African Rails & Post Processing

This issue marks a special day for the Flack family. We have finally made the move from Johannesburg to the Natal Midlands, and as you read this we will be unpacking boxes in our new home.

For those that aren’t familiar with this part of South Africa, it is as scenic and beautiful as it is abundant with birds; holding some incredibly sort after species including South Africa’s three Crane species; Blue, Wattled and Grey Crowned. It is also a mere 2 hours from Giant’s Castle, which was the focus of Issue 5 – The Land of the Airborne Giants. So, be prepared for some new and exciting photographs and newsletters from the Midlands!

This newsletter, however, focuses on the connection between rallids (i.e. crakes and rails) and crabs and a very memorable morning at one of my favourite wetlands, as well as the often-contentious topic of post processing; how much post processing should you do and when should you disclose what you have done?

Crab for Breakfast Anyone?

Misty winter conditions, frost laden paths, a maze of wetland habitat and an array of skulking bird species is my idea of the perfect morning out! Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel (South Africa) has been my local wetland for the last ten years, and, despite our move to the Midlands, will always remain one of my favourite bird photography destinations. It holds a wide variety of bird species and more importantly, at least for me, is one of the best places in Southern Africa to find and photograph our most notorious skulkers; the rallid family and more specifically crakes and rails.

The newsletter’s featured image; an African Rail walks purposefully towards a recently discovered crab shell at Marievale Bird Sanctuary in south east Gauteng, South Africa. Following on from Issue 4, which dealt with the guidelines of composition, this image uses leading lines, a low f-stop, the rule of thirds and the left to right rule to create interest and hopefully a pleasing and arty composition.

I have a passion for crakes and rails that my wife; Eileen, says is unique. I am not completely sure whether she means this as a compliment, but I take it as much needed encouragement to continue standing out from the crowd. I think it is the countless early mornings and the state of my clothing on my return that fuels her candid summation of my excitement for these secretive, little birds. I think her description of me could get much more colourful, however, should she get to see me leopard crawling through the mud and staring for hours into motionless reeds, but some things should just stay in Marievale!

Fortunately, Eileen is an incredible supporter of my passion/obsession, and is in fact the reason I got into photography in the first place. It was her Canon camera that piqued my interest, and it was her brilliant eye for landscape photography that introduced me to the creative pursuit some eleven years ago. She is also the designer of my website;, and these beautiful newsletters, and for that I will be forever grateful!

When I first tried to photograph these easily overlooked birds, I was next to hopeless. They are so quick and elusive that all I got was bum shots or reeds with tiny appendages sticking out behind them. And the advice I got wasn’t great either: I still remember being told that the best way to photograph a crake or rail was to run after it, flush it and then take flight shots. Let’s just say that if I continued down that track, I may have regretted taking up photography altogether!

Fortunately, as time has progressed, I have started to get a little bit better at observing and photographing these ghosts of thick, wetland habitat. I have also adopted a few techniques that tend to give me a window into these secretive birds’ world and every now and then a half decent image to boot.

A Black Crake walks down the old “bus stop hide” road towards me at Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Nigel, South Africa. I was hiding under the front of my vehicle doing my very best impression of a gravel road.
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/320s | f3.5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias -0.3 | no Flash

My first rule of rallids, is to look out for crabs! Preferably dead discarded ones! For some reason crab shells are to rallids what biltong is too bull terriers. I first noticed this behaviour with Black Crakes and Common Moorhens. I was watching a Black Crake preening itself on the edge of a wetland when it walked onto the road in front of me and spotted a crab shell. Not knowing what to expect I slowly got out of my car and followed rule two of rallids; get as low as possible and position yourself in an open area between two wetlands (or areas of cover for the rallids to hide in). I usually carry a blanket or mat in the car for this exact purpose.

The same Black Crake feeding on his lucky crab find. I have used the rule of thirds, the natural framing of the reeds and grasses, as well as an unconventional positioning of the subject to draw attention to this unmistakable crake.

The crake at first scuttled off, as they do, but within seconds was back examining the crab shell. He started feeding on it, when a Common Moorhen gate-crashed his breakfast, followed by an African Rail. The African Rail blurred my camera lens before I realised it was standing no more than a couple of feet in front of me. The crake left and returned at least three times during the course of the morning, allowing me to get my best photographs of this species to date.

