Photoshop Tips From The Pros

Some of the best in nature photography share 11 techniques that will turn a good photograph into an award-winner


photoshop tips
1There are many elements that separate the top nature photographers from hobbyists. With today’s digital tools, not only do photographers rely on a great eye, time-tested technique and quality equipment, but also on their ability to optimize images after capture using Photoshop and other tools. Outdoor Photographer talked to some of the best pro nature photographers to find out what techniques they use to make their images stand out from the crowd.

Jay Goodrich ( is an internationally published and celebrated photographer. Marc Muench ( is a professional landscape photographer who’s well-published and was named a Kodak Photo Icon in 2003. Arthur Morris ( is a Canon Explorer of Light and a top bird and nature photographer and instructor. James Kay ( is a fine-art landscape and adventure photographer. Moose Peterson ( is a Nikon Legend Behind the Lens and Lexar Elite photographer, focusing on North America’s endangered wildlife and wild places. Guy Tal ( is an outdoor photographer working and teaching in Utah’s scenic Canyon Country. All of these techniques will help you explore new ways to think about and approach adjustments to your images.

Jay Goodrich
Color Range Selections
1 One of my favorite Photoshop tools is the Color Range selection tool. It’s especially handy when working on nature images because it allows you to make a selection based on—you guessed it, color. To utilize it, choose Select > Color Range from the menu. Click in the image to define the base color you want to select, then choose the “plus” eyedropper in the Color Range dialog box and click (or drag) in additional areas of the image to add colors to the range to be selected (the “minus” eyedropper allows you to remove colors from the range). Once you identify the range of colors you want to select, click OK to create the selection. You then can add an adjustment layer to apply a targeted adjustment to the area you selected.

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Smart Selective Sharpening
2 With Smart Selective Sharpening, I utilize a layer mask to control how much to sharpen specific areas of the image. This works really well for wildlife portraits where I want the animal to possess finite detail, but the background to remain blurred. I also use it in a landscape image where there are clouds and other features that I don’t want sharpened. Sharpening can add noise to these smoother-toned areas, and that’s something that I try to avoid.

To make this work, click on the Background image layer on the Layers panel and choose Filter > Convert for Smart Filters from the menu so you can apply a filter nondestructively. Then choose Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask (or Smart Sharpen) and sharpen your image like you would normally. Once sharpened, click the Smart Filters mask directly below your Background image layer on the Layers panel. Press the D key—this puts your default colors back to black and white. Press the B key to choose the Brush tool, and set the Hardness for the Brush pop-up on the Options bar to 0% to ensure a soft edge. Press D to set the colors to their default values of black and white and then press X to swap foreground and background colors so black is the foreground color. Now you can paint on the image anywhere you don’t want the sharpening to appear.

If you take too much sharpening away, press X again to make white the foreground color and paint again to bring back the sharpening. You also can adjust the intensity of the effect by adjusting the Opacity setting for the brush on the Options bar.

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Marc Muench
Multiply The Greatness
3 Because I typically expose the shot brighter than I want the final image to look—in order to maximize image detail and minimize noise based on the fact that most image information in a digital capture is found in the brighter half of tonal values—I use a very powerful, yet quick technique to compensate for the slight overexposure.

After processing my image through Adobe Camera Raw, I go to the Layers panel and create a copy of the Background image layer. Then I change the Blend mode for this Background Copy layer to Multiply using the pop-up at the top left of the Layers panel. This causes the image to appear about twice as dark as before. At this point, I make one or two changes based on what happened to the highlights only. If the highlights become too dark, I lower the opacity of the Background Copy layer until the highlights are perfect. If the highlights are fine, I skip to the next step.

At this point, I’ll reveal the original image in areas that are too dark. Create a layer mask on the Background Copy layer and choose the Brush tool. Set the Hardness to 0% and the Opacity on the Options bar to about 40%, and use a nice, large brush. With the foreground color set to black, paint on the image (which will affect the layer mask) to block the Multiply effect and reveal the lighter version of the image in the shadow areas. I usually perform this painting in multiple strokes, varying the size and opacity of the brush as needed.

Defringe Specular Highlights
4 Specular highlights are bright areas of the digital file that don’t contain any information. These are the reflections you’ll find from bright light, such as the sun shining on shiny subjects like water. All digital cameras create color bands surrounding these specular highlights, which look odd.

The sliders for Chromatic Aberration found in Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom allow you to easily remove these colored bands. When working with these controls, be sure to set the Defringe setting to All Edges. Additionally, I typically move the Chromatic Aberration Red/Cyan Fringe slider to the left, subtracting between 10 and 25 for most lenses. The result will be nice, clean detail in your digital files.

