Grasshopper Sparrow

A Terrific Technique for Ultimate Noise and Sharpness Control in Nature Photography

Grasshopper Sparrow (Above Photo)

My preferred look for Nature Photography is a near noise free background with a sharp subject.  I don’t know why but I just don’t like a noisy background of my nature photographs.

In this blog, I’ll show you a technique that I use to get very precise control over noise and sharpness in my photos using selective sharpening and noise reduction techniques.

This certainly isn’t the fastest approach to noise reduction or sharpening but it will give you the ultimate control over what parts of your photo are sharpened and which parts are noise free.

Below is a step by step approach to selective noise reduction and sharpening.  The tools I use for this effect are Photoshop and the DeNoise plug-in from Topaz Labs.  You don’t need the latest version of Photoshop for this technique, an older version will work as well.

You can substitute a different noise reduction program or filter that you instead of Topaz DeNoise.  I like DeNoise because it gives you several presets to get started, and then you can further control the overall noise and separately control the noise in the highlights and shadows.

Steps for Noise Reduction and Sharpening in your Nature Photographs

1. Open your photo in Photoshop and create a duplicate layer by pressing (Command + J – Mac) (Ctrl + J – Windows)

Selective Noise Reduction and Sharpen 1

2.  After selecting the new layer, launch Topaz DeNoise or your favorite noise reduction plugin or filter.  In DeNoise, click on the presets to select the level of noise reduction that is close to what you are looking for in your photo.  In the right panel, you can adjust the Overall Strength of the Noise Reduction and individually reduce the noise in the highlights and shadows.  You can use the mouse to move around the photo to see the effect on different parts of the image.

Selective Noise Reduction and Sharpen 2

3.  In this step, you will use the paint brush tool to paint away areas of the photo that you don’t want affected by the noise reduction.  You can also selectively reduce the amount of noise reduction in areas of the photo by using the opacity slider at the top of the screen once the paintbrush is selected.  You may want to zoom into the image (Press z and use the mouse to click in.  Option Click to Zoom out).

A Wacom Tablet is a handy tool to use for more precise brush strokes.  The Wacom tablet makes it more like painting or drawing with a pencil than using a mouse.  Below are steps to follow for selective nose reduction.

Create a layer mask on your new noise reduction lay by clicking the add layers button on the lower right of the screen.  Select black as your foreground color and select the paint brush tool.  Make sure the layer mask in the noise reduced layer is selected.  Paint the areas of the photo you don’t want impacted by the noise reduction.  Press the Backslash Key “\” to highlight in red the areas that are not impacted by then noise reduction.

Set the forecolor to black if you don’t want that area of the photo impacted by noise reduction.  Set the forecolor to white if you want the noise reduction applied to that area of the image.

The photoshop Select Subject tool can also be a great start to creating your layer mask. Goto the Selection Menu and Select Subject. Click Select and Mask and save the Output to a Layer Mask. See my Blog on Incorporating the Select Subject tool in your Post Processing workflow.

Selective Noise Reduction and Sharpen 3

4. Create another duplicate layer off of the background layer.  In the Filter menu in photoshop, select the Unsharp Mask Tool.  Adjust the Amount and Radius sliders in the window to get desired amount of sharpness in the photo.  You can use the mouse to navigate around the zoomed in part of the image in the small window.  I also like to click the preview check box on and off to see the overall impact on the image.

You’ll want to set the sharpness level to the area you want the sharpest in the image.  Usally this is the eye for birds and wildlfe.  You can alway reduce the brush opacity in the next step to make certain areas of the photo less sharp.  When you are done, press the OK button to apply the filter.

Selective Noise Reduction and Sharpen 4

5.  A short cut for creating the layer mask for selective sharpening is to copy the layer mask from the noise reduction and invert it.  This will give you a good start on painting the sharpening layer mask as the areas you didn’t was impacted by the noise reduction are normally the areas you want sharpened in the photo.

You can copy and invert the layer mask from the noise reduction by holding down the (Option Key – Mac, Alt Key Windows) and dragging the layer mask to the new layer.  The layer mask can then be inverted by pressing (Command I – Mac, Crl I – Windows).

Use the paint brush tool to reduce the amount of sharpening (set the forecolor to black) or increase the amount of sharpening (set the forecolor to white).  Set the Paint Brush Opacity Slider to determine the amount of sharpening.  Pressing the backslash key “\” will use a red highlight to show the areas not impacted by the filter.  The darker red areas are less impacted by the sharpening and the area that have no red are the most impacted.

Selective Noise Reduction and Sharpen 6

If you have a favorite method for selective noise reduction and selective sharpening, post a comment to the blog and let us know.

Written by Martin Belan

How to Clean up the Backgrounds of your Nature Photographs – Part 1
How to Clean up the Backgrounds of your Nature Photographs – Part 2
Where Did the Oil Paint Filter go in Adobe Photoshop CC 2014?

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  • Bokeh

    I appreciate you sharing this terrific technique for ultimate noise and sharpness control in nature photography. It’s clear that you have a keen eye for detail and a preference for a near noise-free background with a sharp subject in your nature photographs. The step-by-step approach you’ve provided, along with the use of Photoshop and the Topaz DeNoise plug-in, allows for precise control over noise reduction and selective sharpening.

    Your attention to detail, such as using the paint brush tool and layer masks, demonstrates your dedication to achieving the desired effect in different areas of the image. The tips and shortcuts you’ve shared, like copying and inverting layer masks, make the process more efficient and user-friendly. It’s evident that you’ve put thought and effort into perfecting this technique.

    I admire your willingness to share this knowledge with others and invite them to contribute their favorite methods for selective noise reduction and sharpening. By fostering a community of photographers, we can all learn and grow together. Thank you for providing valuable insights and empowering photographers to take their nature photography to the next level.

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