump around a location firing off hundreds of shots as the light changed, hoping to be lucky enough to come out with some decent images.

Over the years my workflow has changed to one of arriving very early, testing compositions (settling on one or two), and sitting for sometimes hours until the conditions become more favourable. My goal is to come out with one workable image per shoot. If I managed this every time I’d be a happy man.

digital-blendingShooting the Batu Caves required both patience and planning. After setting up my camera low to the ground, I sat down and chose a composition. There were three main elements I wanted in this photo; sun rays coming through; birds in flight; and for all of this to be framed by detailed rocky-walls and the temple to the left.

It became apparent, after deciding my initial composition, that capturing birds in flight would be a tricky process. I waited 20 minutes without success. I did notice, however, that there was an obvious flight path for the birds, which was 5 metres or so to the right of me, which led to a ledge on the wall behind.

I moved my gear directly below this flight path, wondering if my presence might discourage the birds from coming in this direction. I found a nice, heart-shaped composition (or at least it looks like a heart to me :D) created by the rocks and temple. I then sat, for an hour and a half waiting for my bird to arrive.

I took 250 shots, missing out constantly on capturing the elusive pigeon. Then, without warning, a bird swooped down and seemed to linger ever so slightly in front of my camera. With my finger on the trigger, I fired off continuous shots, and just when I was about to release the trigger, another bird swooped down, slightly further away.

I quickly scanned my camera preview and saw that I’d finally captured the scene that I was desperately hoping for. Sitting on a bird poop-soaked floor for 2 hours in total had finally paid off.

Here’s a behind the scenes shot of our little Batu Caves adventure.

batu caves

The Cool Bits – Technical Info

Processing Time: 30 minutes
Exposure Blending method: Rapid Blend If
No. of Exposures: 3
EV Range: 0 & +2
Aperture: f/2.8
ISO: 500
Focal Length: 17mm
Lens: Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8
Camera: Nikon D800
Plugins: Nik Color Efex
Luminosity Masks: Used to protect the shadows

Workflow Explanation – Swooping Rays; Birds At The Batu Caves

To learn my post-processing techniques, feel free to check out my courses: The Art of Digital Blending & The Art of Cityscape Photography

Most of this image is from a single frame, as you can see below. The second, further away bird, was added from an exposure 5 seconds after. I used one more exposure, 2 stops brighter to bring some extra details into the shadows. I did this easily using the Rapid Blending If technique taught in my cityscape course.

In terms of shooting, since this was a cloudy day, the sun was coming and going fairly regularly. This meant that the cave went from being bright to dull throughout the shoot. This created an ongoing challenge when capturing the birds.

After experimenting I’d decided that 1/500 second would be a quick enough shutter speed to capture the birds crisply. This wasn’t difficult to achieve when the sun was shining. But when it wasn’t, and the cave become duller, the shutter speed would drop to around 1/200 or less. So I had to keep changing my aperture and ISO to match the conditions.

When the birds finally swooped down, the sun was shinning, so the shutter speed was fast (1/800). The challenge, however, was that the main bird swooped down literally feet from my camera. Shooting at f/2.8 meant that the cave was in focus, but the bird was slightly out of focus due to its proximity to the camera. The smaller bird, to the right, is significantly sharper.

This is just me being cynical about my own images. In reality, the captured scene is certainly acceptable by my tastes. So overall I’m happy with it.

In terms of processing, it was a very straightforward procedure. I layered the two bird exposures (with the main bird on top), which were identical apart from the bird positions. I placed a black mask on the smaller bird layer, and just masked in the bird.

Once I’d blended all three exposures, I applied a Detail Enhancer layer from Nik Color Efex, to bring out the wonderful textures in the rocks. I added some warmth to the image with a very gentle warm Photo filter.

If you look at the point where to the bright sky meets the rock at the top, you can see that the edge is softened slightly. In the before image below, this softening is much stronger and there was a blue fringe in that area. To make the edge of the rock more solid, I first desaturated the blue fringe, and then used the Burn tool (on a new layer), to burn the midtones and shadows. This worked extremely well.

I enhanced the sun’s rays with the Dodge tool on a new layer. By choosing the highlights, and dragging down the direction of the rays (while holding Shift to paint a straight line), I was able to make certain parts of the sun’s rays more pronounced. I also dodged part of the rock to the right, and the temple, to brighten the highlights a touch.

On the before image, you will see that there is scaffolding to the bottom right. I was undecided about removing this, or adding a strong vignette to that corner to minimise its influence on the scene. Beboy, a friend of mine, said the scaffolding did indeed distract him and recommended I use a specific selection of the corner, and drag the scaffolding out of view using the Distort tool. I decided to take his advice and was glad I did.

A made a couple of contrast adjustments with Curves layers, but protected the shadows each time with a Darks luminosity masks.

Finally, I painted in a vignette around the image to concentrate the eye towards the centre of the image.

Before/After slider

batu-caves-before batu-caves-after

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  • Mika Latokartano

    A wonderful image and a great write-up of the creative process and post-processing techniques behind it. For an amateur photographer like myself, your articles are a wonderful learning opportunity and a great source of inspiration. Thank you – always looking forward to your newsletter!

    • http://throughstrangelenses.com/ Jimmy McIntyre

      Thank you kindly. I’m glad you find these articles useful. They’re also very enjoyable to write!

  • lorenz864

    Thank you Jimmy – another great photo and great post.

  • Michael M.

    Always good to have it affirmed that if you sit around long enough the magic will generally happen. Fantastic image, capturing a bird in flight with it’s wings in a pleasing configuration is no small thing, add in the changing light levels and it’s crazy tricky. Congrats.

    • http://throughstrangelenses.com/ Jimmy McIntyre

      Thank you Michael. The magic doesn’t always happen, but when it does it re-affirms my need to be prepared and arrive early for every shoot. You just never know what will come up!

  • Andrea

    Great shot!, I’ve been there and it’s always packed with tourists, quite a challenge having your camera so close to the ground, I see a head on the lower part that is gone or darkened with vignette on the after pic, Thanks for all the info!

    • http://throughstrangelenses.com/ Jimmy McIntyre

      Thanks Andrea. The head you see to the left is the head of a statue in the temple 😀

  • Åke

    Great picture! You are a true inspiration and learning resource. I tried the easy panel a minute ago and it works like a charm. :)

    • http://throughstrangelenses.com/ Jimmy McIntyre

      I’m delighted it’s working for you Ake. Thank you!

  • Micah Burke

    Is there a quick start for the Easy Panel?

    • http://throughstrangelenses.com/ Jimmy McIntyre

      Hey Micah, in PS you just need to click on the icon to the right to open the panel. Thanks!

      • klockheed

        I’ve got the panel, I was just wondering what to do with the bracketed photos. I saw a video where he used HDR pro on them and then ran the panel.

  • Wodja

    Great pic and post – love your tutorials. Hate to be that person (like Stannis from Game of Thrones if you follow the show) but – you have an “a” missing on Malaysia beneath the great photo.