Nature Study Group 2

Nature Rules - Tips for Nature Study Group Members

The following tips have been written by Nature Group Commentator, Rick Cloran, HonPSA, GMPSA, to assist Nature Study Group members with interpreting the rules for good nature images. They are here to help nature photographers better their images and in no way are meant to be seen as the final authority on taking nature images.

Choose a topic, below, to reveal or hide its contents.
    Show All / Hide All
  • ---
  • Articles of interest
    From article by Keith Bauer, Avian Moderator for the Nature Photographers Network - reprinted with permission by Keith Bauer,
  • Nature Photography Judges guide
    A Guide for Nature Photography Judges - pdf
  • Thoughts on Color Space and Tonal Compression

    Thoughts on Color Space and Tonal Compression

    By Rick Cloran, HonPSA, GMPSA - pdf

  • Nature Story Value Rating
    by Richard Cloran, HonPSA, GMPSA· - pdf (can be downloaded or read, below)

    Virtually every image we see submitted in the Nature Study Group or in a PSA recognized nature section has a nature story to it. For the moment let’s leave out issues of the presence of the hand of man and whether it may be incidental and still subject to disqualification or actually indicative of adaptive behavior and therefore a valid part of an image.

    The “nature” story in an image should be telling the viewer something about the subject or about natural history. For animate subjects even a basic portrait conveys information about the characteristics of the subject and in doing so it conveys a nature story. Sometimes it is harder to see in non-animate subjects. Botanical images will often convey similar information about the characteristics of the subject. Similarly, even images of geographic features and natural landscapes depict a story in the sculpting of the landscape over time through the forces of wind and water and how plant life can alter the face of the land or how small organisms can create complex structures such as our underwater corals.

    With the acceptance that the vast majority of the images we see contain a nature story comes the question of how does one assess the “strength” or “Value” of that story. That assessment takes a bit of thinking about what the maker has shown us as viewers. From a grading perspective we will work with the idea that a “weak” story value would warrant a rating of 1, an “average” story value would warrant a rating of 2, and a “strong” story value would warrant a rating of 3.

    Let’s start with the typical animate subject portrait both tight and environmental. We will generally see a good amount of information about the subject, its form, features, and possibly even a state that is less commonly observed. This is what I will propose as being an “average” story value. That same portrait label can apply to straightforward depictions of botanical and even geological / landscape / seascape images. We just need to take the time to appreciate all of the information that the maker has conveyed. The second factor is that we need to detach ourselves from how often we have seen that subject or whether we have seen that subject portrayed more effectively in our opinion. These latter elements should not have any bearing on the rating we assign. That “average” story should rate a 2 whether it is the first time we have seen a subject or the millionth time we have seen it.

    Are there degrees of “strength” within a rating? YES! Technical quality and lighting quality will play a significant role in the impact and interest that an image has. In so doing they impact the relative strength of the story. Less than optimal lighting or technical execution may make the image a “weak” 2 while superior technical execution or perfect lighting may make it a s “strong” 2. However, the story has not changed. It is still an average story. The impact of the technical execution belongs in the technical rating and the impact of the lighting belongs in the pictorial rating. Along somewhat similar lines, showing a subject in bland non-breeding plumage (non-flowering) or condition is weaker than showing the same subject in peak breeding (flowering) condition. Both are still conveying an average story, albeit a different one, about the characteristics of the subject.

    With some context set around what an average story is, let’s consider a “weak” story value. Images in this category will typically not provide significant information about a subject. They may be overly general sacrificing information about the subject for a more pictorial presentation. They may be taken in a manner that is highly artistic and potentially effective from a pictorial perspective, but where the manner in which the principal subject is rendered does not convey significant information about the subject to the viewer.

    For example, a close-up of a rock wall may show evidence of erosion or how the rock was formed, but it will not provide as much information as a more expansive shot placing the wall or formation in context. Similarly, a back-lit shot of a subject which is shown either in deep shadow or with little detail may be effective pictorially, but fails to convey meaningful information about the subject itself. It is also possible for technical issues, such as major over or under exposure, to limit the information conveyed to a viewer about the subject to the point where that technical flaw has a derivative impact on the nature story. In such instances a rating of 1 is appropriate. There are always situations which might be exceptions. A shot from Bosque Del Apache (or any migratory flyway refuge) may show masses of birds without any one or group being a dominant element. The story is not about the singular but rather the masses and in that it could easily rate as a 2 or, if dramatic enough even a 3. That same setting but with a single bird isolated and small within the context of the scene still has a story but far weaker and much more likely warrants a rating of only 1.

    The key here is to keep an open mind on what the maker is showing you as a viewer. A scene depicting a rain storm and associated cloud structures at a distance will still be conveying a fair a mount of information about weather and other natural history aspects even if you might prefer a portrait of a bird you have not seen before. Avoid scoring the rain storm as a 1 just because the subject is not as interesting to you personally. It may still warrant a rating of 2 based on the story being depicted.