The African Rail that blurred my camera lens and photo-bombed my image of a Common Moorhen. They are so brilliantly decorated!

Following this informative experience, I now always keep an eye open for discarded crab shells! This leads me to rule three of rallids; get there just after sunrise, as the next two hours are your best chance to find these secretive birds. I also suggest visiting the area a few days earlier; to gauge the conditions and find out where the crakes and rails are the most active. This can save a lot of time on the day and ensure you arrive at the right spot as the sun breaks the horizon.

This is one of my all-time favourite crake shots! I put into practice all my experience with rallids to achieve this image of a Spotted Crake crossing between two wetlands at Marievale Bird Sanctuary. I made two minor edits to the image; by removing a tiny black dot to the left of the crake and by reducing the contrast of the blurred rock in front of the crake’s back foot.

Having investigated the area the weekend before, I knew that my favourite road at Marievale Bird Sanctuary; the old “bus stop hide” road, held great potential. There were lots of shallow puddles on it, excellent habitat on both sides, and loads of rallid activity. I arrived just after 6am and soon found an adult Rail making his way down the track towards me.

A magnificent African Rail; the same rail as the one in the featured image and story, stands proudly next to his crab breakfast.

This leads to rule four of rallids; don’t rush in, but rather wait for the bird a few metres from where you last saw it. When I discover a crake or rail, I approach it very slowly until it moves off the track and disappears into thick cover. I then park my car or stop walking and leopard crawl within a few metres of where it disappeared. A ghillie suit or a small blind can really help in these moments. Sometimes you wait in vain but every so often you get treated to a Crake or Rail approaching you at eye level. There are very few bird photography moments that are more exciting!

On this occasion, I stopped my car, put my blanket down and assumed the lie and wait position. What I didn’t expect is the Rail to excitedly throw a crab shell into the road in front of me and start feeding on it. When this happened, I knew I was in for a special morning! Mr Rail returned at least six times to feed on his breakfast crab, and allowed for some eye-watering encounters as well as photographs of a seldom seen event.

Crab up or Crab down? The same African Rail admiring his prize crab from different angles, before feeding on it.

Besides African Rails and Black Crakes I have also been lucky to photograph Baillon’s, African, Corn and Spotted Crake at this incredible sanctuary. For those interested, here is a link to all my crake photographs:

A Baillon’s Crake (left) and an African Crake (right), both photographed at my favourite wetland in south east Gauteng.
A Giant Kingfisher catches a crab at Rietvlei Nature Reserve, South Africa. If you ever wandered where the discarded crabs come from; it is often from Kingfishers and Otters that have them on their daily food menu.

Post Processing – To process or how much to process, that is the question

Camera and Lens: This issue’s featured image of an African Rail was taken with my Canon 5d mkiv and 400mm f2.8 mkii lens.

Camera Settings: AV mode | ISO 1250 | 1/2000s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

Image Size: 4800 x 3200

Since this “tips and settings” section focuses on post processing, here is the “before & after” of the featured image and a quick guide to what I did: As you can see from the below images, I did a small crop, I then changed the saturation and brightness slightly, did a small adjustment to shadows, rotated the image horizontally, and then added one round of sharpening for web. At least in my opinion, this level of post processing does not betray the scene or mislead the audience, and would undoubtedly stand up to the strictest, photographic competition rules for acceptable post processing.

The “before & after” of this issue’s featured image of an African Rail. The top image shows the raw image straight out the camera. The bottom image shows the finished work after minimal post-processing as described above.

Hints and Tips:A few months ago, I was exposed to how artificial intelligence is enabling photographers to recover images that are very out of focus or remove excessive noise that may reside in them. I thought this was an interesting development and hence worth a newsletter covering my views about post processing. What follows is one of the more controversial topics in photography, so please forgive me if my views are different to yours or at worst are considered opinionated. In no way do I want to knock what others are doing or claim that I am better than them or free from blemishes, rather I just want to address the subject and the questions I have been asked about it as authentically as possible.

