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Colombia – 2020 Bird Highlights #2

The second highlight of the mostly dismal 2020 birding year is one that would be at the top of the list for any year: 21 days of epic birding in the natural paradise that is Colombia.

I went on at great length about the trip earlier this year, and you can read about it here:

MITÚ – BIRDING COLOMBIA’S AMAZON BASIN – PART 1

MITÚ – BIRDING COLOMBIA’S AMAZON BASIN – PART 2

BIRDING COLOMBIA’S LLANOS – THE APPROACH MARCH

BIRDING COLOMBIA’S LLANOS – HATO LA AURORA

So rather than repeat myself, I am just going to pick out a few moments that made this a memorable trip.

Welcome to the jungle

Rain forest - Colombia highlights
Rain forest, Colombia.

As a boy I devoured all kinds of books on the natural world. Inter alia I think I read every one of Gerald Durrell’s accounts of his adventures as an animal collector, and wore out the Life Nature Library books that our Uncle Carl gave us. One of the places that loomed large in my imagination was the Amazon jungle. It was vast, largely unexplored, and home to iconic beasts like the Jaguar, Anaconda and Harpy Eagle. I don’t recall where I ran across it, but I was fascinated by a photo of nineteen men holding up a 32 foot Anaconda as big around as a telephone pole.

Strangely, I never formed a plan to visit this region until I was struck by the birding addiction. But there we were last January, flying into Mitú, Colombia to gorge (metaphorically speaking) on antbirds, toucans, parakeets and other exotica.

Of course we are all grown up now and call it the Amazon rain forest, but it was a memorable experience all the same – a week spent wandering through one of the largest bits of unspoiled habitat in the world. We explored the tall, dense canopy forests of the várzea – areas that are seasonally flooded and rich with biodiversity. We tramped among the scrubby bushes of the dry white sand forest that has its own specialist birds and creatures. We gazed upon the broad and sluggish Vaupes river, a tributary of the mighty Amazon. We clambered up rock outcrops and visited the villages of our First Nations guides.

And though we had to wait until later in the trip to see our Anaconda, we did have the extremely cool and slightly creepy experience of following an army ant swarm, peering through the undergrowth at the antbirds that follow the swarm, while trying not to be devoured ourselves by the remarkably fast-moving and aggressive ants.

Terra firme - Colombia highlights
White sand forest, Colombia.

Oh, and there were some birds as well. 😊

Though it was hot and muggy throughout, and though we were feasted on by a wide range of the jungle’s finest biting insects, it was an epic experience. One that I hope to repeat somewhere down the line.

Idleness

Birding trips to foreign lands tend to be action-packed events. The aim is to see as many species as one can in the limited time available, so the daily agenda typically runs from an hour before sunrise until well after sunset with limited breaks. The exceptions are the travel days, involving many butt-numbing hours in the saddle as we transition to a different habitat.

On this year’s trip, though, we took a couple of opportunities to just loaf around and let the birds come to us.

Loitering with intent
Daniel, Miguel and Ken.

On one evening it was a planned event: we needed to be on a certain rock outcrop before dark if we were to see a Blackish Nightjar. So having arrived in a timely fashion there was nothing to do but sit around peacefully gazing over the landscape whilst being serenaded by White-throated Toucans. It was a very pleasant pause, and moments after the sun went down a nightjar plopped out of the bushes and did its pre-flight checklist about ten feet way from us. We then wandered back through the sleeping village of Mitusueño with just moonlight to guide our steps.

Blackish Nightjar at ISO 16000.
Moments before Nightjar Hour.
Just having a wee rest, guvnor!
Loafing - Colombia highlights
Me, Miguel, Ken and Florencio.

The afternoon we chased the Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock was hot and muggy even by the standards of Amazonia, and after a long approach march we had to scramble up an escarpment and down a few long gullies searching for the beast. On the way back we came to the flat top of the escarpment and by mutual unspoken consent decided to have a rest. A very pleasant 45 minutes or so ensued, with the mountains of Brazil for a backdrop and Paradise Tanagers, Lemon-throated Barbets, Red-fan Parrots, Scarlet Macaws and other exotica going about their business.