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Arthur Morris
Quick Mask Mode
5 I employ Quick Mask mode for my targeted adjustments because I find it easier to use and understand than layer masks. To get started, I suggest changing a default setting for Quick Mask mode. Double-click on the Quick Mask icon (it has a circle inside of a rectangle icon) directly below the color picker on the Tools panel. Choose Selected Areas from the Color Indicates option and make sure the Color is set to red at about a 50% Opacity setting. Click OK.

Next, choose the Brush tool. On the Options bar, make sure Hardness (on the Brush pop-up) is set to 0%. Adjust the size of the brush as needed using the left and right square bracket keys to reduce or increase the size of the brush, respectively. Press D to set the colors to their defaults of black and white, then press X to swap foreground and background colors so white is the foreground color. Paint on the image in areas you want to adjust, which will cause them to be covered with the red overlay color. If you make a mistake, you can paint with black to “erase” that overlay color.

When you’re done defining the area you want to adjust, press Q to toggle out of Quick Mask mode. The area you painted is now a selection. You can add an adjustment layer or directly apply an adjustment to affect only the selected area, or duplicate the selected area to a new layer if desired by holding Ctrl/Command and pressing J. The result is incredible power and flexibility that’s remarkably easy to use.

photoshop tips
photoshop tips

Moose Peterson
Darken When You Want To Lighten
6 To make an area in a photograph appear brighter, consider making the region around that area darker instead. Most photographers go to the area they want to appear brighter and simply brighten it. This tends to break down pixels and can cause highlights to be taken to full paper white, which reduces overall image quality. By darkening associated areas, you still visually brighten the area you want to emphasize while protecting the pixels in your image.

The S-Curve
7 A simple S-curve changing the contrast of an image not only can bring more snap to it, but makes it appear sharper. Contrast is an important element that the mind’s eye uses to lock onto in order to tell it something is sharp. Start by adding a Curves adjustment layer. Then click about 20% to 25% up the curve from the black point and drag slightly to the right, then click about 20% to 25% down the curve from the white point and drag slightly to the left. This simple adjustment can have a tremendous impact on the final quality of your image.

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photoshop tips
photoshop tips

James Kay
Gradient Tool
8 Landscape photos can present a challenge in terms of balancing the exposure of a bright sky and a relatively dark background. When I have such a scene, where the sky needs to be darkened (and I didn’t use a graduated split-neutral-density filter), the Gradient tool provides a solution.

I start by adding a Curves adjustment layer and applying the desired darkening effect for the sky (though at this point it will affect the entire image). Then I choose the Gradient tool, choose the Black to White gradient from the pop-up on the Options bar and make sure the style is set to Linear Gradient. Then I drag on the image from the bottom area (foreground) to the top (sky), identifying the range where I want to transition the adjustment. This will create a smooth transition between areas that are being darkened (at the top of the image) and areas that keep their original appearance (at the bottom of the image).

Selective Color
9 Whenever I have an image needing specific color-correction, using the Selective Color adjustment makes it fast and easy. The first step is to create a Selective Color adjustment layer. Then, choose the color that needs to be corrected and adjust the color balance for that specific color range. You also can reduce color from highlight areas, such as in clouds, by choosing the White channel and adjusting color balance there. This is a very precise way to remove color casts from particular colors within the image without the need for complicated masking techniques.

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Guy Tal
On-Image Adjustments
10 Photoshop CS4 came onto the scene loaded with new and exciting features, as well as some less obvious improvements and refinements to existing functionality. One such handy little gem is the On-Image Adjustment tool added to the Curves, Black & White and Hue/Saturation adjustments. Shaped like a pointing hand with arrows indicating the directions of adjustment, it can be used to visually adjust selected colors and tones by merely dragging the mouse directly on the image. To enable the feature, click the Hand icon on the Adjustments panel for the appropriate adjustment layer. Want to darken the sky when converting an image to black-and-white? Add a Black & White adjustment layer, click the On-Image Adjustment tool, move your mouse over the sky, and click and drag to the left. Presto!

11 You can use the same method in a Hue/Saturation layer to increase or decrease the saturation of specific colors (by dragging left or right) or in a Curves layer to brighten or darken selected tones (by dragging up or down).

Tim Grey has authored more than a dozen books on digital photography and imaging for photographers, and publishes the Digital Darkroom Quarterly newsletter. Visit