I presume that whoever dreams up the BLP photography competition themes is a geriatric hippy living far out in a Leonard Cohen-induced psychosis.  As a result of his song, “bird on a wire” has come to symbolize someone precariously perched in life and many of our photographers made the point very well.  I was especially taken by the juxtaposition of a beautiful bird on a menacing-looking barbed wire and all its sinister association with human kind, perhaps I really mean inhumanity.

Barbed wire is a contemporary metaphor for many bad things including land clearing and consequent habitat loss, restriction of liberty, and war.  It was unsurprising then to find two entrants express their distaste for the theme by writing words to this effect in their comments.  Others appear to have protested by not engaging at all.  It was a difficult theme and it shows in the standard of the entries.  Unlike in previous competitions, there were few outstanding images which made it easy to draw up a short list but it does not reflect well on BLP.  What was noticeable was the large number of technically poor images which tempted me to write more about those than about the winners.  Unfortunately, it is not possible to give an individual critique of all the problematic images but I will try to highlight a few major issues with examples.  Hopefully, my comments will encourage entrants to be more critical of their work and to reflect on just what it is they are trying to achieve when preparing entries for a competition.  The moderators also need to be more critical and be prepared to reject images with poor image quality and inane comments.

Writing instructive, interesting or amusing comments is an important aspect of competition photography.  Comments can be used to draw attention to aesthetic qualities that might otherwise go unnoticed, they can be amazing facts about the bird or its behaviour, and they can be about field-craft or technical matters.  Comments provide an opportunity to convince the judges that the image is special and deserves a second look.  Half the battle in competition photography is catching the eye of the judges and it is not only visual impact that counts; a well-crafted comment can also be a great help especially when it comes down to sorting out the place-getters.  In this competition we have some beautifully written comments but most are lifeless, even senseless; for example, ‘Darwin coastal park’, and here’s another one, ‘male Splendid Fairy-wren’.  These are not even sentences!

To make it at the top level of competition, images must be technically flawless; there are no ifs or buts, there are no acceptable excuses or exceptions.  Photography judges do not like having their visual cortex assaulted when they go to work.  They will flick past an image even before it fully opens if the bird is out of focus or they see an offensive amount of digital noise.  I was shocked by the number of pictures with poor image quality in this competition, particularly those with the bird out of focus or unacceptably ‘soft’, this is inexcusable in an advanced level competition (see for example Flame Robin ID 34784, House Sparrow ID 34917, Welcome Swallow ID 34769 and Brown Songlark ID 34612).

Perhaps the most common technical fault was excessive amounts of digital noise (see for example Red-capped Robin ID 35029, Flame Robin ID 34784, Golden-headed Cisticola ID 35366, White-faced Heron ID 35030, and House Sparrow ID 34917).  The Red-capped Robin has a background that looks like it was produced with the dot-painting app in Digital Color Efex Pro!  I have been trying to figure out the source of the noise and wonder if it might be just a basic issue with the way photographers view their images during processing.  For example, if they use a small-screen portable device the noise may be imperceptible even if the screen has lots of pixels and they view the image at 1:1 (100%) size.  When I travel I use a 13.5-inch screen 3000 pixels wide.  If I view an image that is 1800 pixels wide it is only 17 cm wide on my screen and too small for my eyes to resolve granular noise unless it is really gross.  If I ‘fit to screen’ the image is bigger but slightly blurred and the noise can still be hard to see.  However, if I view the image 1:1 on a 27-inch screen 2560 pixels wide, noise becomes glaringly obvious.  What I am suggesting is that entrants who prepared their images for the competition on a small-screen may not have even noticed they had a problem with digital noise.  The best way I know to avoid this problem is to use a large, calibrated, high-quality screen such as a 27-inch NEC PA or Ben Q PV series or, for wannabe professionals, a 27-inch Eizo CS or CG series monitor.  In photo-editing a suitable screen is a high priority, ranking in importance with the choice of processing software and computer specs.  It is penny wise and pound foolish to choose a cheap consumer-grade screen or one that is too small for critical viewing of images.

Another, perhaps more pertinent, reason why so many images in this competition have unacceptable digital noise is to do with the way noise reduction has been managed in the editing workflow.  Anyone who applied the same amount of noise reduction to the whole image will have difficulty achieving a good result.  To achieve the best results it is essential to apply different amounts of noise reduction to different parts of the image, most notably to the background and the bird.  Smoothly varying, out-of-focus background areas usually show up the noise more readily than the sharply in-focus details and textures in avian plumage.  Therefore, more noise reduction is required on the background than on the bird.  Noise reduction invariably results in the loss of some fine detail so we must use it sparingly or not at all on the bird.  To achieve these two objectives it is necessary to separately select the bird and background and apply different amounts of noise reduction to each.  For background noise reduction just about any of the options available in popular photo-editing software will do a good job.  Noise reduction on the bird is another matter as we do not want to lose too much contrast in the fine detail.  The best way to achieve this is to use one of the more sophisticated noise reduction plug-ins such as Neat Image which will preserve most of the image detail even for noisy high ISO images requiring strong noise reduction.  It is important when using noise reduction on the bird not to use too much.  There are some images in the competition where it looks like this is the case, for example, Nankeen Kestrel ID 35271, Peaceful Dove ID 35272 and Welcome Swallow ID 35273.  The Nankeen Kestrel also has unfortunate posterization contours in the background.  This can happen when the black point and white point are set too close together restricting the tonal range to less than 8-bits per colour channel.

