Walk This Way: Making Image Excellence Out of a Rainy Day

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By Brad Barton

Every year, I take a week off to visit Corpus Christi, Texas, to unwind. This annual retreat is a much-anticipated time for me to recharge my batteries and immerse myself in one of my favorite photographic subjects: birds, especially the pelicans of the Texas Coast. There is something incredibly therapeutic about observing these creatures in their natural habitat, and capturing their beauty through my lens brings me joy. The weather this year started off very dreary with a constant threat of rain casting a gloomy pall over the usually vibrant landscape. Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, I made several excursions in search of my favorite birds. However, the pelicans were all hiding from the weather, taking shelter where I couldn’t find them. The cold air and persistent drizzle seemed to have driven them away from their usual haunts.

On the third day, determined not to let the weather ruin my trip, I decided to visit a favorite bird observation deck off of Oso Bay. This spot often provides a reliable opportunity to see white pelicans flocking together in the warm water emerging from a nearby water treatment plant. When I arrived at the platform, the scene was disappointing. There were only a few pelicans in the water, and they seemed disinterested in coming closer. The cold air and drizzling rain had chased them to more protected spaces. Frustrated, I stood on the observation deck, trying to make the most of the situation. I started watching the sandpipers hunting in the wet sand. They were really out of range of my 200mm lens to make any decent photos of the individual birds, but their frenetic activity was captivating nonetheless.

As I was about to leave, a bit of a kerfuffle down at the shore caught my attention. A black skimmer had wandered in among the sandpipers. The sight of the skimmer moving awkwardly among the smaller birds amused me, and suddenly an idea for a fun composite image began to form in my mind. I imagined the skimmer trying to blend in with the sandpipers, creating a humorous scenario that I could bring to life through photography and the magic of Photoshop.

I spent the next 10 minutes or so making a series of images of the sandpipers in various poses and a few more of the skimmer walking among them. As I worked, the Aerosmith song “Walk This Way” started playing in my head, and it became the working title for the image I envisioned.

Back at my computer, I began the process of turning my idea into reality. I selected four sandpiper images and one skimmer image, cropping them down to focus on the birds. Using Photoshop, I carefully extracted the birds from their backgrounds. The extraction process was meticulous, requiring precision to ensure the birds’ edges were clean and natural-looking.

Next, I searched for a suitable background to complement my composite.
I found a beautiful pink sunset that provided a striking backdrop for the scene. After placing the birds into the new background, I used a Photoshop plugin, Flood, to add realistic water effects and reflections. This added depth and a sense of cohesion to the image, making it appear as though the birds were truly part of the same environment.

When I first submitted the image for critiques ahead of district competitions, I decided to rename it “Day 46: Bob is Getting Suspicious” after a popular meme at the time. However, this title ended up confusing the person giving the critique, Bob Coates, who made me realize the importance of choosing a clear and relatable title. Jurors often come from diverse backgrounds and may not be familiar with specific pop culture references. I toyed with the idea of using “He Identifies as a Sandpiper,” but I wanted to avoid any kind of political statement. Instead, I reverted to the original working title of “Walk This Way” which had broader appeal and avoided potential confusion.

Based on this and other critiques, I made further refinements to the image. One significant change was replacing the pink sunset with a golden one. The warmer tones enhanced the overall mood of the image and made the scene more visually appealing. With these adjustments, I submitted the revised version to the District Competition in 2021 where it received a Seal for Merit. Later that fall, at the International Photographic Competition (IPC), the image earned an Image Excellence award.

Reflecting on this experience, I learned several valuable lessons. First, patience and persistence are crucial in wildlife photography. The conditions may not always be ideal, but creativity and adaptability can turn a disappointing situation into an opportunity for innovation. Second, the importance of thoughtful titling cannot be overstated. A well-chosen title can enhance the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of an image, while a confusing one can detract from it. Finally, the feedback process is invaluable. Constructive critiques help refine and improve the work, leading to greater success in competitions and personal satisfaction.

That year’s trip to Corpus, despite the initial challenges, resulted in one of my favorite images I’ve ever created. It reinforced my love for bird photography and also highlighted the joy of turning obstacles into opportunities for creativity.

For anyone facing similar challenges, remember that perseverance and creativity can transform any situation. Embrace the unexpected, and you might find that the obstacles you encounter become the source of your greatest inspiration. Each journey, with its unique hurdles and surprises,
can be an opportunity for discovery and personal growth, leading to stories and creations that resonate deeply with others.

Brad Barton is a North Texas based artist who tells people’s stories and captures their emotions in sometimes fantastical, sometimes bizarre, sometimes surreal ways. Using his imagination, camera, and digital tools, he has created work for clients big and small. He is a Certified Professional Photographer and holds Master of Photography, Master Artist, and Photographic Craftsman degrees from Professional Photographers of America. For more information, contact Brad at brad@bradbarton.us.