Make Your Photos Pop

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Have you ever wondered what makes some photos pop while others are easy to dismiss? The secret to make your photos pop is understanding what the mind desires and rejects. With five simple steps, you can understand how to make your photos pop.

1: Start In Camera

You would think this should go without saying, but I’ve been wrong before. If you want to make your photos pop, start with your capture. There are a few things that should go through your mind at the point of capture.

First, do you have a subject? There are countless photos in the world with no discernible subject. People thought they found a pretty scene and took a snapshot. A photo without a subject is never going to have an element that pops.

Next, is anyone interested in your subject? Find something unique, interesting, beautiful or somehow engaging. It could be a person, a car or anything. It just has to be interesting to your audience. We’re not worried about the size of the audience right now. If you’re taking photos to compete with your favorite beekeeping magazine, then you know you have an audience of interested people.  Could be a small audience, but they still want quality photos. Start by asking yourself who cares about your subject.

Once you have a subject and you know someone will have an interest, work on isolating your subject. How you do that is up to your creativity. You can go with a shallow depth of field or be selective about how you light your subject. Find a way to isolate your subject from the background.

Avoid competing with details. Your photo is about your subject, not all the crap that surrounds it. Make sure your subject is appropriate in size to the background or complementary elements. Eliminate anything that you don’t need in the photo. Details outside of your subject are just distractions.

Your mind dislikes clutter. That’s why isolated subjects pop more than those competing with too much detail.

Take a look at the photo below of Elena. Beautiful girl for a portrait. I liked the lines on the wall to lead into her as my subject, but I also realized they could be a distraction. I could have lit her and let the wall fade to darkness, but I opted for a shallow depth of field. We had great ambient light in the studio from some frosted glass windows, so I decided to use that light.

Shooting at 200mm with f/2.8 softened the lines on either side of her, so your eye gets drawn to the sharpest part of the image where Elena stands.

Make Your Photos Pop


2:  Fix Your Colors

Here’s the nice thing about photography as an art. It doesn’t have to be accurate. However, it does need to be consistent with itself. The human mind can accept things it knows is unreal as long as it has some logic. Otherwise, we could never accept a black and white photo.

There are a number of ways to fix your colors to make your photos pop. One of the easiest things to do is to correct your White Balance. There are numerous White Balance targets that you can use when you’re shooting. Simply hold it up in the same light you’re going to use to photograph your subject When you get back to your post processing environment, such as Lightroom, use the White Balance eyedropper to select the target and set your White Balance for the photos.

If you want to have greater color accuracy, use something like the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport.

In a pinch, click something that looks like it ought to be color neutral. It may not be completely accurate, but it will get you in the neighborhood. For the image below, I clicked one of the white bricks behind Elena.

Make Your Photos Pop

3: Boost Your Contrast and Color

Let’s face it, this image looks pretty flat so far. Other than the shallow depth of field to isolate Elena, there isn’t much that makes her pop yet. Now it’s time to change all that with a little excessive editing.

I’m using Lightroom for the following edits. The truth is that I didn’t even have to select some of the most important values. Holding down the Shift Key and double-clicking the labels, Lightroom set the White and Black points for me.

It’s a place to start. You can still move them if you like, but I find they work well most of the time.  You can do the same technique with Highlights and Shadows. For this image, those values didn’t change.

I moved the Contrast to +25 and also moved Vibrancy to +25. However, I didn’t bother with Clarity. For most of this image, I want a soft appearance. Clarity makes things gritty.

Sometimes, gritty is good. If you’re working with a subject that could use some enhanced texture, crank up the Clarity a bit. Nothing exceeds like excess!

With these adjustments, we’re increasing the amount of information your mind has to separate elements of your photo. Rather than having one flat, homogenous mess, now you’re starting to get definable elements.

Do you remember a face, or do you remember someone’s eyes or their smile? In this step, you’re enhancing the overall image. It’s like adding spice to a meal. You’re creating interest with useful information.

Make Your Photos Pop

4: Crop Your Way to Success

There are some people who don’t believe in cropping their photos in post processing. I’m not one of them. That’s not a knock on those who don’t choose to crop later. I don’t know their motivations. Perhaps that drives them harder to get things right in camera, and I don’t find any fault with that idea.

My own experience teaches me that it’s good to have a bit of extra room n your compositions. A number of post-processing choices can mess with your perfect, in-camera composition. Not the least of them is Lens Correction. It’s a wonderful tool, but it eats up the edges.

There may be times when you want to tilt the composition later. You can’t always go back and re-shoot to get it right. Try as we do to consider everything at the moment of capture, sometimes we screw up. I know I do. There are times when I need to fix a horizon line, or I decide later that another angle works better.

If I have some extra space to crop, I can make the change. If not, I may end up with a throw-away photo that was close, but not quite there.

Also, who says that you can only show your photos in the aspect ratio that your camera captures? I tend to prefer 16:9 aspect ratio for a lot of my photos, but I can’t do that at the moment of capture. I have to crop to get what I want. Who’s going to stop me?

Notice how Elena is larger in the image now that I’ve cropped the frame. Yes, you could shoot her closer in camera and in some cases you should. If you didn’t, then crop away so you bring her closer. She’s the subject and that’s what the mind wants. Fill the frame with your subject.

Make Your Photos Pop

5: Enhance The Details To Make Your Photos Pop

This is the part that can separate your photos from the masses. Pay attention to the details. Does your subject have a feature that should stand out a bit? Bright the eyes. Shine up some chrome on a car. Add some texture to a building.

It’s amazing how subtle details can affect your perception of a photo. Have you ever seen a bad composite where someone looks plastered on a background, yet doesn’t belong? You know it’s a fake right away. All it would take is a very subtle shadow to make it believable, but someone skipped that step.

The brain rejects inconsistency. We know when something doesn’t look right, even if we don’t know what’s missing. If you really want to make your photos pop, take some time enhancing the details of your subject.  I increased the highlights in Elena’s hair below, brightened her eyes a bit and made her skin a tad warmer.

The warmth of her skin and the cool tone of the background is another form of contrast. It’s a detail that makes her stand out from the wall. Your selective edits to details add contrast and tension that the brain finds interesting. So tweak those details and make your photos pop in the mind of your viewer.

Make Your Photos Pop

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