How to deal with a crappy photo of a beautiful beetle

One thing I’ve discovered after trying my hand at insect macrophotography for the past three years is that I take a lot more photos than I can possibly post. As a result, I tend to focus my efforts on more recent photos, especially those that have some kind of interesting natural history story to tell. Photos that don’t get posted soon after I took them tend to accumulate in my virtual “not yet posted” files, and periodically I need to browse through them to re-acquaint myself with any that I may have since forgotten about. Not all of these “other” photos are bad or uninteresting—they just happened to be taken at a time when I had other photos that I was more interested in using. Admittedly, however, there truly are some rather ugly photos in these archives, and the older they are the more frequently I find myself asking, “Why in the heck did I even keep that photo?” (hopefully this indicates improvement in my standards of what constitutes a photo worth keeping).

Cicindela limbalis | nr. Laramie, Wyoming

There is, however, a lesson here to be learned, and that is don’t be too quick to send to the recycle bin a photo that at first sight appears not worth keeping. Take, for example, this photograph of Cicindela limbalis (Common Claybank Tiger Beetle). This pretty little species is broadly distributed in Canada and the northern U.S. from New England across the Great Plains to the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. Different populations show differing degrees of maculation, and here in Missouri the species is nearly immaculate. I found the individual in the above photo in Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest as an example of the more completely maculated forms. However, since it was the only individual I saw in that location I didn’t try to photograph it in the field. Instead, I captured it and photographed it later in the “studio” (my hotel room). Sadly, this was in September 2010 when I was still a rank beginner in terms of insect macrophotography, and as a result I was far less versed on such details as lighting and composition than I am now. I’m ashamed to say that I thought this photo was “good enough.”

Of course, by today’s standards that is one crappy photo! If it wasn’t the sole photo that I have from that population I wouldn’t hesitate to throw it away. However, since I’ve been putting some effort recently into honing my Photoshop skills, I thought I would see if I could “rescue” from this crappy photo a halfway decent one. I did this as follow:

  • I opened the “Levels” tool, clicked on the “Set White Point” button, and touched the cursor to an area of the upper background. This not only eliminated most of the gray tinge in the background but also brightened up the beetle quite a bit. I brightened the beetle even more by pulling the left slider button in the “Input Levels” box a little more to the right (12). In the case of this photo, such levels adjustments were sufficient, but in some cases I might also slightly reduce shadowing using the “Shadows/Highlights” tool (2–10% is usually enough) or adjust color using the “Adjust Hue/Saturation” tool (whether you increase or decrease saturation, a light touch is best).
  • With the background brightened up, the debris spots were even more visible and needed to be cleaned up. This was easily accomplished with the “Spot Healing Brush” tool. I keep the size setting as small as possible for each spot while still encompassing the entirety of the spot. Debris spots next to or on the surface of the beetle are better dealt with using the “Clone Stamp” tool—this tool is a little more involved than the Spot Healing Brush, since a source point needs to be selected for each spot. However, it is more effective than the Spot Healing Brush for spots that are in areas where the background is not uniform. Again, I use the smallest size possible and carefully consider the source point for each clone to achieve the best results.
  • The last major problem with this photo was its composition. If I were to take it again today, I would angle the front of the beetle higher in the photo and not clip the middle and hind tarsi or antennal tip as I did in this photo. There is not a lot (though there is a little) that can be done about the clipping, but I used the “Straighten” tool to change the angle of the beetle by clicking on the tip of the abdomen and dragging the cursor to somewhere between the lower front leg and antenna. This resulted in a more pleasing pose for the beetle, but of course it also created triangular areas of blank canvas on each side that had to be dealt with. To do this, I cropped the edges of the photo to remove as much of the blank canvas as I could without cropping off any more of the beetle (I did end up cropping a little bit of the left hind leg), then used the Clone Stamp tool to fill the remaining blank areas with white background (this is much more difficult when the background is not as uniform as in this photo). Careful cloning is required in areas that are close to the beetle to prevent unintended alterations, and in this case I even had to clone in a fake lower tarsus for the middle leg and antennal tip for the left antenna to fill gaps that I could not crop. Cloning in new body parts is not always possible, and even when it is possible it’s not easy; however, with care and practice reasonable results can be achieved. In the case of this beetle it was not too difficult since the body parts that needed to be cloned were just short extensions of already blurred parts.

Lastly, I used typical “Unsharp Mask” settings to sharpen the photo, and here is the final result:

This photo won’t win any awards, but it is a completely serviceable illustration of the species.

This is still not a great photo—in addition to the clipping, the focus is a tad too deep and the beetle has assumed that dreaded “ground hugging” pose that I so detest with confined subjects. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be ashamed to use this photo if none better were available.

What alternative techniques would you have used on reworking this photo?

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

21 thoughts on “How to deal with a crappy photo of a beautiful beetle

      • Here’s my version of your last one. I increased brightness, brought up the shadows, increased the contrast, and brought down the saturation:

        Having things look “fake” is a real concern. I find that white-background shots are a lot more robust to the Shadows adjustments than other types of images. Desaturating after your other adjustments can help it retain realism.

  1. Great illustration of a common problem, Ted! Recomposing the image really made a big difference in the final product. I also agree with Alex about the brightening – it would clean up the greyish background near the top 🙂

  2. Hey Ted,

    What a timely post. That last slurry of images of Mega. robusta that I posted were the best of over 200 snaps taken. I will try out your PS tips on future images. Thanks.

    from ‘a rank beginner’ ……..

  3. You might try one of two plugins for Photoshop, the cheaper is Topaz Adjust, its also more powerful and you will not use that power. The other is Nik Color EFX Pro, while you use many of the filters; tonal contrast will bring out the shadows, mid tones and highlights. This feature exists in Photoshop but not with the fine tuning and easy specific area application you get with NIK. Both worth thinking about. They are a special form of shapening. In addition if your developing your shots specifically for the web, add some unsharp mask after you downsize for the web and before saving as an SRGB jpeg. Hope this helps, it does for me with CS 5 and the older version of the Nik software..

  4. I’m a big fan of using curve adjustments to adjust brightness in the tones where you want it and to tease out more contrast where you need it. Set your white and black points with levels, then go to curves to fine tune what’s in-between.

  5. My first thought was “Levels!” and that’s exactly where you started! Your workflow sounds much like my own. I only have PS Elements, but all of those tools are available there as well. You ended up with a very nice image, I think. The iridescence really shines.

  6. Pingback: Living With Digital Images | Living With Insects Blog


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