The “before & after” results of post processing my image of a Yellow-crowned Bishop buzzing over the grasslands near the town of Devon in south east Gauteng, South Africa. I lightened the image, increased the saturation and cropped the image closer, following the rule of thirds, to show off the bird’s plumage as well as the fine grass surrounding it.
Settings: AV mode | ISO 800 | 1/8000s | f4 | Spot Metering | Exp bias 0 | no Flash

I recently read a phrase that said “you can be a fantastic photographer but if you are average at post processing then your images will be average”. The statement then went on to say that “you can also be an average photographer but if you are excellent at post processing then your images will be excellent”. As much as I understand the sentiment behind this, I must disagree with it, and disagree with it wholeheartedly.

Firstly, I think that consistently excellent photographs are made “ïn camera” and through the artistic skill of the photographer. And I believe that these images require very little post processing (or post processing skill), if they are truly great in the first place! Brilliant bird or wildlife images evoke emotion through a combination of creative compositions, unusual or sublime lighting, once in a lifetime scenes or behaviours and/or capturing the real essence of the bird or wildlife they represent. At least in my opinion, they are not close-up portraits or flight shots, which are brilliantly post processed, and hence I think you must be a skilled and persistent artist to take consistently great photographs.

Secondly, I believe that all post processing does or should do is apply the finishing touches to an already fantastic photograph or in other words, add some subtle make-up to an already good-looking model. Great post processing applied to a below average image, is the same as applying “lipstick to a warthog”, unless, and this is probably key; you are completely changing the authenticity of the image itself.

For this image of a Bar-throated Apalis captured at Lindani Game Lodge in the Waterberg, I cropped the original image slightly to centre the Apalis and increased the saturation, as this brought out the autumn colours that were so evident to me in the original scene. I have broken the rules here by centering the Apalis, but have used symmetry, contrast and framing  to create a pleasing composition.
Settings: AV mode | ISO 1600 | 1/1000s | f4 | Spot Metering | Exp bias +0.3 | no Flash

This may sound tongue and cheek, but once you have taken the image and have the RAW file, you can always get better at presenting it or adding the lipstick, but you can’t retake an image or adjust the background, composition, angle or light used.

And this leads to my third point; I think that if you have to manipulate an image to such a degree that you are forced to use excessive post processing (or deep post processing skills), then the photograph has moved from a photograph in its true sense to a digitally manipulated one that betrays its authenticity or to what may be labelled as digital art or creative imagery. I think this is a different category of photography or art, in the same way that a painting or a drawing is.

For this image of a Kori Bustard; the world’s heaviest, flying bird, walking through the harsh landscape of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the northern reaches of South Africa, I made very few changes other than increasing the saturation and contrast a bit.

As much as I love technology and how advancements are making such a positive difference in the world, I am also a big believer in presenting images that are true and don’t mislead the audience.

But, please don’t get me wrong, I am definitely not “holier than thou”. When I started out using Photoshop I completely abused the sharpen tool, tried to use shadows to correct my poor exposures and even used lens blur to try and improve messy backgrounds and reduce noise. And yes, I even downloaded the latest AI tools to see what all the fuss was about. However, I soon learned that any major changes to my photographs, even when the results made them look better, took away from their authenticity. Hence, I stopped doing or selected not to do these things, as I wanted to keep things real and ensure trust in those who were willing to follow my passion.

The “before & after” of my first ever “habitat shot” taken many moons ago in the Waterberg. This image kick started my passion for “birds in their environment” images and my interest in composition and creativity.

So, I guess the big question is not whether you should post process or use the latest tools available, but rather how much should you do and when should you disclose what you have done? For example, if your image includes a lot of noise, should you remove all of it if you can? I guess for me, the key question to answer; is does the post processing you do betray the scene you photographed or does it or could it mislead the audience in terms of the quality or nature of the image taken? For example, if an image had a branch or obstacle in front of the main subject, would removing it betray the scene or mislead the audience? Very possibly? And if so, should you then disclose it or not do it in the first place? The answer to these questions, is subjective and different answers can be easily rationalized, but I would encourage photographers to err on the side of conservatism and go with a more transparent or purist approach.