Magpie Tanager.
Yet more goofing off
Daniel.

The final big loafing opportunity came at the end of our last day on the great plains of Colombia. By this part of the trip accumulated fatigue was becoming an issue, and the long, dusty days bombing around the dry plains were taking their toll. We stopped by a long pond, ostensibly to wait and see if the local jaguar showed up, but really we wanted to stop and just enjoy some peaceful birding. And so we watched Nacunda Nighthawks, Scarlet Ibises, Yellow-billed Terns, Southern Lapwings and all the other standard Llanos birds until the sun went down and it was time to return to the ranch.

The hummingbird observatory

Sword-billed Hummingbird.

At the end of my very first visit to Colombia, a two-day birding excursion tacked onto the end of a rather dull conference, we retreated from the highlands cold and wet, seeking coffee and a respite from the wind. We ended up at Finca La Muchareja and its Observatorio de Colibríes (hummingbird observatory). A large and imposing country house behind a high wall is the home of a lady who is fairly mad about hummingbirds. Her garden is full of hummingbird feeders and they are well-attended by hordes of rather good birds. At some point she realized that she could make a bit of extra income by inviting birders and photographers into her private sanctuary.

So on our last morning in Colombia we again paid Victoria a visit. Over a cup of excellent coffee we goggled at a fine array of birds including Black and Green-tailed Trainbearers, the bizarre Sword-billed Hummingbird, the Glowing Puffleg and the star performer – the scarce Blue-throated Starfrontlet.

Blue-throated Starfrontlet - Colombia highlights.
Blue-throated Starfrontlet.

There was one other visitor that day and he looked familiar so I struck up a conversation. He was indeed Frank Gardner, a former Green Jacket and someone who I admired for his outstanding work as a long-time war correspondent for the BBC. He is also a keen birder and the President of the British Trust for Ornithology. So of course, as I did several years ago, when his duties took him to Colombia he took some time off to see the local birds.

Colombia 2020

So when I looked back at the past year to think about the good moments among the bad, these are the kinds of thing I remember. Not just great birds, but great experiences whilst in pursuit of birds.

The Raw and the Cooked – Choosing an Image File Format – Wildlife Photography Tips #4

This article was also published in The Blue Bill, the Quarterly Journal of the Kingston Field Naturalists, Volume 67, No 2, June 2020.

JPEG vs Raw
Rufous-capped Antthrush at ISO 8000

I started this article intending to talk about post- processing – the business of editing your wildlife images. But I rapidly realized that it is too big a subject to deal with at once, so I’m going to break it into manageable chunks.

How the Camera Creates an Image

The first stage of the journey requires us to look at what happens when you snap the shutter. In the days of film cameras it was relatively straightforward – light passed through the lens and onto a film of celluloid or plastic. Light-sensitive chemicals on the film reacted to the exposure, producing a negative or a slide.

Digital cameras use a different process to capture an image. As photographers we need to have a basic understanding of how this works so we can understand how the different image file formats work.

In very simple terms, in a digital camera the light is focused on a sensor, which is a grid made up of very small photosites. Each photosite contains a diode that converts light into digital information. In simplistic terms the diode counts the number of photons that fall onto it while the shutter is open, and the circuitry in the photosite coverts that information into a numerical value.

In order to provide a digital image that matches the level of detail and colour that the eye can see, a camera sensor needs to contain millions of these photosites. This density of information allows a digital image to be at least as good as an image from a film camera. But it also explains why digital image files tend to be very large. Each of those millions of photosites generates a numerical value expressed as a byte of between 12 and 24 bits. To give you an idea of how that adds up, with my current camera set to the highest resolution the information stored by those photosites totals 62 million bytes of data for a single image.

