New Nature Photography Rules

The following bulleted paragraphs detail the new definition of nature photography, which has been adopted by the PSA (Photographic Society of America), the PAGB (Photographic Alliance of Great Britain), the RPS (Royal Photographic Society) and Le FIAP (Fédération Internationale de l’Art Photographique).

The effect of standardising the definition will enable a consistency across all types of competition. This year, the L&CPU (Lancashire and Cheshire Photographic Union) have also adopted the definition for their Individual and Club competitions. It is therefore very important that all OPS members are aware of what can and cannot be entered into nature competitions under these rules.

The new nature rules are shown as bullets. The italic sections are intended to interpret the rules and are my own interpretation, in some cases, plus some sections paraphrased from the PSA clarification by Daniel Charbonnet, FPSA, EPSA, Vice-President, PSA Exhibition Services. The article by Mr Charbonnet can be seen in the PSA Journal, September 2014, where a fuller explanation is given.

  • Nature photography is restricted to the use of the photographic process to depict all
    branches of natural history, except anthropology and archaeology, in such a fashion
    that a well-informed person will be able to identify the subject material and certify its
    honest presentation.

CW: The subject should be depicted in its entirety, and lit to show as much detail as possible. It should be sharp and well detailed e.g. should not be enlarged so much that fine detail is lost and colour should be accurate. Depth of field (on the subject itself) should be as great as possible given the limitations of the camera. For focus-stacking, see later. UK judges prefer the background to be out of focus so as not to detract from the specimen itself. Black backgrounds are frowned upon on the whole, unless the habitat is naturally black.


This should be OK – it shows the whole insect…all six legs can be seen and the insect is shown from head to abdomen.


  • The story telling value of a photograph must be weighed more than the pictorial quality
    while maintaining high technical quality.

The PSA explanation, published recently in their monthly publication, says that “Technical quality includes primarily exposure and sharpness”  Pictorial quality includes “composition, quality of lighting and impact.”  Story telling includes animal behaviour, such as flying, swimming, fighting, mating, running etc…animals simply static are not as highly valued.

CW: and IMO, also correct colour rendition, which is important in identifying a specimen.

Arctic tern attacking

This is strong pictorially with great impact but may not generally score highly as it doesn’t show all the bird.

  • Human elements shall not be present, except where those human elements are integral parts of the nature story such as nature subjects, like barn owls or storks, adapted to an environment modified by humans, or where those human elements are in situations depicting natural forces, like hurricanes or tidal waves.

CW: Some examples of human elements that should not be present, some of which are given in the PSA article are: “Roads, paths, vehicle tracks, fences and posts, signs, Electricity poles and pylons, wires, buildings (or parts of buildings), walls (or parts of walls), tree stumps cut by man, jesses on birds…” I have found that UK judges are reasonably tolerant of birds on barbed wire or gateposts, but American judges have been less so.

male bullfinch 5099

This bullfinch is also on a cut log, but the ends don’t show, so that’s OK?

  •  Scientific bands, scientific tags or radio collars on wild animals are permissible.
  • Photographs of human created hybrid plants, cultivated plants, feral animals, domestic animals, or mounted specimens are ineligible, as is any form of manipulation that alters the truth of the photographic statement.

CW: So horses, cats, dogs, poultry, cattle and sheep, llamas and alpacas are not eligible. Even the white horses of the Camargue are not truly wild – they are herded like cattle. Neither are cultivated and hybrid plants eligible. However, wild orchids are truly wild flowers and they do naturally hybridise, so are presumably acceptable.

  • No techniques that add, relocate, replace, or remove pictorial elements except by cropping
    are permitted.

CW: You cannot remove anything, even a blade of grass or bright spots on leaves, unless it can be cropped out. You cannot add any elements in…so please don’t touch the clone tool. Bright spots could, however, be subdued by burning in, or selecting and curves adjustment, I assume. This one is a bone of contention with many nature photographers…who have been used to being allowed to crop out minor background distractions in the past.