Noise reduction and sharpening are different sides of the same coin and they need to work in harmony to achieve acceptable results.  Too much sharpening is a common fault and regrettably, there are some examples in this competition.  The ideal amount of sharpening is the amount that produces an image that looks like the actual bird when viewed from the same apparent distance as in the photograph.  In other words the image detail should equal the actual detail when viewed from the same apparent distance.  For example, if an image is cropped so that the bird appears to be at arm’s length, then the appropriate amount of sharpening would be the amount that produces feather detail that looks like the actual bird when viewed at arm’s length.  If you apply this criterion to the Red-capped Robin ID 35029 or Grey-crowned Babbler ID 35383 you will see what I mean; in both cases the plumage looks unnatural because of too much sharpening.

Other basic technical faults that should not occur at the Advanced Level include blown whites (White-winged Fairy-wren ID 35178 and Grey Fantail ID 34780) and colour management issues such as poor white balance adjustment (Pied Currawong ID 35028) and crazy saturation adjustment (White-faced Heron ID 35030).  There were also some poor choices made when it came to aesthetic qualities but as they are a matter of personal taste, judges need to be more circumspect in their criticism.  A recurring problem is the position and size of the bird in the frame.  This can vary depending upon the purpose for which the image was created.  For example, if the image is for a photographic guide book, tight framing is not a problem, in fact it is usual.  However, in a photographic competition, judging is all about the light and aesthetic qualities, assuming there are no technical faults, and it is therefore critically important to get the framing right.  Images with the bird uncomfortably tight in the frame will usually fail to get a second look.  In the current competition examples of this include Noisy Miner ID 35381, Eastern Yellow Robin ID 34779, Restless Flycatcher ID 35379 and Grey-crowned Babbler ID 35383.

Now for the enjoyable part of this review:

Winner:  Spotted Harrier, by Tim Van Leeuwen  (ID 34704)

This image has high visual impact and a degree of sophistication that is hard to beat.  The light is superb and the photographer has made the most of it with a well-chosen point of view.  The shooting angle has allowed just enough shade on the bird’s left side to show its depth and form very well.  The angle of the light has also enabled the plumage to be revealed with high contrast and fine detail.  The layering of the scene brings to mind landscape photography; a few grass stems in the foreground, then there is the main focus of attention nicely positioned in the frame, some softly out of focus vegetation in the middle ground gradually fading to a distant skyline, it doesn’t get much better.  Then there is the bird; I mentioned the wonderful feather detail but this is really about attitude.  The relaxed pose, standing on one leg and the imperious stare is riveting.  This is a great bird portrait, bravo!

Spotted Harrier

Highly Commended:  Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo, by Keith Lightbody  (ID 34581)

Close behind and so completely different is the pair of Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo.  As the photographer notes, Major Mitchells ‘love to have fun’ in common with most Australian cockatoo species.  Their exuberant loud voices, goofy behaviour and eye-catching plumage ensure they are the focus of attention when they arrive at a party.  The photographer gets bonus points for this image because we are treated to two outrageous fiends performing on the high wire.  Both are perfectly in focus, one caught in the middle of his act, the other making engaging eye-contact with the audience.  The light is a bit harsh and the shadows unfortunate but the action is off the scale.  A great example of opportunistic wildlife photography and highly commended.

Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo

Commended:  Australasian Pipit, by Sandy Castle  (ID 35063)

I like the minimalist simplicity of this image with just three elements, a bird, a wire and a plain background.  The bird is in lovely light in an attractive over-the-shoulder pose but being placed well off to the side is a controversial choice that will be polarizing.  The barbed wire is thoughtfully used to provide a leading line to the focus of attention and the wire helps to fill what would usually be referred to as negative space.  In this case I don’t see it as negative space but as part of the photographic narrative; it suggests a small bird in a wide, empty land, the preferred habitat of this species.  So I think it works and the photographer should be commended for taking a risk and choosing to frame the bird in this way.

Australasian Pipit

Commended:  Eastern Spinebill, by Bill Harding  (ID 35103)

The Eastern Spinebill is another unusual composition that caught my attention.  It is unusual because the wire is running at quite an angle across a corner of the frame rather than near-horizontal.  As unlikely as it at first seems, this perch works surprisingly well.  In common with the Pipit, the image is a minimalist composition but the quirky perch makes it stand out from the rest of the field.  The engaging eye-contact with the viewer is excellent and a splendid example of why wildlife photographers like to catch their subjects in this kind of pose.  As expected at the Advanced Level, the image is technically flawless and worthy of commendation.

Eastern Spinebill

Commended: Brown Songlark, by Con Boekel  (ID 35308)

My final commendation goes to this Brown Songlark, another flawless image and with the kind of comments I hope to see more of in future competitions.  In discussing the composition the photographer helpfully draws attention to the harmonious flowing lines of the bird and wires and it is easy to imagine that the bird is perched precariously in the spirit of the competition theme.  I have been trying to work out the sun angle; it looks like about thirty degrees from the horizon, and whether this could explain the warm tone.  It is as well to mention this kind of thing in the comments to make clear that the photographer’s intent was to preserve the warm effect of the ambient light if the image was captured early or late in the day.  Otherwise the warm tone could be mistaken for poor white balance adjustment and the image judged accordingly.

Brown Songlark