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  • Variegated Fairy-wren (Image ID 31798)

    Variegated Fairy-wren.   Photographer: Bill Harding

  • Rainbow Lorikeet (Image ID 20338)

    Rainbow Lorikeet.   Photographer: Richard Smart

  • Little Black Cormorant,Australian Pelican (Image ID 24270)

    Little Black Cormorant,Australian Pelican.   Photographer: Sandy Castle

  • Ruddy Turnstone (Image ID 39349)

    Ruddy Turnstone.   Photographer: Harry Charalambous

  • Sanderling (Image ID 32670)

    Sanderling.   Photographer: Jane Putland

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This year the President has asked the Advanced Level Mystery Reviewers to pay a little more attention to technical issues without losing sight of the visual, aesthetic, creative, intellectual and emotional appeal of competition images.

Ideally, at the Advanced Level, images would be free of basic technical problems allowing the Mystery Reviewers to focus on the intangible qualities mentioned above.  However, because members have considerable freedom to self-select their competition level and most entries are accepted with minimal quality checking, there are bound to be some with technical faults.  In general, entries with basic technical problems will not make this Reviewer’s short list, and it will not be possible to provide an individual critique, but I will try to highlight certain classes of problem and offer some remedial advice.

Most images have the main subject sharply in focus, but an exception is Eastern Reef Egret (Image ID 29677), where the plane of best focus is in front of the bird.  A related matter is the depth of field that can be used to focus the viewer’s attention on a part of the bird, usually the face, or on a particular bird in a group.  When photographing birds in a group, as a general rule, the bird or birds in the foreground should be in sharp focus.  In this regard the striking image of the flock of feeding Red-necked Stint (Image ID 29722) is diminished in its visual impact by having foreground birds out of focus.

On the Beach presented some challenges because of the wide range of lighting conditions faced by competitors.  Most photographers who chose to shoot in direct sunlight handled the harsh light and hard shadows reasonably well.  A low shooting angle was helpful in minimizing the impact of the bird’s shadow and in one case, Welcome Swallow (Image ID 29586), the photographer made a virtue of the long shadow of the bird as a key element in the composition.  Those who submitted images captured in overcast conditions had mixed results; some images are excellent but there are a surprising number with unacceptable lighting adjustment.  In particular, some images are noticeably under-exposed, for example Kelp Gull (Image ID 29590).  This may simply be a monitor calibration issue with the brightness set too high on the photographer’s monitor, so that the image viewed on a properly calibrated monitor will look too dark.  However, this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs because the RGB numbers on the white parts of the bird are independent of the monitor brightness and it is the RGB numbers that are crucial in setting the white point for an image, irrespective of how it looks to the eye.  In general, the lighting and colour adjustment required for the bird and the background will be different necessitating a selection of all or part of the bird.  This approach would have been beneficial for Masked Lapwing (Image ID 29663) where the two birds are crying out to be brightened to make them stand out in what is an under-exposed image.

As well as lighting problems there are some basic colour adjustment issues.  For example Crested Tern (Image ID 29592) and Silver Gull (Image ID 29594) have a noticeable magenta colour cast, and Silver Gull (Image ID 29407) has a blue colour cast.  In each case the colour cast should have been removed during white balance adjustment using the RGB numbers of a neutral white part of the bird for reference.

Sharpening and noise reduction are related to the extent that increasing the sharpening will increase the luminance noise and stronger noise reduction will reduce the sharpness of fine detail.  An example of over-sharpening is the gorgeous little Double-banded Plover (Image ID 29676); too much sharpening has caused the feather texture to appear ‘crunchy’ and un-natural.  Another kind of sharpening problem can be observed in Little Tern (Image ID 29459) where there is a sharpening halo around the bill and other hard edges.  This is the result of the application of sharpening to the entire image and could have been avoided by selecting the bird and applying sharpening to the bird only.  The image also shows signs of heat haze which caused the image to be ‘soft’ and the photographer tried to recover the feather detail using global sharpening.  Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to recover the feather detail in this situation.  Luminance noise has badly impacted the Ruddy Turnstone (Image ID 29535), probably because the photographer needed to use a high ISO in poor light.  Not only is there lots of noise, the colour dynamic range is noticeably reduced causing the colours to look washed out.  This is another example where the bird needs to be selected and separate adjustments made to the bird and background. In this case strong noise reduction needs to be applied to the background and the bird needs a combination of noise reduction and sharpening.  In addition, some vibrancy can be recovered by increasing the brightness and saturation of the bird (about 10 units in Photoshop).

Assuming there are no basic technical problems with an image, it will be the intangible qualities mentioned at the beginning of this review that make the difference.  These are qualities that in most cases cannot be measured and are a matter of personal taste and judgement.  One of the exceptions is the ‘Rule of Thirds’, a quantitative guide that has been found to work well in many cases as a starting point for the placement of the bird in the frame; a good example of this is Little Pied Cormorant (Image ID 29651).  Perhaps the most common problem with composition is the temptation to make the bird too big in the frame.  This arises because photographers want to show as much detail as they can, but in doing so they usually trade off visual impact and the opportunity to show the bird in its environment.  Making the bird smaller rather than larger in the frame comes with confidence and maturity as a photographer.  Images where the bird feels too big in the frame include Eastern Reef Egret (Image ID 29678), Great Cormorant (Image ID 29467), Gentoo Penguin (Image ID 29553), Little Tern (Image ID 29459), and Red-Capped Plover (Image ID 29460).

