Photo Stories

The Story Behind the Photo: Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Changing the Background)

The Photo Story

It was a bright, sunny Easter morning at the Beaver Marsh in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.  The first hour that I spent at the park, I saw the normal characters:  Northern Cardinals, a Turkey Vulture, Great Blue Herons, and Tree Swallows.  

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

On my way back to the car on the Towpath, everything changed.  Warblers were everywhere.  I saw and photographed a Palm Warbler, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, and a Pine Warbler. 

I also saw and photographed several of these Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers.  The problem was that even though the shots were sharp, the background was busy and distracting as the birds were in the bushes across the canal.

I solved the problem by changing the background of the picture.  I kept a couple of out of focus photos that I took when a bird I was photographing had moved out of the frame.  I used one of these “misses” for my background. 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Before

So, don’t throw those out of focus shots away.  Keep a separate folder with backgrounds that you can use for photos that have distracting backgrounds.  I’ve included both the before and finished photo in the blog for comparison.

In the processing steps below, I explain the steps I took to change the background and process the photo.

Details

Camera:  Canon 5d Mark iii
Lens: Canon 500mm f/4 with 1.4x teleconverter
Focal Length:  700mm
ISO:  500
Aperture:   f/6.3
Shutter Speed: 1/1000 second
Exposure Compensation: +1/3
Lighting:  Bright, Sunny Spring Morning

Post Processing

  • Cropped the photograph in Lightroom 5
  • Opened both the background photo and the bird photo in Photoshop CC
  • Sized the background photo to match the cropped bird by using “Image Size” in the Image menu in Photoshop 
  • Select All then Copy the background photo
  • Paste the background photo in the bird photo creating a separate layer for the background
  • Move the Layer with the bird to the top
  • Create a layer mask on the bird layer by clicking the layer mask icon
  • Select the brush tool with a black foreground color
  • Make sure the layer mask is selected and paint away the parts of the bird photo where you want the background to show through
  • Flatten the Image (if you desire), save the image and return to Lightroom
  • Lightened the bird and darkened the background using the Darken/Lighten Center Filter in Color Efex Pro 4
  • Selectively sharpened the image using the Unsharp filter and a layer mask in Photoshop CC

Written by Martin Belan

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Try Cuyahoga Valley National Park for Photographing the Spring Bird Migration
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