    So, what types of images would be rated as “strong” (3)? Typically, these images will involve animate subjects and depict some aspect of the subject’s behavior so that the viewer is informed not only about the physical characteristics of the subject but about how that subject interacts with its habitat, other members of the same species or other species. The assessment you will need to make is whether that additional information raises the image above the average level to a strong level. For example, a bird preening shows behavior, but is it truly adding sufficient information about the subject to move it beyond being a strong 2 but still fundamentally a portrait, to one that is conveying information that adds an additional dimension to your understanding of the subject?

    We often associate feeding, breeding, fighting, and the rearing of offspring as the true evidence of behavior that warrants a 3 rating, However, if the maker plans the image well, they may show a feature or state of the subject that is often not seen or commonly overlooked. Think of a fungi shot showing the dispersion of the spores, or an image that captures multiple states (bud, blossom, and seed) of a flower or plant. Such images convey substantial information beyond the typical portrait and warrant the “strong” 3 story rating. Again, keep an open mind relative to what the maker is showing you about the subject they are depicting. Detach yourself from whether you find the subject attractive or interesting and evaluate it on the information you are being shown.
  • All Adjustments Must Appear Natural
    Use of vignettes – While extremely popular, and often encouraged, in pictorial and fine art imaging when used on nature images vignettes are overdone more often than not. Yes, we will often suggest burning in (Darkening) areas of an image to improve impact and help concentrate the viewer’s attention to the principal subject and story, however, the uniformity of the typical vignette coupled with the opacity that they are normally applied at are dead giveaways that an adjustment has been made more often than not. If you can tell an adjustment has been made, it is a weakness in the image. In the case of a vignette, the uniformity typically means that the image no longer appears “natural” and so it violates that requirement in the nature rules.

    This is a source image.  We want to create more separation from the background.

    Applying a vignette leaves us with an image that darkens the edges and corners, but does so in a manner that creates a discernable rimming / area where the darkening begins even though the selection was well feathered before creating the vignette.

    In this case, a better approach is to apply an adjustment layer and set the Blend Mode to Multiply. I’m using a Levels adjustment but any will do. No changes are made to the adjustment. We only want the multiply blend mode effect. By itself, this will darken the entire image too much. Dial the opacity back to the point where the background looks “naturally” dark. In this case I have pulled the opacity down to 27%. Then use the layer mask to eliminate the darkening in the areas where it is not desirable. 

    Here is a look at the mask. Note that it isn’t refined. My process is to use a brush set to 100% opacity but a very low Flow rate (5%) to trace the outline of where the area to be masked out is. I then view the mask [ALT-Click or OPT-Click on the mask to view] and paint inside the lines with a higher flow rate (25-50%) until the masked area has the density I want. Using a very low flow rate means I have enough of an edge that I can see where to paint without the need to be very exact in hitting all of the edges perfectly.

    Once the darkening is done, we add a blank layer set to Overlay and Paint on it with white to Dodge (Lighten) the areas of the subject and story we wish to emphasize. Here again, we paint with the opacity set to 100% and the Flow rate set to a very low number (2-5%). We use multiple strokes to gradually build up the lightening to the level desired. Doing it this way allows us to vary the extent of the lightening in different areas and to just use CTRL-Z or CMD-Z to undo one or more strokes if we overdo it in an area. I prefer Overly for dodging as it adds a bit more contrast. I use Soft Light for burning in because it adds less contrast. Many tutorials suggest doing this on a layer filled with 50% gray as the Overlay and Soft Light blend modes are blind to 50% gray, but there is no need to add an additional full pixel layer to the size of your file. I don’t use the Dodge and Burn tools for this type of work because I want highlights, middle tones, and shadows all adjusted by the same amount in any given area. There will be other times when I am only interested in darkening a shadow or lightening a highlight where I will use those tools.  

  • Sharpening Alternatives for Nature Images
    2019 finds us with a number of “new” options for sharpening a nature image in addition to the more traditional Unsharp Mask / Smart Sharpen or High Pass methods. Perhaps of most interest are some new offerings from Topaz Labs.

    Topaz Labs – AI Clear in Studio

    Topaz Labs offers a free program Called Studio that installs as both a standalone and as a plug-in to Photoshop and Lightroom. Certain “adjustments” come with the free package. They are basic and allow for simple post processing. The more robust features are typically dubbed “Pro Adjustments” and you buy those either in a package or one at a time. Studio does not use product keys. You create an account with Topaz and you need to be logged into that account for Studio. When you are, any adjustments you may own will automatically update to the latest version. This simplifies distribution for them and also your level of aggravation over having to update to a new release. Topaz is migrating to this platform as its core. Hence you no longer see updates to many of the older individual plug-in filters as those features are incorporated into new Pro Adjustments. Topaz does, however, keep its pledge not to charge for updates by automatically unlocking any Pro Adjustment that relates to one of the older single plug-ins you may have owned. This ties back to that Topaz account, which would also contain all of those older single plug-in purchases.