Image Formats

JPEG vs Raw

The camera’s onboard processors convert those digital values into an image file. There are two main formats for an image file – JPEG and Raw. These formats take very different approaches to the challenge of storing all this data. In simple terms, JPEG transforms data within the camera to produce a finished image, while Raw stores all the information and the user then processes the information at a workstation. Each approach has its the pros and cons. I want to briefly illustrate the difference so you can make an informed choice about which format to use.

JPEG

JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) has emerged as the standard format for most photography tasks. For virtually all digital cameras JPEG is the default format, so if you have not been experimenting with the settings menu you are almost certainly shooting JPEG.

The JPEG format was developed to allow onboard compression of digital images. If you recall that figure of 62 million bytes you will see why for many applications there is a need to compress digital images.

Large files are problematic for several reasons:

  • They demand large storage capacity on your camera’s memory card
  • They take more time to write to the memory card, which can limit the number of images you can take in quick succession
  • They take up a lot of room on the storage drives of your PC, laptop, or mobile device
  • They require a lot of bandwidth to transmit, so websites will be slow to load and sharing is tedious

To avoid these problems the JPEG format compresses the raw information gathered by your camera sensor and then transforms it into a finished image. This image is stored on your camera’s memory card.

JPEG Advantages

For many uses JPEG format is ideal:

  • JPEG images are small enough to be easily viewable and shareable.*
  • Virtually all devices and software are compatible with JPEG files.
  • The simple image editing software available on your cell phone, tablet or computer is designed to use JPEG images.
  • JPEG is supported by HTML, the language used in creating web pages.

*Note: JPEG files can be created using different compression levels. Lower compression levels lead to better quality but also larger file size. JPEG Fine files are the least compressed (4:1) but therefore the largest. At about 10MB each in the Large size they are not easily shareable.

JPEG Disadvantages

However, there are limitations to JPEG that you should consider. Most of these limitations result from the way the JPEG algorithm compresses the image file size.

The process by which JPEG compresses a file is highly technical bordering on incomprehensible, but in the simplest possible terms it reduces the size of the file by calculating average values for 8×8 blocks of photosites (thus each block replaces 64 sets of information with one). It then reduces the level of information about colour. Based on the understanding that humans have difficulty discerning small variations of colour, JPEG looks for areas that have similar hues and replaces these small variations with a single average colour.

This process can result in a much smaller image file, but the key thing to remember about the JPEG conversion process is that once the image is created any information that the conversion algorithm considered unnecessary is lost and unrecoverable.

This is why JPEG is classified as a “lossy” format. As noted, a certain amount of information is discarded when the image is originally created. Moreover, each time you recompress the image, by making a change and then re-saving it, some additional information is irrecoverably lost. And if you crop an image – for example to provide a close-up view – the parts of the image that you cropped out are lost forever.

A further implication of JPEG is that, because it produces a final image, the camera settings in use when the image was taken are “baked in”. If you realize afterwards that you had the wrong white balance or picture control settings for example it may not be possible to correct the image.

Raw

Raw is a generic term for a file that saves all of the information from an image, with only minimal processing. This information needs to be converted and edited at a workstation before an image is produced.

Raw format is not available on all cameras. All modern digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) and mirrorless cameras can shoot Raw, but only a minority of bridge cameras have the capability and point-and-shoot cameras generally do not.

Raw Disadvantages

There are several disadvantages to shooting in Raw:

  • Raw files are big. With the camera set-up I currently use, each image file is about 29MB. So a 64GB card will hold about 1,300 Raw files instead of 13,000 JPEGs.
  • You need to process your Raw files at home in order to generate finished images. This is time-consuming compared to the instant image generated by JPEG.
  • To process the files you need specialized image editing software (though note that you can download free editing software from your camera manufacturer – all the major camera brands provide this).
  • Each camera manufacturer has its own a proprietary standard, so a for example a CRW file from a Canon camera is not compatible with a NEF file a Nikon generates.
  • For Raw files to be printed, shared on a mobile device or posted on the internet you need to create and export a JPEG image.

