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How I edit my photos of birds

When it comes to editing the images, there are widely differing opinions among nature photographers. On the one hand there are those who do not edit their pictures at all. On the other hand, there are photographers who want to get everything out of the RAW files with image processing programs. In this article I’ll explain to you, how I personally edit my photos.

Image editing program(s)

I edit my photos with Lightroom and Photoshop *. However, there are other programs for editing images. In the end, it doesn't really matter what program you use. The important thing is that you have a program that can read RAW files. I already explained in previous article, why you should always shoot in RAW format


When I return from a successful morning, I have hundreds of photos on my memory card. To select and edit them efficiently, you should fine-tune your workflow. Because the less time you have to spend in front of the screen, the more time you can spend outdoors. In today's article, however, I’ll concentrate on editing the photos. I will cover the whole workflow in a future article.

Dieses junge Blässhuhn ist erst vor wenigen Tagen geschlüpft.

In this picture I had brightened the left side of the image as well as the head of the young Coot. This change introduced a bit more dynamic.

(Hover over the image or hold for a while to see the unedited picture)


After I have selected a photo that I want to edit, I start with the crop. First, I straighten the photo. Especially if you had to shoot from an uncomfortable position, the pictures are often not straight. With Lightroom this can be corrected quite easily. With Ctrl you can select the horizon and Lightroom will straighten the photo correctly.

The I try out different compositions before I decide on the composition that I like the best. In general, I try to create the composition according to the golden ratio.

Especially in animal photography you often tend to crop the image so much that the quality suffers a bit. But you should avoid that. The bird does not always have to be shown in full format. Often pictures are much more interesting if the bird is shown a little smaller and a lot of landscape is included.

How much you can crop your photo depends on your camera. With a camera with a high resolution you can crop much more than with a camera with fewer megapixels. I try to crop to a maximum of 4000 pixels on the long side. In rare cases I also crop more.

Basic adjustments

After I have decided on a composition, I adjust the basic values of the picture. That means I make first adjustments regarding brightness, contrast and hue. For this part, I don’t follow any rules. It greatly varies from picture to picture how I edit them. The best thing you can do, is just to play with the sliders until you like the picture. Over time you will get a feeling for how to adjust the sliders.

Sharpness and Vignetting

After I have made the basic adjustments, I sharpen the image a little if necessary. But you should not overdo it. If an image is sharpened too much, white lines appear at the edges. These are disturbing and you should avoid them.

Then I let the program, in my case Lightroom, automatically remove the vignetting and distortion of the lens as well as chromatic aberrations. In some cases, I leave the vignetting in the image. This is because the darker corners lead to the focus being directed more towards the centre.

Removing disturbing elements in Photoshop

For the next steps I switch from Lightroom to Photoshop. For the following steps I also use a graphics tablet. There will be another article about this soon.

First, I remove disturbing elements and sensor spots on the image in Photoshop. For this step, I use the Clone Tool. Basically, I mainly remove plastic particles, small pieces of wood and other disturbing, small image elements. Larger elements like branches I only remove very rarely.

Ein Sanderling sucht am Strand nach Futter.

IIn this picture of a Sanderling I removed a few pieces of organic material that was washed upon the shore. I also warmed up the image a bit.

(Hover over the image or hold for a while to see the unedited picture)

Denoising in Photoshop

If the photos were taken in low light conditions and the image is noisy, I use the Photoshop plug-in Dfine formerly owned and made by Nik Collections. Dfine is part of a plug-in collection that has been bought and resold by companies several times. Fortunately, I was able to download it in a time when it was offered for free. Today the plugin belongs to DxO Labs and is quite expensive. With a little more time, you can get good results with Photoshop and layer masks even without the plug-in.

Local adjustments in Photoshop

Finally, I edit the picture locally. That means I edit only the background or only the darker parts of the feathers. In many cases I lower the contrast in the background quite strongly. To get back the lost colour I increase the saturation and adjust the hue. I combine the filters in a group and apply the effect with a layer mask only to the background. The bird will not be processed by the filters. In most cases, the change will not have a big effect. Because the contrast is lowered a bit, the background loses structure. This makes the background less distracting from the bird.

With the tablet I lighten the image a little bit in some places. Especially shadows in the plumage can be softened a bit. In contrast I also darken certain places in the photo.

What I also do in some cases is to add a slight brightness gradient to the picture. Thereby I lighten the picture on the side, in which the animal looks. This adds a certain dynamic to the image.

Eine Mehlschwalbe sammelt Lehm um ihr Nest zu bauen.

In this image of a House martin, I added a bit of brightness to the left upper corner. With this effect it seems as if the bird would look into the slowls setting sun.

(Hover over the image or hold for a while to see the unedited picture)

Reiherente im Habitat.

I added a bit of colour to the background of this image, because the camera didn't pick up the colours as much as what I have seen myself on that day.

(Hover over the image or hold for a while to see the unedited picture)

Tips for better editing

If you sit too long in front of the screen, you may get lost in editing. The next time you look at the pictures, you will notice that the colours are not right at all. So, if you are at the computer for a long time and edit photos, you should take short breaks. This way your eyes can recover, and you can work on your pictures again and staying true to the colours.

Always look at old photos again. When I browse through my archive, I always find photos that I didn't notice before. Especially now you probably have a lot of time to look at your old photos.

How I edit a picture step by step

  • Unedited image of a hedgehog

    For 2 years now, a family of hedgehogs lives with us in our garden. Especially in late summer the hedgehogs have been appearing shortly after sunset. In this photo the camera has chosen a pretty cool white balance. Furthermore, the picture is a bit dark and especially the small branch on the right side of the picture disturbs me a bit.

  • The cropped image of the hedgehog

    In this case I cropped the photo very little. To create a little more space on the right side, I cut the left side a little bit. The photo was pretty straight in camera and so I did not have to adjust the angle.

  • The image of the hedgehog edited with Lightroom

    In Lightroom, I lightened the image by one stop of light. I changed the white balance from XK to YK. Additionally, I played a bit with the other sliders until I liked the photo.

  • The image with a removed element.

    In Photoshop I removed the branch at the right edge of the picture. For this I used the clone stamp. Photoshop could also remove disturbing elements automatically. But I mostly do it manually anyway as it is a bit more precise.

  • The final image retouched with Photoshop.

    In Photoshop I lightened the right side a bit and darkened the left side a tad. This has the effect that the hedgehog looks into the light and gives the picture a bit more dynamic.

*The links to Adobe are affiliate links. If you click on such an affiliate link and make a purchase via this link, I will receive a commission from the respective online shop. For you the price does not change.

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Nicolas Stettler

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