    Where the sharpening twist comes in with Studio is the introduction of the AI Clear Pro Adjustment in 2018. The technology and algorithms involved are new, so this is one you would have to purchase. That said, based on numerous images I have process with the adjustment and the feedback from those I have convinced to acquire it, this is a home run by Topaz. The adjustment contains both a sharpening and a noise reduction component. It does a very commendable job on both fronts. I do find that it tends to smooth out fine detail in fur and feathers in areas where that is all that shows. This is a side effect of the noise reduction aspect. Be sure to examine your image at 100% when processing it. The Detail Slider actually works to offset what AI Clear has done and restore the original features of the source image as you move it to higher levels. You can bring back some of that smoothed out fine detail by moving this control to the right. IA Clear also has an odd tendency to add what I will classify as a Cyan (sometimes multi-colored) artifact on some images. I have pushed this back to their “support” (which is e-mail only and leaves much to be desired in my opinion), and been advised that they have referred my findings (and presumably the screen shots I sent) to their development team. Until such time as they actually fix the problem, I just advise changing the blend mode on that adjustment from Normal to Luminosity and the issue will go away.

    Even with the small flaws the AI Clear adjustment in Studio is one I can easily recommend you check out.

    Topaz Labs – Sharpen AI

    More recently Topaz introduce what was initially a standalone program based on their AI technology and dedicated to sharpening. While it would open raw files, it did a poor job of it (at least on Canon CR2 files) and so I would recommend use of the standalone on Tiff or Jpeg images. One of the more recent updates to the program have now enabled it as a plug-in in Photoshop (I haven’t checked out Lightroom) under the older Topaz Labs (original) Filters. The power in this program is impressive. The default is “Sharpen” which is a more traditional algorithm but one which also incorporates some noise reduction. Next up is a “Focus” option. This was derived from the original Topaz In Focus plug-in, but I find the algorithm to be as good in improving “focus” with far less artifacting than the In Focus plug-in. That used to be my favorite way of offsetting diffraction diffusion when shooting at apertures like F22. The last option is “Stabilize”. In effect this does what the Shake Reduction option in Photoshop does. However, I find that it provides very comparable results with less artifacting than Shake Reduction. It does lack Shake Reduction’s ability to specify more than one area for the program to base its refinement on, but that is a small price for the low level of artifacting and the fact that it will not crash Photoshop in my opinion. While already a very viable standalone sharpening alternative, the update allowing Sharpen AI to act as a plug-in under the Filters > Topaz Labs menu in Photoshop makes this a worthwhile addition to your tool kit. It is priced higher than the AI Clear Pro Adjustment for Studio and does function differently in the application of the underlying algorithms, so download the 30-day trials of each and find the one you like the best.

    Photoshop – Shake Reduction

    While not technically new, this feature that was originally developed for Elements has been improved in CC 2018 and 2019. It is found as the first option under the Filters > Sharpen menus. It will open a new window and will do an initial selection of an area to work on. You have the option of moving or resizing that area. You also have the option of drawing additional areas within the image on which to base the algorithms on. I find that this can often make a substantial improvement in images that were either shot handheld or where I may have mirror slap impact on long telephoto shots such as when using less than optimal shutter speeds or a teleconverter. It should definitely be used on a separate layer. I would also recommend having done any desired noise reduction prior to using it as it does amplify edges of that type. In my experience, it also has the nasty habit of crashing Photoshop, so make sure any changes are saved before proceeding. It will not crash the same image consistently, but may do so twice and then work a third time. I haven’t found a good explanation for why it does that. When it works, it does a good job in improving the effective sharpness of an image.

    Photoshop / Lightroom – Sharpen – Deconvolution

    All of you are likely familiar with the Sharpen feature of either Photoshop’s Camera Raw or Lightroom’s Develop module. I won’t go into the basics of using that. I do want to point out that there are actually two separate algorithms under the hood so to speak. When used in a “traditional” sense, that is with a Radius of around 1, Amount set to 70 to 100, and Detail around the default of 25, it functions along the lines of the Unsharp Mask that we are all used to. The hidden power in this tool is by pushing Radius to its minimum 0.5 setting, moving Detail all the way to 100, and then keeping Amount between 25 and 50. This activates a deconvolution algorithm that will generally significantly amplify fine detail in an image. In my experiments with using it, I actually find it is less effective when applied at the initial raw processing than when I apply it later during the creative sharpening phase of post processing by using the Camera Raw Filter in Photoshop. If you are looking to bring out fine feather or fur detail, give this a try. It most definitely should be applied to a separate layer. It does have a tendency to also amplify any residual noise that may be present. The upside of using a separate layer is that you can then use a layer mask to restrict the effect to just those areas where you want it.