So why do most professional wildlife photographers shoot in Raw?

Raw Advantages

Lossless. Raw files are lossless. All the information your camera gathered is available to you. Nothing is averaged out or approximated. As an example, an 8-bit JPEG image is limited to about 16.8 million colours, whereas a 12-bit Raw image can show up to 68.7 billion. What this means in the real world is that you will get more even transition between colours, without the possibility of the pixilation that sometime happens with JPEG (remember that JPEG averages out colours into larger blocks).

Non-destructive. The adjustments you make in post-processing do not change the original file. All changes are saved in a separate hidden file called a sidecar. So regardless of how much you crop and adjust an image, you always have the original file available. With JPEG every significant change degrades the image, and things that are cropped out cannot be recovered.

Settings are not baked in. With Raw you have complete ability to adjust most of the camera settings during post-processing, including exposure, white balance, sharpening, colour gamut, picture control, and contrast.

Greater dynamic range. Raw files are typically created in 12 or 14-bit format, compared to 8-bit for JPEG. This may not seem like a big numerical difference, but remember we are looking at a file made up of millions of bytes. The math is somewhat beyond my ken, but the impact is that in each stop of a camera’s dynamic range there is far more information space available in a Raw file. At the bottom end of the dynamic range – areas of deep shadow in a photograph – there are 65 times as many gradations in a Raw file as in a JPEG.

This has important implications for wildlife photographers. We often find ourselves trying to capture images in areas where there is both bright light and deep shadow. Using JPEG, those shadows will tend to be featureless dark blobs, whereas with Raw we will be able to see the same details that our eyes would see.

Moreover, the greater ability of Raw to capture detail in shadow allows us to apply shadow reduction – a very useful capability that I will talk about in future articles on post-processing.

Exposure Correction

But perhaps the most striking advantage comes when we shoot images at incorrect exposures. The perfect photographer would never do this, but for the rest of us there will be numerous situations were we have the camera set up for bright daylight only to have a momentary glimpse of a bird – and typically it’s a good one – peeping out of a dark corner.

The higher dynamic range of the Raw format means we can correct a badly underexposed shot in post-processing and end up with a good image.

Consider this example. I deliberately underexposed this shot of an American Goldfinch in my garden.  I did this as an experiment, so please ignore the uninteresting composition. The camera took two simultaneous images – one in Raw and one in JPEG Fine.

Original image

The images were very dark – I had to increase exposure by about four stops. But the results are clear. The quality of the Raw image is pretty good: there is full feather detail and the colours look right . The JPEG image on the other hand is dreadful. The colour is over-saturated, green blobs have appeared in the breast and belly plumage, and the whole bird looks flat and dull.

Recommendations

If you have read this far, you have probably realized that I am a fan of the Raw format. I believe that in wildlife photography the aim is should be to produce an image that replicates as closely as possible how the creature (bird/animal/plant/butterfly/reptile) looked in the wild. I have found that using Raw format and carefully post-processing the image gives me the best chance of doing that. And there is an element of craftsmanship involved that I find appealing – I prefer to make my own choices rather than having the camera make decisions on my behalf. I am also not worried about file size given that hard drive storage capacity has become increasingly inexpensive.

So is there an argument for using JPEG? The fact remains that some very good images have been created using JPEG. You may well decide that you prefer the simplicity and efficiency of JPEG. If so, I would recommend that you use the lowest compression setting: JPEG Fine. This setting creates a 4:1 compression, so the files are still fairly large, but at 4:1 you will not see any of the artifacts or errors that can creep in at higher compression ratios.

Other topics in this series

Wildlife Photography Tips #1 – Exposure Compensation

Wildlife Photography Tips #2 – Shutter Speed

Wildlife Photography Tips #3 – Back-Button Focus