Black-necked Stilt (+ an interesting leveling/rotation technique)

Sometimes we have to be creative to come up with leveling cues when an image needs rotation.


1/5000, f/7.1, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

I photographed this Black Necked Stilt eleven days ago at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge (yes, with more shutter speed than I needed). I don’t think it’s a great image but I liked it well enough to process it and see how it turned out. In the end I liked it reasonably well, partly because I think the water splash adds interest.

Straight out of the camera the photo obviously needed some clockwise rotation but at first glance I had no visual cues to find true level – there is no horizon or vegetation growing vertically and there’s not enough of the reflection to use for that purpose. I could have used the ripples in the water to eventually get it close but I hate dinking around using that method until I finally get something that looks about right.

Then voilà, it hit me! Why not use the water plume coming up from the splash caused by a water droplet that had dripped off the end of the stilt’s bill? It would probably give a closer indication of true vertical than anything else in the image. So I used the Straighten Tool in Photoshop on the water plume and I liked the results the first time I tried it. To my eye the image looks level as presented here and boy does that water plume ever look better than it did at a slant in the unprocessed image.

Yes, I know – all this is a bit of photo-geekiness that likely won’t be of much interest to many of my readers. But among you photographers who occasionally struggle with processing (don’t we all?), who knows when a little trick like this or something similar might come in handy…


PS – Some may wonder why I didn’t just use the Straighten Tool to connect the tip of the bill to the water plume. The problem with that is the fact that bird movement typically prevents the water drop from falling straight down, instead it’s usually flung in one direction or another to one degree or another.



25 comments to Black-necked Stilt (+ an interesting leveling/rotation technique)

  • Susan Stone

    I think using the water splash for leveling was a genius idea. It’s also nice to see a Black-necked Stilt – it brings back memories of the ones I’ve seen – especially the ones in Bundala National Park, Sri Lanka. The bird life there was amazing.

  • Hello, Ron – I always use the reflection (even when only partional) for this purpose – so your dropletsplashmirrorthing seems the right thing to me 🙂 Have a wonderful weekend, best from The Netherlands, Cheers, Hans

  • Marty K

    Beautiful image (gotta love those pink legs!) and stroke of genius for the leveling cue! My guess is that the “faster than you needed” shutter speed was a serendipitous mistake because you were able to catch the splash.

  • Laura Culley

    What Patty said. What a delightful image. The “liquid plumb bob” (EXCELLENT description) works beautifully. And interesting that “water columns aren’t always perfectly vertical.” I would have thought the physics of the situation would demand perfect vertical. Just goes to show that I do NOT know it all–not even very much of anything ;-). I’ll have to ponder that for a while.

    • Laura, water splashes often have complex components when they’re caused by an object hitting the water from an angle other than vertical. Part of the splash is always vertical to the water surface but other parts caused by the forward momentum of the object can be other than vertical. At least that’s my understanding but I’m certainly no physicist and I probably could have stated it more accurately than what I said in that comment by substituting “splash” for “column”.

  • Joanne OBrien

    I think this is a real nice image! The bird is beautiful and the drop is wonderful. Thanks for the “photo geekiness”. I love it!

  • Dick Harlow

    Interesting! I like the shot of a shorebird we hardly ever see here. Thanks for the lesson. I hadn’t thought to straighten my shots, although at times they need to be adjusted..

    • “at times they need to be adjusted”

      They sure do, for all of us, Dick. Keeping the camera absolutely level is often the least of our concerns when photographing birds.

  • Patty Chadwick

    Whatever you did, it looks good to me–a very tranquil, pleasing image…especially like the disturbed water rising up….

  • Charlotte Norton

    Great shot and pure genius, I would never have thought of that.

  • Dave Brooks

    Gravity orientation and the liquid plumb-bob! Very nice. It’s good to have guidance and reckoning points in this world.
    Thank you Ron for all the great images, teaching and inspiration.

  • LS Clemens

    I appreciate that you educate us as well as showcase our beautiful “dinosaurs.” And your commentary is always like the icing on the cake. Keep it coming!

  • Judy Gusick

    Looks good to me! 🙂 Knowing the water column wasn’t from a “skipped rock” or something that was logical. I like the results. 🙂