    The options we have are constantly evolving with newer technologies, such as AI developments based on computer analysis of thousands of images now coming more and more into play. Where the source offers a free trial period or when it is already built into an application you are using, it only makes sense to give it a try on a couple of those images that you could never get the way you wanted to see if someone finally created the tool you had been waiting for.
  • Contrast, Clarity and Texture
    Those of you who use the current versions (CC 2019) Lightroom (Classic) or Photoshop may have noticed that on a recent update a new slider called Texture appeared in the section containing Clarity and Dehaze. I will try to provide some insight into where this fits in to the grand scheme of things.

    If we ignore Dehaze as a specialized function, there are now three contrast controls in Lightroom and ACR. They are Contrast, Clarity, and Texture.


    This is the global adjustment we are all familiar with. It is more of a big hammer and tends to apply to everything equally, somewhat like increasing the steepness of a curve. If you aren’t using it in combination with the Blend If controls in Photoshop, it tends to best be used in small amounts when you need to add pop to an image. Quite honestly, there are often better ways to get where you might want to go, such as using a layer set to Soft Light or Overlay and then controlling the opacity and/or using a layer mask. Seriously, if you have never tried it, add a basic Levels adjustment layer to an image and change the Blend Mode to Soft Light with no adjustment to the Levels values themselves. Poof, instant contrast. Use the Opacity slider to modify the overall amount of added contrast to taste and the mask to eliminate it where you don’t want it. Need more contrast? Use the Overlay Blend mode instead.

    Over and above these simple tricks, there are a raft of plug-ins that will give you the ability to handle basic contrast adjustments more effectively than dialing up the Contrast slider.


    This control has become a favorite of many folks for boosting the mid tone contrast in an image. I say mid tone, because that is where it has the most effect. However, it tends to work more like Vibrance (versus Saturation). It amplifies contrast at all levels, but has most of the effect in the middle tones and less effect in low contrast and high contrast areas. Just like Vibrance, if you push it too hard, you can get some nasty looking results. The thing to remember is that here too, the adjustment is pushing on larger tonal ranges, so small differences such as subtle shading in fur or feathers can become exaggerated fairly quickly.

    Many have regretted the lack of a Clarity adjustment layer, but taken some solace in the fact that it was available under the Camera Raw Filter in Photoshop or as one of the settings on the Adjustment Brush and other tools in Lightroom. There are also many plug-ins that have been released to do much the same thing and often to do it with fewer side effects. The topaz Clarity plug-in or the Pro Contrast filter in Nik Color Effex Pro or Topaz Studio’s Precision Contrast adjustment are some examples.


    One of the things that we have seen over the past two years is the release of plug-in adjustments, such as those mentioned above, with a “Micro Contrast” control. Newer programs, such as DxO Lab 2, also provide a Micro Contrast adjustment in their develop controls. These controls work on very fine edge contrast, much like traditional sharpening. The definition of what is an edge is buried in the algorithm behind the adjustment, rather than exposed as it is in the older sharpening tools (i.e., Radius and Threshold), but that doesn’t impair their effectiveness. This is where the new Texture slider comes in. Adobe has now implemented a new algorithm to give us fine edge control as part of the development process.

    Texture works at a very fine level. I won’t call it Micro Contrast, because I feel it is better than that. It will amplify edges cleanly, with fewer side effects (call it “bloom”) than Clarity but without the exaggeration of small structure (noise) in open areas such as sky. (Or at least with much less of an effect than you see with the typical Micro Contrast adjustment.) This is now the control you will want to be using when trying to bring out fine feather and fur detail or similar fine structure in other objects. If you work in Photoshop, try using is as a Smart Filter so that you can just double click on it to refine the effect rather than having to delete a layer and try again. In other words, make your layer a Smart Object and then run the Camera Raw Filter on it (aka Smart Filter) and adjust Texture within the Camera Raw Filter.

    Bottom Line

    I can tell you the new Texture adjustment will become one of your favorites, but as is often the case, the proof is in seeing it yourself. Open an image with good feather or fur detail, duplicate the layer in Photoshop or make a Virtual Copy in Lightroom, and apply Clarity at a fairly strong level (say 30) but feel free to run the slider to both the plus and minus extremes to get a good sense of when it becomes objectionable. Turn that layer off and create another copy of the original or just create a new virtual copy in Lightroom. Now run the Texture adjustment at the same level. Again, try running the slider the full gamut to see what the effect is when pushed to the max. I have little doubt as to your final decision, because that is what I have finished doing on multiple images with differing structure in them.

    Trust me. You are going to like this new addition to the contrast controls in Lightroom and Photoshop.