  • Techniques that enhance the presentation of the photograph without changing the nature story or the pictorial content, or without altering the content of the original scene, are permitted including HDR, focus stacking and dodging/burning.

common blue damselfly 0052

This damselfly has a rather uneven background…if you are skilled at burning and dodging or selective use of curves, levels etc, you can even up the tones this way. If you are not, you cannot artificially blur the background or clone over areas to make it better. So, better hone your dodging and burning skills then?

CW: The PSA clarify this by saying: Adjustments that enhance your image without changing the content include exposure, color balance, contrast, sharpening, noise reduction, conversion to B&W, straightening, re-sizing and cropping.
Deliberately blurring the background (in the processing) is not allowed (though it is allowed in the taking).
Adding a vignette not originally produced by the camera is not allowed.

  • Techniques that remove elements added by the camera, such as dust spots, digital noise,
    and film scratches, are allowed.
  • Stitched images are not permitted.
  • All allowed adjustments must appear natural.
  • Color images can be converted to greyscale monochrome.
  • Infrared images, either direct-captures or derivations, are not allowed. 


  • Images used in Nature Photography competitions may be divided in two classes:
    Nature and Wildlife* (at the organiser’s discretion)
  • Images entered in Nature sections meeting the Nature Photography Definition above can
    have landscapes, geologic formations, weather phenomena, and extant organisms as the
    primary subject matter. This includes images taken with the subjects in controlled
    conditions, such as zoos, game farms, botanical gardens, aquariums and any enclosure
    where the subjects are totally dependent on man for food.

CW Note: the distinction here between nature and wildlife. Many competitions will use the nature rule but a small number will also include a section for wildlife where you will mark your entry appropriately to draw attention to the wild and free nature of the subject. Wild subjects which are taken in captive conditions, e.g. zoos and wildlfe parks will be eligible for nature. However, be aware that judges will almost certainly mark down images that look as if the background is not natural and also be aware of the “hand of man” limitation mentioned earlier.

*There is no Wildlife category in the Inter-Federation Competitions and Wildlife criteria do not apply there.

Personal Comment

CW Disclaimer: what follows is my own comment and is not endorsed by the society, the L&CPU or the PAGB. It is a personal view of what is happening in the world of competition photography.

Time will tell whether this set of rules will enhance or take away from good nature photography. Among those who enter high level competition, for some it will be a godsend, a return to “purity” in photography. For many ordinary club photographers, it might be seen as a curse, something imposed from “on high” to spoil the enjoyment of their hobby and continually threaten them with disqualification. It may be a consequence of the introduction of this rule in the UK that in the exhibitions that I have recently judged, entry to the nature section has been down and many nature subjects have been included in the colour sections, which may be an indication of how many nature subjects have been “tidied up” in the past.

Clearly, the rules are there for a purpose…I did judge a picture of an animal once at club level and commented that only three legs were visible..when I saw it again on the wall of a photographic salon, it had four legs, but both hind legs were identical, one hind leg being a clone of the other…thus it did not maintain the photographic truth of the matter. Unacceptable.

We have all seen beautiful pictures of birds in flight that have had a completely new sky dropped in…this is just “not on” for nature – if you do it, put it in the pictorial/general/open section!

But as I judge, should I really care if you have spotted out a minor distraction in the background? Do I care if a beautifully photographed bird is sitting on a cut log – not at all, if the log looks pretty enough! Definitely I should care if you have added ear tufts to a squirrel that weren’t there, or an extra leg on a spider – but, in my opinion, what we should be looking for is photographic truth of the subject – that it was actually there, with that background, which is natural and that the photograph is technically good with a bit of pictorial impact too.

Lastly, a word of warning…we are all at the mercy of the “rule police”, some of whom are determined to wipe out of existence all competitors who infringe their strictly drafted and occasionally illogical rules…to the extent that some bodies are writing into their rules that they reserve the right to demand to see the original RAW file. This applies to some traditional sections as well as nature. As a digital photographer of almost 20 years now, I would automatically spot out intrusions in the background of my shots; I did it in the wet process with spotting inks! I will now have forgotten what I did to the image in the first place if I edited it more than a week ago…so the best and safest way is to always go back and look at the RAW file before submitting the edited version…just to make sure you are within the rules.

Christine Widdall MPAGB EFIAP ABPE

Jan 2015

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