How Photos Mislead: A Trip Down the Primrosy Path

For those who don't follow the ID Frontiers listserv, that forum has been alive with recent discussion of an interesting oriole found in Georgetown, South Carolina on 9 May of this year. Originally, the bird was identified as a Scott's Oriole, which would have been a first state record. However, after much debate and a flurry of conflicting expert opinions, the bird was re-identified as an Orchard Oriole, a species that occurs regularly in the "Palmetto State." Towards the end of the debate, David Sibley wrote a detailed analysis explaining why the bird was an Orchard and not a Scott's. More importantly, he offered some enlightened discussion about the psychology that shapes and sometimes biases our perceptions. 

Just this evening I received an e-mail from a long-time birding friend that included two images of a "mystery bird" that someone he knows had photographed near San Diego, California. He had circulated the photos to me and two other veteran birders earlier in the evening in hopes of solidly identifying the bird. Thankfully, I was the last to take a crack at it. The original images showed a finch-like bird that appeared to be rosy-pink/purplish over much of its body (see below). Given the apparent color, my first inclination was to think that the bird was one of the Carpodacus finches (most likely a Purple Finch). However, beyond the apparent coloration nothing looked right for that species. The other three experienced birders who had looked at these photos were all reluctant to put a name on it, which was my first clue to focus on what didn't fit rather than lock in on what seemed obvious.


In this original image, not the subtle pinkish tones on the flanks and the apparent rosy/purplish color on the sides of the upper breast. However, if you look at the head and nape they look more cinnamon or rusty brown. Note that the bill looks quite pink, which should be a clue that the apparent colors we are seeing may not be quite right.

Realizing that things weren't adding up, I mentally backed up and tried to abandon my first impression, which was being driven by the apparent coloration. Almost immediately, it occurred to me that aside from the apparent pink and rosy tones, this bird looked like a female Blue Grosbeak. It had a bill that seemed much too large and pale fleshy colored for a Carpodacus finch of any species. Additionally, it showed strongly peaked crown and a spiked crest (a look often shown by Blue Grosbeaks), it had two conspicuous broad pale buffy wingbars, and it seemed to have a very large looking eye on an otherwise patternless face. Under closer inspection, I noticed that most of the color around the head, especially on the nape, seemed to be more cinnamon brown and that the parts of the bird that appeared pinkish and purple (including the bill) were either in the shade or in indirect light.

Once satisfied that the bird was a female Blue Grosbeak, I began playing around with the images in iPhoto. First, I cranked up the color saturation to the max. I've found that this sometimes helps bring out the true color of the bird and reduces those hues that are artifacts of the original camera or processing. In this instance it seemed to exacerbate the problem. Someone with a better understanding of the technology behind digital photography can probably explain how these color artifacts are produced.


Here is what the same image looked like with the color saturation maxed out. The sides of the breast and flanks now appear to be other-worldly rosy and even the bill (which is also shaded) looks purple. These colors point to some aberration in the digital processing. Contrast that with the parts of the head and nape that are in more direct sunlight. They now look a bit more cinnamon brown. I would say that enhancing the color saturation was not very helpful.

Next, I took the image and turned the color saturation all the way down, resulting in a black and white photo. I've found that in cases where apparent coloration is leading me astray, looking at an image in black and white eliminates the biases created by the colors and allows me to focus more on pattern and shape. I believe that the others would have readily identified this bird had they first seen the black and white images that I created. I suspect that they were drawn off track by the apparent coloration shown in the original images.


To me, this image is the most useful of the three. By eliminating color, we can better evaluate the overall lightness and darkness of various parts of the bird. We can also get a better handle on its proportions and shape without the visual distraction and bias created by the weird colors. It becomes apparent that the bill is quite heavy at the base and mostly pale. There is slight curvature between the culmen and the tip of the upper mandible. Also, the bird is pretty uniform in gray tone, except for the bill and the wingbars, which are markedly paler. The wingbars are broad and conspicuous, more so than they would appear on a Purple/Cassin's/House Finch. The uniform tone of the underparts and the lack of any obvious streaking on the flanks also points away from this bird being one of the red finches.

As Sibley points out in his discussion, our perceptions are shaped by expectations and initial impressions. Abandoning our initial impressions and starting over after already looking at a photo is easier said than done. Had this bird not shown a couple of key features that pointed away from it being a Carpodacus finch, I  probably would have narrowed my analysis of this bird down to species within that genus. Fortunately, I benefited from knowing that three birders whom I know and respect had already puzzled over this bird without coming to a consensus about its identity. That tipped me off to think outside the box and recognize that something was amiss. I've been on the other end of this equation more times than I care to admit.



I think you are correct. This is mainly a colour (white balance) problem. When you have a photo which is predominantly one colour (green in this case) its not unusual for a camera set to auto white balance to miscalculate the relative exposure of red, blue and green. The result here is that too little green and cyan have been applied and the image is therefore extra majenta and red. I think the density (darkness/lightness) of the image is reasonably good. It was a good idea to switch to black and white. Thats a very good technique to shift perception and a shake up the ID process.


Mike O’Keeffe



I enjoyed your recent post to ID-Frontiers describing all the various biases. As I understand it, this was an adaptation of an article discussing how such biases affect medical diagnoses. Perhaps this sheds light on why so many doctors are birders. I was unable to access the link to the original article, but thought your piece was worthy of forwarding to the statewide birding listserv here in Oregon.



