Bird portrait retouching – from good to great

We see loads of tutorials online teaching aspiring photographers how to retouch portraits of people, but it’s not very common to see one that deals with our avian friends. Nevertheless, retouching in bird photography is every bit as important (maybe more so) than retouching people. Since most birds haven’t had the chance to apply makeup before the shoot, we’re going to have to give them a little bit of help in post production to have them looking their best!

So, join me as we apply a little bit of makeup, mascara, and maybe even (gasp) a little plastic surgery as we retouch our bird portrait – and take it from good to great.

We’ll start by looking at this American Egret, who was nice enough to mug for my camera on a recent visit to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.


All in all, a “nice” picture – good, but not great. What do we do with it? This is a nice, sharp image, properly focused and exposed, nice color – but it doesn’t reach out and grab me. Well, let’s change that.

We’ll start with a radical crop. I don’t particularly care for the leafy debris on the tip of his beak… we could clone it out, but cropping may be easier. Plus, his image has a nice sharp eye (very important in any photography) and we want to take advantage. So, let’s crop really tight and get right in his face!

Now we’re talking. I like the composition, a little unorthodox but with much more impact than the original. However, now we start to see the blemishes that weren’t as noticeable in the first shot.The image above is reduced for the blog, but if we zoom in to look at his face and head we see quite a bit that could use a good makeover.

We can see that his feathers are looking a little rough this morning, perhaps it was a late night last night down by the river. He’s got a few blemishes on his beak that are distracting as well; we can apply the clone stamp tool to clean this up quickly.

Start a new layer above the original (always do your retouching on a separate layer) and select the Clone Stamp Tool. Set the tool’s opacity to 50% and make sure “Sample” is set to “All Layers.” Alt-click in a clean area and paint away the blemishes in the feathers and beak. Use a relatively small brush and you should be able to leave no visible trace of your retouching.


Now, how about that eye? Nice and clear, but not dramatic enough. Let’s add some “mascara” and a catch light to make it pop:

Start with the Brush Tool, set to 50% opacity. Set your color to black by pressing “D” then “X” and, using a soft round brush setting, brush in the “eyeliner” around the bird’s eye. You want to cover all the rough and uneven areas, even it out and create as much drama as possible – just as with eyeliner on people:


Looks good. Now, using the same black brush, go over the pupil of the eye to add a little density an remove any variation in the color. We pretty much want solid black. Then, switch to white color (again by pressing “X”), and, with the opacity still at 50%, brush in a small curved catch light. Be careful not to overdo this; a little bit goes a long way.


Now, let’s step back and take a look at the before and after.



I think you’ll agree, a little make-up and mascara can go a long way towards taking your bird photograph from good to great!

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