Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Nature,  Software,  Wildlife

How to Clean up the Backgrounds of your Nature Photographs – Part 1

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Background Replaced (Above Photo)

In order to create appealing nature photographs, the background of the photograph needs to be clean and free of distractions that can lead the viewer’s eye away from the subject.  This includes all types of nature photography including birds, wildlife, and wildflower photography

It is not always possible to a clean background free from distracting elements while taking nature photos.  Birds, wildlife, and flowers live out in nature that is full of branches, grasses, leaves, and other distracting background objects.

In this 2 blog post series, I’ll tell you about 4 techniques on how I clean up the backgrounds of my nature photos during post processing.  For each technique, I give multiple options on how to achieve the result.  These techniques can also be combined to fix multiple distracting elements in the background.

As I was writing this blog, it got really long.  I decided to break the blog into two parts.  In each part, I describe two of the techniques on how to clean up the backgrounds of your nature photographs. Click here to read Part 2 of the blog.

Photo Processing Background Clean Up Techniques

Darken the Background

Yellow-faced Grassquit

Yellow-faced Grassquit Background Darkened

Sometimes just darkening portions of the background can hide the branches or other elements that can be distracting from the subject.  I use several tools/approaches to darken the background of my photos.  Different photos may require different tools to make the background less distracting.

Viveza 2 from the Nik Collection

Viveza 2 uses the U Point Technology from Nik Software to modify just a portion of the image.  This is accomplished by placing a control point on the image and adjusting the size of the circle.  There are sliders for each control point that can adjust the brightness, saturation, contrast, shadow adjustments, structure, etc.  Pixels of the same or similar color as the center of the control point will be affected by moving the control point sliders.

Color Efex Pro 4 – Darken / Lighten Center Filter

The Lighten / Darken Center Filter in Color Efex Pro 4 can be useful to darken distracting elements near the edge of the photograph.  You can adjust the location of the center, size of the center, center and border luminosity.  You can also add a negative control point to prevent the filter from changing an area of the photo.


A vignette can perform a similar function to the Lighten / Darken Center Filter by darkening the distracting objects near the edge of the photo.  Nik Color Efex Pro 4 and Lightroom both have the ability to add a vignette to a photo.

Blur the Background

Field Blur Filter

Field Blur Filter

Ideally, you’ve been able to shoot at a wide enough aperture where the background is already blurred and the subject is in sharp focus.  However, it doesn’t always work that way.  Here are a few ideas on how to blur the background in post processing.

Gaussian Blur or Lens Blur Filters and a Layer Mask in Photoshop

A photo can be blurred using the Gaussian Blur or Lens Blur filters in Photoshop and then using a layer mask to paint away the areas that you don’t want to be blurred.  You can change the opacity of the paint brush when painting in the layer mask to control the amount of blur on different locations of the photo.

This is one of the most precise approaches to blur the background of a photo as you have precise control over how much to blur each Pixel.  It also can be quite time consuming.  I’d recommend using a Wacom Tablet when using this approach.

Field Blur using Pins to Selectively Blur

If you don’t need the precision of using the layer mask to blur each pixel, the Field Blur filter in Photoshop uses a technique similar to the Nik Control Points that are called Pins in Photoshop.

In the Field Blur filter, you drop pins on the photo in the areas that you want to blur.  The amount of blur is set by rotating the dial on the pin.  I would also drop pins on the areas that you want to stay in focus and set the blur to zero.

Background Clean Up Example

Below are before and after images of a photograph that I took of grapes on the vine.  The photograph had a lot of distracting elements mainly around the sides of the photograph.  I processed the photo using the techniques described above.  First, I used the Field Blur filter in Photoshop CC 2014 to blur the elements in the background.  Next, I used a combination of the Darken / Lighten Center Filter in Color Efex Pro 4 and Viveza 2 to darken the background.

This is not the finished image.  In part 2 of this blog, I will continue with this example.  If you can’t wait to see the finished image, click on the before or after image in this blog post to see the final photograph.

Autumn Grapes on the Vine before Clean Up

Autumn Grapes on the Vine before Clean Up

Autumn Grapes on the Vine After Clean Up

Autumn Grapes on the Vine After Clean Up

Written by Martin Belan

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