Sorry, something got bumped!

I’m looking at the photos on a laptop with a calibrated screen, but this is still not as good as my editing screen. Even so, the color photos look ridiculously color-biased and never should have been taken as representing the birds true colors. On un-calibrated screens there simply is no way to know what the colors might be, except to say that you can’t trust them in any way.

The best you could do to correct the colors is to assume that the greens in both shadows and highlights should look reasonable on YOUR screen. That still leaves things wide-open, but may inch closer to the truth. On my screen that would remove a strong magenta hue, especially in the dark tones: bye-bye Purple Finch.

You’re right about the B&W version: eliminating color entirely is much better than guessing what the color might be and using the guess for ID.

I’ve been thinking about some convenient way to photograph a test object to use for color correction in the field and the only thing I’ve come up with is a flat-painted white globe that might be put in place of or near or at least in the same lighting conditions as the subject bird and using that image in a digital editor to remove color casts and colored reflections. I haven’t used it myself, but if anyone in the vicinity of Monmouth, where I live, would like to have one to try out, I’ll give it to you or you might try a brand-new golf ball, though the gloss might be a problem. For more details contact me.



The overall color of bird and vegetation seemed at once surreal to me. Still nothing screamed at me “artifact” (of digital technology) or worse yet “artifice” . A sobering reminder of how easily we take photos to be true; and even more sobering, how much we are unconsciously manipulated day and night by sound-bite and freeze-frame management by those who vie for our opinions in this image saturated world.

I thought the beak too massive and the wing bars too conspicuous for Carpodacus. I appreciated your explanation of the Blue Grosbeak characteristics, as I don’t get to see that species often or ever enough.

Well within my lifetime the black and white version would have been all that we had to begin with.



Although I knew from a post off-BirdFellow that I would see an image of a female Blue Grosbeak, what struck me as I pulled this up was the grass in the bird’s bill—indicating that it was heading for a nest perhaps only meters away that likely would be ready for that first egg very soon. Birders with a knowledge of what species are, or are not, expected to breed in San Diego proper would know that House Finch is the only nesting Carpodacus there (as I recall) and the bird in the photo is not that species. /// Mentioning Yellow and Hermit warblers as offhand examples, Dave commented privately later that he feels that birds with a plain face pattern can seem to have larger eyes. An intriguing concept. But, hey, put a face pattern on this thing and it might STILL seem to have winelight eyes… Tim


As one who has been taking numerous digital bird photos the past 4 years, I know all too well that the eye is at once much more sensitive and forgiving than the camera. (Take a photo in your house at night—do you notice with your eyes how yellow the light is? And how all the other colors are shifted toward the red end of the spectrum? No.)

Photographs are easily washed out by sunlight—yellow becomes white. White balance can be fooled. The camera wants to average out exposure to a medium gray, thus photos of a bird against water or sky always need the exposure bumped up a f-stop step or more to be more than a muddy underexposed image (cameras vary).

That said, I didn’t ‘t see the confusion in the photo of the Blue Grosbeak. I thought, "I see the raised crown feathers. They’re not trying to confuse this with a cardinal, are they?"

My first identification paradigm is to look at shape and pattern before color. Thus the thick bill with curved culmen and the wide diffuse wingbars brought me instantly to Blue Grosbeak—even though I have only ever seen one—a female, just like this bird.

Even now, the photo does not look red to me. At most, it might be a warm cinnamon-brown.

That brings me to a question in general concerning photos on BirdFellow. Many photos in the blog look a bit dark and under-color-saturated to me. I have heard that jpegs rendered on Apple computers may appear that way when viewed on Windows platforms. I don’t know if that is the case for BirdFellow, or not. There is certainly quite a difference in monitor brightness and color—just as there is in television screens at the department store.

Never assume that the color you see on a photo is exactly the same as the bird in the field.


I do have an Apple computer, but in this case, I didn’t do a thing with the original image other than load it into the document. The photos I got definitely had some issues with colors (seemed over-saturated to me) and they were a bit dark. I can’t really speak to the variation between Apple monitors and those made by other companies. I’ve never had any complaints about the brightness and color with the iMacs I’ve owned. It’s hard for me to appreciate what others might be seeing. When I’ve talked to folks who do graphics work and process photos for a living, most wouldn’t think of using anything but Apple products.


I do have an Apple computer, but in this case, I didn’t do a thing with the original image other than load it into the document. The photos I got definitely had some issues with colors (seemed over-saturated to me) and they were a bit dark. I can’t really speak to the variation between Apple monitors and those made by other companies. I’ve never had any complaints about the brightness and color with the iMacs I’ve owned. It’s hard for me to appreciate what others might be seeing. When I’ve talked to folks who do graphics work and process photos for a living, most wouldn’t think of using anything but Apple products.

Unlike the professional and semi-professional photographers out there, I spend very little time processing the photos I take. I know that most of the stuff that gets published online and in print is heavily processed, so therein may lie the difference. There comes a point when these photos are more a “rendering” than a realistic image, something I don’t have much interest or time to pursue.


Androgyny! I remember sitntig like a mermaid on a table for you. I can’t image how uncomfortable the person is in the bottom picture. As a form, the left side of the frame is beautiful. I am seduced and then repulsed. (repulsed is too strong a word) Her eyes look tiered and swollen. Her ribs and boney hips sit gently on the scratched surface of the table, but I know she is in pain. I can’t stopping look at this. Every detail is amazing but conflicting.


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