How to make your pictures POP!

Every photographer knows that when you shoot your images in RAW instead of JPEG, they come out looking kinda… well… blah. It can be a GREAT composition, fantastic exposure and lighting, but still… there is something missing. Here are two things I always do to make my images come back to life! Not every photographer does it the same way, but these few steps have worked well to get me started with every photograph.

Lets start at the beginning: A RAW photograph of horses straight out of the camera. Pretty right? But what could we do to make it better? Continue reading to find out!


First things first: always check your Levels layer. Adjusting the Levels layer will let you darken your shadows and brighten your highlights at the same time, creating more contrast.

<– Here you see the Photoshop right sidebar. At the bottom, I’ve made a red box where you would find the Levels layer option. When you click that button, choose levels and it will bring up your ADJUSTMENTS tab above your LAYERS.

<– Adjustment Tab. You will make most of your adjustments to any layer in this box. To give your images more contrast, move the black slider to the right (just until you begin to notice a true black color in the shadows of your picture) and move the white slider to the left (just until the whites become true white *be careful not to move it too far!)




<– Layers Tab. This is where all of your adjustments will be kept. You can go back and delete layers, change them, move them. All sorts of things!





After adding a levels layer to my image, my picture already looks 100x better!


<– Original






<– With Levels!




STEP 2: Burn & Dodge

This next step just a little tricky, it just takes some practice to judge what you need to do. Burning and Dodging is simply darkening and lightening a photograph. I know, you’re thinking, “Didn’t we just do that?” Yes… and No. Burning and Dodging allows you to pick very specific areas of the photograph to darken and lighten, rather than applying it to the entire picture like Levels does.

To start your Burn & Dodge Layer (or BnD as I label it), on the top bar in Photoshop go to Layer>New>Layer. Once you do that, a dialog box will appear:

I always name my new layer as BnD. Choose Overlay for the “Mode”, and make sure you check the box: “Fill with Overlay-neutral color (50% gray).” Then hit OK.



<– Next, select the Brush tool in the tool bar on the left side of the screen. This tool will allow you to paint in whatever color you want into the BnD layer we just created.



<– Make sure your colors are set to white and black. Which ever color is on top is the color you will be painting with. White on top means you will be making whatever you paint on the BnD layer LIGHTER, Black on top means you will be making anything you paint on the BnD layer DARKER.

MAKE SURE YOU CHANGE THE OPACITY OF YOUR BRUSH! Once you have the brush tool selected, go to the top tool bar and change the opacity to about 15%. That is typically where I start. You can make it lower so the paint has less of an effect, or higher so it has more of an effect. For example, 50% will be stronger than 15%.

Now just paint white wherever you want it to be lighter and black where you want it to be darker! Typically, you want to make the subject of my images slightly brighter than the background. In my image, the white horse is my subject so I’m going to make everything else darker, and the white horse slightly brighter.

1st image on the left is the original…

2nd image is the image with the Levels Layer…

3rd image is the image with the Levels and BnD Layers!

Go try it and post as a comment your success!!


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