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Don’t Trash that Imperfect Photo


This photo was taken June 16, 2017, in Calarca, Colombia.

It happens to all of us, well at least I’m sure it happens to me, all the time. I’m out in the field, trekking through whatever jungle, forest, or wetland that was scheduled for that day, I see a bird, raise the camera, focus, compose, and shoot off 3 or 4 bursts. The moment’s gone. It will never happen again. I hope I got the shot.

When everything turns out right, it looks like this:

Female Black-Throated Mango Hummingbird Jardin Botanico del Quindio Colombia

Then I get back to the office/hotel/tent and load it up into the computer. The composition was perfect, the exposure was perfect, the background blurred perfectly, lighting on the right spots. But something’s not right. Time to look closer. I zoom in and see the problem. The focus was off. Maybe the camera focused on a leaf or a twig in the foreground or background. Maybe on the tail of the bird, or the breast while leaving the eyes out of focus. In any event, the image is ruined and I’m never going to get it back.

I reach for the delete key, but pause. I’ll keep it, just for memories. Then I move on to the next series of shots and forget about this one.

Many times in my life I’ve been in front of a great photo, ripe for the taking, but the subject, usually a bird, is too far away. I can’t get closer. I’ve got a few seconds to take the shot or walk away. I take the shot, figuring it will make a good memory, and the bird ends up tiny on the frame. When I get it back into RAW processing, I have to crop heavily just to salvage any type of image.

The solution to both problems is the same. Luckily we have technology that will help us make art out of images that aren’t perfect. I’d like to get it perfect in camera, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

Recently when I was at “El Palacio del Barbas” in Filandia, Colombia, I captured a Scarlet-Fronted Parakeet at the top of the trees. Here’s the original image, straight out of the camera:

Scarlet-Fronted Parakeet El Palacio del Barbas Filandia Colombia

Obviously I can’t do anything with a shot like this. It needs to be heavily cropped to even see the subject. So, instead of trashing it, I cropped it:

Scarlet-Fronted Parakeet El Palacio del Barbas Filandia Colombia

Even with some adjustments, I still can’t use it. Cropping so tightly I lost most of the image data, and even though this one may have been focused properly, pixelation creates a shot that isn’t sharp. So let’s make lemonade out of lemons. My favorite app right now to make this conversion is Topaz Studio. There are others, but I use this one. I won’t make this a tutorial, but I’ll list the simple steps that I take. Your process may be different.

  1. Open the image in Topaz Studio from Lightroom,
  2. Increase the resolution between 200% and 500%, depending on your final product (print, web, large product), then
  3. Browse the presets — I tend to go into Impression — but it all depends on your starting image and the look you’re going for,
  4. Select a preset, adjust the opacity and maybe tweak a few sliders to get something that you like, and
  5. Then save it back into Lightroom and you’re done.

Scarlet-Fronted Parakeet El Palacio del Barbas Filandia Colombia

The finished product, while not being perfect, is pleasantly imperfect. Maybe some people won’t like it, and that’s fine. I think it’s great, and in the end our job as artists is to create what we want to create, and if people like it all the better. Something about this final image gives me the feeling of an explorer from decades ago, documenting the bird sightings in a new area.

This process works with underexposed, overexposed, noisy, pixelated, cropped, or otherwise totally ruined photos. You just never know when a photo can be salvaged, saved, and turned into art!