Project Scope

Obviously it is about birding, identification of birds and photography.  To narrow it down for you here is an illustration showing the typical pathways involved in identifying a bird.  I have highlighted in blue those elements which are of particular interest to me and which I will be exploring with this blog.  Specifically it includes the ID of birds from photos and related aspects of the analysis process.

If you have read a couple of my postings hopefully you will have by now grasped what I am trying to do here and how I am going about the process.  The Image Quality Tool is certainly a key focus and reason for setting up the blog but I am also interested in delving into a range of other aspects of bird ID from photographs.  The approach I have been taking is to bite off small pieces of the puzzle (if you will excuse the mixed metaphor).   I then further deconstruct each piece hoping to distill some practical and useful lessons which I will form part of an overall manual for logically and systematically approaching this broad subject. 

The image quality tool is a good example of how I am approaching this project.  The identification of a bird from a photograph is dependent on a range of variables, one of them being the quality of the image.  I have deconstructed quality into a number of parameters.  I have discounted those which I felt were too technical or impractical for most birders and rarities committees to find useful.  But, being anxious at the same time to include those parameters which have the greatest impact on our ability to successfully identify a bird from a photograph.  So I ended up with 5 broad parameters, namely image resolution, focus, exposure, colour and artefacts. 

At the moment I am not working to any grand plan here.  I am simply researching areas that interest me, taking and deconstructing pieces of the puzzle and putting up my findings on the blog. 

You will note that I have set up a number of pages to gather together the postings in some sort of order.  As the blog develops I will put a bit more time and effort into these pages and these will hopefully start to take some shape and begin to look like a manual in due course.  As stated in my introduction page, I hope that all this effort will yield a single document at the end of the day, a Standard Approach to Identifying Birds from Photographs perhaps.   

If at any point you wish to make contact, correct any errors or recommend some direction or other for my research please do not hesitate to drop me a line.  Thanks again to those who have taken the time to visit the blog and get involved. 


Firstly, lest the title and logo fool anyone, this is neither intended as a series of photographic tutorials, nor is it intended as a highly scientific or technical exercise.  The intention of the project is to satisfy my own curiosity and share my learning around the whole area of bird identification based on digital images, image quality parameters and where we might begin to consider drawing the line in terms of what we perceive as a reasonable image for bird identification and assessment purposes.

Okay, that is starting to sound an awful lot like a photographic tutorial and/or a technical exercise!  Trust me, this is not my intention.  Hopefully by setting out my stall early on and presenting the earliest version of a conceptual image quality assessment tool it will be clear to you where all of this is headed and you will be happy to get involved..

So why do birders need something like an image quality assessment tool anyway?  Well maybe most birders don’t have any interest or need for one.  By now the cursor may already be creeping its way up to the little box marked “X” in the corner of your screen.  If however something of what I am writing here has sparked an interest it may be because a very high proportion of birders spend time studying bird images and you are probably one of those people.  From the earliest mystery photo competitions to the modern photographic field guides and countless internet discussions, let’s face it, modern birders need to study images of birds for education, practice or just to drool at a much sought-after species.

So why then do so few birders ever seem to discuss the quality of the images we view.  Is it taboo, or do most birders see it as surplus to requirements?   After all, birding is complex enough without having to become an expert in digital imaging as well.  My experience of visiting and contributing to internet forums, being part of a rarity assessment panel and in general discourse with fellow birders is that most people seem to be happy with the idea that any photograph is better than none and we should simply make do with whatever images we can get.  Is that really good enough though?  I am always baffled why so many expert birders will happily pour over the minutiae of an identification based on images of almost any quality, rarely if ever stopping to ask...

“are these images actually good enough to warrant my time and attention, not to mention, to risk my reputation on a global internet forum!”

Or perhaps more specifically

“what exactly are the quality deficiencies in this image that I need to be aware of and could anything about these images be completely skewing my point of view”? 

These questions are what have really prompted me to finally get the finger out and start to write this blog.

So, where is all this headed?  What is the grand plan?  For one, the image tool should give a clear idea where I am going with this.  I will be introducing this in one of the first blog postings.

Another, medium-term objective would be that perhaps I or someone else might in the future write a sequel to a series of articles that featured in the first volume of the journal Birding World, titled “ The New Approach to  Identification” by Killian Mullarney and the late Peter Grant. It was ground-breaking.  For many birders it gave us a new set of tools for working with, studying and discussing birds and bird identification.

What I would also like to see some day is an effort by the authors and publishers of Photographic Field Guides to start to provide birders with useful information about bird photography, image quality and the skills to identify birds from photographs.

Is anyone still here?  Don’t worry, that’s my one and only rant now over with.

Now that I have broadly set out my stall I will outline the short to medium-term plan for this blog and how, if you are willing and interested, you might be able to get involved and shape the project

Early on I will be posting a video presenting a conceptual image quality assessment tool.  This is just a mock-up of how such a tool might look and work if it were ever developed.  Hopefully this will help to spark off the initial discussion.  I am not a web or app designer but it would be nice to think that at some stage in the future I could help turn this concept into an actual useful, working tool for birders and rarities committees.  If anyone knows of a tame web/app designer who likes this concept and would like to have a go at programming it into existence please make contact.


I am going to explore and develop my thoughts around each of the quality parameters touched upon within the quality assessment tool.  I have already given some thought to each of the elements though I have quite a journey to travel yet.   I am hoping that interested parties will get involved in the project, share ideas and help shape the direction of the project.

While I might come across as someone who is well versed in all of this I am by no means an expert in digital imaging. This is as much a learning experience for me as it may be for you the reader.  While, in a past life (and at a much younger age) I was quality manager for the leading photographic laboratory in Ireland, the advent of the digital era has seen the demise of traditional photographic laboratories, including the one for which I worked.  Many household names like Kodak and Agfa have also fallen.

What I think often goes unnoticed by photographers and those who study photographs is that, in many ways the whole digital package consisting of a digital camera, a sensor, camera processor, computer and image editing software is as much a detective's tool as it is a means for capturing and presenting images and memories.  Most people adapt their images for aesthetic purposes but the very same tools can be used to draw out critical pieces of an identification puzzle.

Have I started ranting again?  Ooops!  It’s the introduction, so I can maybe get away with it just this once.  Don’t worry the blog proper will be a lot more concise in nature and I won’t be taking quite so many liberties.  I hope to use visuals to convey my points and hopefully keep the interest up.

Step 3    Continue to develop the concept, the tool and the ideas

Once the groundwork is in place and, hopefully with your help we have a pretty useful quality assessment tool developed I hope to continue to promote and test the tool using real world examples.  Maybe in time I will pull all the valuable lessons of this experience into a single document by which time the blog will have done its job and run its course.  It would be nice to have a working web-tool or app at the end of this process but if all we have is a working excel tool that has stood up to rigorous testing, I’ll be happy enough with that.

Please stay tuned and get involved.  All constructive criticism welcome.