Winner: Red-necked Stint, by Wilson Lennard (Image ID 29599)

Despite the shortcomings mentioned so far, there are some fine pictures in this competition.  With a short list of 15 images, it was a difficult task selecting a few for special commendation.  The one that impressed the most, and the winner of the competition, is this Red-necked Stint.

Red-necked Stint

For a bird portrait to win the competition it needs to meet a higher standard of technical perfection than an action shot, and it must have compelling intangible qualities.  In this case the image quality is excellent so my decision hinged on how well the photographer managed to capture an image having special, appealing qualities.  At a basic level, the low point of view has enabled the photographer to effectively isolate the bird from the foreground and background and focus the viewer’s attention on the bird.  The beautiful sky light reflected off the water provides a nice tonal contrast with the bird and brings a calm feeling to the scene.  The bird and line of focus is perfectly positioned in the frame and is yet another good example of the use of the Rule of Thirds.  The fact that the bird is in breeding plumage adds an intellectual dimension that reminds the viewer of the extraordinary annual migration of these tiny birds.  The bird is intently going about its business, leaving up for debate whether it is better that it should be oblivious to the photographer and focused on feeding, or whether a slight head turn toward the camera would strengthen the emotional connection with the viewer.  Overall a splendid picture and a worthy winner.

Highly Commended: Silver Gull, by Con Boekel (Image ID 29658)

Technically faultless, the image tells a familiar story, the action captured with impeccable timing in front of an attentive audience.  One of the features of this image is the shadows which we normally try to avoid by using a low shooting angle.  In this case the shadows add to the narrative, especially the menacing shadows of the two contestants.  Bringing the action forward in the frame has worked well, unlike in Hooded Plover (Image ID 29499) where the birds are far back in the frame with too much sand in the foreground.  My only suggestion for improving the Silver Gull’s image is to select the background and exaggerate the slight tonal gradient in the background using a mild blur and gradient filter. This would have the effect of ‘softening’ the distracting foot-prints in the sand.

Silver Gull

Commended: Sanderling, by Gary Dunnett (Image ID 29284)

High key images like this Sanderling are notoriously difficult to pull off, but the photographer has managed the situation very well and deserves to be commended.  Most high key images have a plain white background, usually the result of exposing for the bird against a bright sky.  In this case the photographer has deliberately set out to capture subtle high key tones and textures in the environment while under-exposing the birds apart from their rim-light.  The mercurial wet sand and the out of focus silver spangles along the water’s edge are superb.  The birds and their reflections are well-positioned in the composition; my only regret is that the birds are not brighter.  They would benefit from a selection, taking care not to include the rim-highlights, and raising their brightness 30–40 units in Photoshop.


Commended: Pied Stilt, by Wilson Lennard (Image ID 29596)

This image has no technical faults that might spoil the serene scene, and was captured in perfect light, from a well-chosen point of view.  The composition has been crafted around a loose interpretation of the Rule of Thirds while perhaps controversially, cutting off part of the reflection.  The placement of the bird could be improved by cropping from the left side to bring the bird closer to the one-third position.  The line of focus on the water has been placed one-third up from the bottom of the frame, drawing the viewer’s eye to the plane of best focus containing the bird and separating the foreground from the sublime background.  The overall effect is of peace and tranquillity, the kind of picture one could easily live with hanging in many contemporary spaces.

Pied Stilt

Commended: Welcome Swallow, by Paul Thorogood (Image ID 29586)

This image receives a commendation because it was an extremely difficult image to capture and required a certain amount of luck, but it also required the photographer to see the opportunity and capture the moment.  From a technical point of view, the image is not perfect but still worthy of recognition because the technical shortcomings are relatively minor.  The brightness of the bird, especially the dark plumage around the face needs a lift.  To do this the bird can be selected and a shadows adjustment or levels adjustment applied.  Also, while the bird is selected, a few units of saturation could be applied.  There appears to be a hint of the eye which should be recovered.  The bird would also benefit from a combination of sharpening and noise reduction using sophisticated software like Neat Image.  The panorama crop retaining the long shadow of the bird works very well.  The shadow provides a strong leading line to focus the viewer’s attention on the action resulting in great visual impact.

Welcome Swallow

Commended: King Penguin & Royal Penguin, by Mark Lethlean (Image ID 29552)

I liked the penguin images, especially the lively scene captured in Adele Penguin (Image ID 29551) and this busy ‘street scene’.  Busy street scenes are challenging because it is often difficult to isolate the main subject and it is hard to crop without cutting off parts of the supporting cast.  Cropping parts of birds in this image could not be helped but the image of the central character, the Royal Penguin, is so strong that one hardly notices what is happening on the periphery.  The image might be improved by selecting the Royal Penguin, raising the brightness a little and applying a few points of saturation.  A well-crafted image deserving a commendation.

King Penguin & Royal Penguin


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