Monday 22 December 2014

New Year's Resolution

A Focus on 2014

This blog was started in February 2014 to scratch a persistent itch of mine.  I had always felt that birders needed a resource like this and I felt it was a good time to have a go at creating it myself, while the kids are still small and I am at home much more than I am out birding.  For me this has been one of the most rewarding of my birding years.  Stopping to take stock of 30 years of field experiences, and revisiting my collection of images and videos with a renewed vision and purpose has provided the greatest thrill.  

The top three highlights of the year in the blog were...

In 3rd Place 
I felt I needed to start the blog with something tangible and useful.  The Image Quality Tool set a good foundation for much of the next few months and it provided the impetus for me to keep up the effort and interest.  It helps objectively score the quality of an image based on five key quality parameters, namely resolution, focus, exposure, colour and artefacts.

In 2nd Place
While studying the broad and challenging subject of colour in birds I started reading about ultraviolet.  On a hunch I purchased a Baader-U filter and put it together with an old Sony digitial-8 camcorder I had in storage.  The result is a relatively inexpensive and effective UV reflectance imaging system which might bring this cutting edge science more into mainstream birding.  Some discoveries may be mundane (like the fact the Common Moorhen's bill tip is more reflective in VIS than in UV), but no doubt there are plenty of more useful discoveries to be made.  While UV patterns in birds may be subtle, particularly in this part of the world, I have found this effort worthwhile, not least for the insights into floral nectar guides and butterfly UV patterns.

In 1st Place
I was quite nervous and reluctant to take on the challenge of colour in birds.  While there was a great deal of useful research material and resources to tackle colour theory and colour management, there were a few notable gaps that needed attention.  For a start, I could find no useful technique to sample colour patches from images.  This was relatively easily overcome using a postarizing method.  The biggest surprise was the total lack of a colour nomenclature for the digital sphere (i.e. the sRGB colour space).  After much effort it was a big disappointment not to be able to revive Ridgway's Color Standards and Color Nomenclature in sRGB - Ridgway's iconic standard exceeds the gamut of sRGB and therefore can never be fully illustrated online. But this effort all helped crystallise the subject matter and I did eventually produce what I think is a good practical Birder's Colour Pallet - illustrated below.

White Balance is another aspect of colour which I have always enjoyed exploring.  The X-rite colorchecker passport was a very worthwhile purchase.  Having calibrated my camera gear with it by creating a DNG profile, I then used it to create a special rig to put lighting under the microscope.  The standard use of the colour checker is for grey card exposure and white balance correction.

I may have shown my geeky side a bit through the use of various experimental rigs.  A lot of this work could probably be better explained through the medium of mathematics, but maths isn't my speciality.  I also like the simple effectiveness of visual experimentation and illustration.  Anyone can replicate and build on the ideas in this blog without requiring a degree in maths or science.  I encourage anyone with an interest to challenge and develop upon my findings.  This is a journey of discovery for me too and I love to get your constructive feedback.

The Quick Reference Guide is a good summary of the progress so far with the blog.  Some might find this pdf format easier to navigate than the blog.  The content can also be effectively navigated using the page links on the top right of the blog. 

2015 Exposed

I have a lot of ground covered but I estimate I am, at best half way towards my objective of researching and presenting the main aspects of identification of birds from digital images.  So what are the main objectives for 2015?

Birds and Light

In a nutshell, this series of postings has been all about the lighting conditions under which we observe and photograph birds.  Like most aspects of the blog, this section is coming together organically.  Having already featured lighting at sea, on snow and ice and in arid and semi-arid areas, I hope to include some more 'special environments' where lighting plays a key role in observation and photography.  There are also other various loose ends to tie up, but this series is nearing completion I think.  I hope to produce a handy summary guide when I'm done.  Even if, as a birder, you are not into photography, this content should certainly resonate with anyone who spends time watching birds in the field.


I am going to keep working towards a Forensics Manual throughout the year.  I will be trying to put some order on things in the near future and may start to pull together some sample analysis in a standard format so that it is possible to see where the various forensic tools start to fall into place.  I have no doubt this aspect of the blog may be boring for many of you but for me this is the heart of this whole exercise.  Hopefully the value of it will be clearer in time.  I must stress that this is very much an exercise in trial and error.  I have no training in digital forensics, nor access to a wealth of research material.  This is purely a case of getting to know the existing software tools, their uses and limitations, identifying challenges and trying to find novel ways to overcome them.

Most birders, myself included, are probably content to analyse most bird images using a web browser or a simple photo viewer with only a zoom tool for closer analysis.  How many of us actually take the time to download an image and open it up in Photoshop or a similar package, to analyse it further? Most of the time a web browser or image viewer may be sufficient for ID purposes.  But when the ID is a challenge it certainly helps to apply some form of forensic analysis.  Learning what tools to use, when to apply them and by how much is what forensic image analysis is all about.

What I am working on ultimately with this series of postings is a guide to help with and encourage a more critical analysis when one is required.  Wouldn't it be great if a forum existed where contributors could put up bird ID images for analysis and others could take the images,work on them and resubmit together with their analysis.  I think that could be very instructive for birders learning how to ID birds from photos.  I am happy to facilitate that through this blog if there is an appetite for it.  For now I am just going to keep working on useful tools and gaining insights ... like the example below, illustrating the intrinsic mechanism behind blown highlights in digital images.

NEW* - Human Bias

Identification of birds from images as we know doesn't just rely on an understanding of image quality parameters or the ability to use forensic tools to interpret images.  We all bring our individual experiences to the table and we must use our own judgement and skill in the end to make that ID call.  This is all part of the appeal of mystery photo challenges.

Sometimes the less knowledge we have of the circumstances of a photo the better placed we are to make a good call.  The urge to latch on to certain clues at the expense of others can sometimes be overwhelming.  Context can throw an identification way off course.  Non-birders often try to describe a puzzling bird in terms of common birds they know.  The term "like a Sparrow" can mean a small bird or a large bird with sparrow-like plumage.

A Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola standing at point blank range out in the open in a farmyard can throw even the most experienced birder, more accustomed to seeing this species in a wetland at far greater distance.  Occasionally those studying photos for the first time can even find themselves at an advantage over those who have spent time actually watching a bird in life!

I want to explore a series of tools and techniques to counteract human bias.  I hope to get started on this in the early new year.

NEW* - Field Marks Under the Spotlight

I will be putting together a new series of postings in 2015 looking specifically at field marks and how they are presented in digital images.  There are phenomena that introduce false field marks and those that remove real ones from images!  Take for instance, the subtly darker lateral crown area in Booted Warbler Iduna caligata.  What are the conditions that obliterate this kind of subtle field mark and when is it enhanced in a digital image?

More importantly, when can false field marks like false feather fringes, false scalloping, false streaking or more complex patterns, and false colours all begin to manifest in our images and throw an identification?

Your Input
I estimate that about half of this years postings came about due to interesting questions and puzzles raised from emails and from forum discussions.  I have no doubt this will also be the case in 2015.  If anyone has a challenge they would like to pose feel free to drop me an email.

Season's greetings to all!


Mike O'Keeffe

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