An African Harrier Hawk robs a weaver’s nest at Nambiti Game Reserve near Ladysmith, KwaZulu Natal. Again, besides cropping and minor adjustments to saturation, contrast and shadows, the image reflects the original and the scene presented. From a composition standpoint, I think this is the closest I have come to something that reflects a “Fibonacci Spiral” in nature!
Settings: AV mode | ISO 500 | 1/800s | f5 | Spot Metering | Exp bias -0.3 | no Flash

So, given the subjectivity of this topic, and if some post processing is too much for me, how do I go about post processing my images? 9.9 out of 10 times this is what I do:

  1. I crop the image and try to create the best composition available. This may include rotating the image slightly to improve on leading lines or to help frame the subject more effectively, as well as changing its orientation. I try as much as possible to keep my crops printable. In the case of habitat shots, this means at least 4000 (pixel dimension) on the longest side. (And yes, I sometimes crop tighter for high impact portraits and for sharing on social media.)
  2. I use basic post processing: saturation to enhance colours (without going too overboard so that it betrays the scene itself), shadows and highlights to make small adjustments to the dark and light areas (applying small changes to shadows otherwise it quickly looks artificial), the curve to increase or decrease brightness and levels to make adjustments to the warmth or coolness in the image.
  3. If I am preparing for a print run or for final submission into a competition, I will sharpen the full-sized, cropped image and then send it to the printers or competition body. However, if I am preparing an image for social media or web display, I will reduce the size of the image to 2048 x 1367 for horizontal crops and 1067 x 1600 for vertical crops, and apply one round of sharpening. And that is it! It takes me a few minutes per image.
  4. On the very rare occasion that there is a small distracting element on the periphery of an image, I may select to remove it. This hardly ever happens, but if it does, I always (or at least do my very best to) make a note of it on the image or post itself, and let the audience know what I have done.
  5. Sometimes the use of levels or increasing the amount of brightness through post processing can create a high key image. This makes for a dramatic, high impact presentation. Whether this moves the image into the “digital art” category is debatable and probably based on how big the change is.

In summary, I guess I am a bit old school when it comes to post processing and would rather have my images represent a true version of the scene and photograph taken, than to be too perfect and/or over-manipulated.

All that said, I think it is important to note that I have zero issue with lots of post processing or the use of artificial intelligence, as we are all different and I respect that, but just like the photography of owls at rehabilitation centres or the photography of domesticated or baited animals, I believe that all photographers should provide some level of disclosure on the images they present. This is critical if we are going to be able to trust what we see.

Highly Commended in Bird Photographer of the Year 2020

The prestigious Bird Photographer of the Year (BPOTY) results were announced on the 15th August 2020. The competition is in its fourth year and attracts entries from the world’s very best bird photographers. The winners were chosen from over 15,000 entries from more than 60 countries. Congratulations to the overall winner; Majed Alza’abi from Kuwait, and all the other photographers who were placed or commended! Such an array of incredible images and such an inspiration for my own photography!

I was honoured to have the judges highly commend my image of a Red-collared Widowbird, which was entered into the “creative imagery” category, and have my image of a female Drakensberg Rockjumper commended in the “bird behaviour” category.

Given the focus of this newsletter, I thought it would be interesting to show you the “before” and “after” of the Red-collared Widowbird photograph titled; “Medusa”.

It takes me less than two minutes to edit this image, as it requires a small vertical crop of the original, the use of levels to create the “high key” look and feel and an increase in contrast and saturation to give it more punch. Even with this minimal level of post processing, it can be argued that the impact of the changes is big enough to push this image into the category of “creative imagery” or digital art.

To see all the inspiring images: Bird Photographer of the Year 2020 Winners

The image discussed above of a Red-collared Widowbird captured at Rietvlei Nature Reserve, South Africa. The image on the left is a full frame vertical crop of the RAW original, while the image on the right is the finished work after applying levels and increasing the contrast and saturation.

Thanks again for showing interest in my latest newsletter! I hope that next time you see a discarded crab shell you will look at it with new found enthusiasm and that you will be equipped to take images of any approaching crakes and rails.

Regarding the subject of post processing, I trust, if anything, that this newsletter has been thought provoking, and encouraged you to pursue authenticity in your photographs and with your audience. In this regard, I will leave you with a quote from Skye Hartog, a fellow photographer and my birding companion of many years: “Editing an image should not change the story conveyed. The more one edits, the more the essence of the story is removed from the author. The editor is not the author.”

Our next issue will take you to north east Cameroon in search of adventure and some of Central Africa’s most sough after bird species.
Stay safe and chat soon!