Noel Culbertson's picture

Pictures that Pop

How do they do it? I know I’ve thought it at least a million times, and that was just this week! How do these wonderful mama-razzis, with the snap of a camera and a zip up in photoshop, achieve amazing results time after time. I’ve trolled through galleries full of amazing pictures, and imitated literally hundreds of poses and angles. But there is definitely something striking about pictures that have spent a little time in post-processing. Post-processing is anything you do to enhance a picture after it’s been taken. (Note: If you feel intimidated by the instructions that follow, just KEEP READING, because there's a FREE action at the end of this post that will allow you do get the very same effect with just one or two clicks of your mouse!)




Without getting into anything that’s too crazy stylized, there are several little touch-ups you can do to make your photos really pop. I know I’m a bit of a photo program junkie, so for this I narrowed my program usage down to just Photoshop Elements. When I say just Photoshop Elements (PSE), it is absolutely a program that gives you all of the tools to post-process to your heart’s content. And just a word of warning, adding that extra pop to your pictures is highly addictive! My dad often said, “Here’s Noel to make a long story longer.” So in keeping with tradition I’m going to walk through the process, and give an easy shortcut.

Every digital photo comes out of the camera in a sort of fog. (Think: Claratin commercials when the fog is lifted off the picture.) We’re going to bring our pictures out of that fog and into the clear in just a few easy steps.

The first step will be to brighten up the picture a bit. Open your photo in PSE, and click Layer > Duplicate Layer to copy your background layer. With your new layer selected, change the blending mode to Screen. (The blending mode menu is located in that little drop down menu just above the layers pallet toward the bottom right corner of your screen.) This will brighten your photo up... way up! It just might have brightened it up WAY too much. Luckily PSE lets you lower the transparency of each layer! So taking the opacity slider, on the top right side of the layers pallet, and slide it to the left until the brightness level looks appropriate.



Next we’re going to add a little color pop to the picture. Click on your Background Layer again, and click Layer > Duplicate Layer.  With your new layer selected, change the blending mode to Soft Light. Now it is very likely that this layer will also need an opacity adjustment. Moving the opacity slider to about 35% is a good starting point, but you can adjust it to suit your picture and taste.

Now to really blow that fog out of the air, we’re going to sharpen the picture. Before we do that, we’re going to need to merge all of the layers together. Click Layer > Merge Visible to condense all of the layers into one. Now click Layer > Duplicate Layer to make a copy of your background layer. To sharpen the new layer click Enhance > Unsharp Mask, and type in 100 for the amount, 1.0 for the radius and 3 for the threshold . Your image should be noticeably sharper. If the sharpening is a bit too much, you can lower the opacity down to a level that suits your photo. Again, we’ll want to merge the layers by clicking Layer > Merge Visible.

Finally, a little trick I picked up from my friend Janet Phillips to add that one last subtle touch of greatness, a vignette. For most of my pictures I add a darker vignette (an area that’s shaded off gradually) to bring the eye in toward my subject. To make a darker vignette, select the oval Marquee tool by right clicking on the dotted square on the tool bar, and selecting the dotted oval from the fly-out menu (or by pressing “M” twice). Draw a large oval by clicking and dragging your mouse. Now right click inside your oval and select Feather from the fly-out menu. I usually type in 250 pixels in the feather window, if your pictures are lower resolution, adjust the feathering to something like 150 pixels. Next we’re going to select the inverse of our oval by clicking Select > Inverse. This will select everything but the oval. Now click Edit > Copy, then Edit > Paste. You will now have just the selected area on a new layer. Change the blending mode of the new layer to Multiply. Lower the opacity to your liking, and you’re finished!


With that all said and done you may be saying to yourself, “This is a lot of work to put into every photo,” and you are right! That’s why I, with the help of a little Google research, developed a PSE action to condense all of these steps into a single step! If you’re not familiar with PSE actions, it is a series of Photoshop commands that are done for you, and they are fabulous. With the click of a button, all of the previous photo-popping steps will automatically be applied to your picture. How sweet is that! You can download the action here, and watch a video tutorial here.

After downloading the action, unzip the file and install it in PSE.

(If you need help installing the action, this site will walk you through that process)

After installing the action, open a picture in PSE, double click on the action in the Effects pallet and watch the magic!

You will still be able to adjust the opacity on each layer to suit your picture but all of the work will be done for you!

Once all of your edits are in finished, click Layer > Flatten Image to condense your image down to one layer, and save masterpiece.

Let me know what you think of this action, leave a comment on my blog.
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