A wren headshot, an out of this world ISO, and a post processing save?

Published: 06/19/2019

Recently, a pair of wren made a nest at my parent's house and have been very diligently feeding their chicks. Not just feeding them, but feeding absolutely monster bugs from the backyard, making them an instant favorite with my parents. I spent a couple days at home in relatively low light and rain, shooting them in a variety of settings, even getting some headshots. However, one image stuck out as a good candidate for a blog post (especially while I procrastinate working on some bigger ones). While I liked the frame, it's one where I completely botched the camera settings. The bird jumped up way closer than I expected with a huge grub, and thinking this was awesome and would make a great picture, I fired off a two quick frames before realizing my settings were off and adjusting them. Unfortunately, one of the frames with the crap settings was the only sharp image! 

How bad are we talking? Well, on my D500 I ended up at 1/2000, f/5.6 at 700mm, and ISO 28,800. For reference, I like to cap the ISO at 3,200 if possible (although will go higher, but not this high!). For my non photographer readers (hi Mom) this means truckloads of noise. But you don't need to be a photographer to see that, just look at the straight of out camera (SOOC) image below!

Maybe you're thinking well that's not so bad, possibly because you're an optimistic or just sadistic, but if you look in the out of focus green areas, there is tons of noise. However, the file is over exposed, about a stop to be exact. This means that I've somewhat maximized the signal to noise ratio by accident, further meaning that while the file looks horrible now, there may still be some information there. Mostly out of curiosity, but also because of how cool this huge grub was, I decided to process the file anyway. I went about my standard tools (Capture NX-D and its built in noise reduction), but also decided to give "AI Clear" a try. AI Clear is one of the new "Machine Learning" plugins that are all the rage now. I've used it with some mixed success -- sometimes it works like I want, other times it doesn't, but that's a separate blog post for another time.

What I'm showing below is the progression of this post processing, going from the captured RAW file at 100% (each pixel in the original capture is now a pixel on your screen) to the (near) finished product.

Looking at the SOOC RAW file on the far left, the noise is really apparent. Both color and luminance noise is readily visible and the result of the over exposure is clear as well. However, these highlights are not truly blown and can be brought down. I adjusted contrast, saturation, and brought the exposure down. I then attacked the noise via both color and luminance sliders. You can read more about my 'standard' low light processing in both my low light post and my general noise reduction post

Things after the RAW conversion (using Capture NX-D) look pretty good in my opinion. This is an ISO value I would never shoot at if I had the choice, but sometimes you mess up and sometimes it's a cool shot you want to have.

Next, I brought the file into AI Clear. Overall, the noise is mostly gone at this point, and details are a bit crisper. If you look at the 'fur' on the grub (ew...) there is just a bit more detail there. Same with the bird's fine feather detail. Honestly, I suspect I could have achieved this result using noise reduction plug ins in Photoshop + sharpening when downsized, but good to try new things.

From here, I worked the file a bit more adding some more contrast (not via the slider -- this is important for files taken in low light) and saturation which is almost always required on flat, low light files. I then cropped more than I usually would (~50% off) to help the composition and isolate the head and fat grub, resulting in the final image below.

Overall, I'm pretty happy with this! You can see some remnants of noise but overall it's pretty good, and the detail is where it should be given the settings and how close the bird was. Is shooting at this astronomically high ISO something I would normally do? Not really. But it's good to know what you can do when you have to, or when you just dial in the wrong settings. I'd much rather have this headshot than not have it. 

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