Use Photoshop To Make a Photo “Pop”

By Shutterstock contributor Alexey Stiop

Quality standards in stock photography are climbing ever higher, so having photos that “pop” will help your work stand out and give your portfolio an edge. How can you create the most vivid images while preserving the maximum image quality?

Let’s suppose you’re already following the advice to shoot RAW or, at the very least, turning off in-camera processing of JPEG images. Vibrance and saturation sliders during RAW conversion will only get you so far before you seriously distort pixels and produce massive artifacts.

So you go out and shoot a nicely lit, colorful scene only to discover that once you’ve downloaded and converted the photo, it still looks bleak. What do you do? How do you breathe life back into this meant-to-be-oh-so-beautiful photograph and make it “pop”? Photoshop to the rescue!

Here’s the recipe for making a photo “pop” in Adobe Photoshop without sacrificing image quality.

1. As always, when you’re about to manipulate your image, create a duplicate layer (Ctrl+J/Cmd+J).

2. Convert to LAB mode (Image -> Mode -> Lab color). Don’t flatten.

3. Make sure Layer 1 (the duplicate layer) is selected and go to Channels palette.

4. Select Channel a.

5. Recall Curves (Ctrl+M/Cmd+M or go to Image -> Adjustments -> Curves).

6. Grab the handle in the upper right corner and drag it along the horizontal axis to the left to the first square as shown above.

7. Now grab the handle in the lower left corner and drag it to the right in similar fashion, as seen above. Click OK.

8. Switch to Channel b in the Channels palette.

9. Repeat steps 5 – 7.

10. Select Lab channel. Convert back to RGB (Image -> Mode -> RGB); don’t flatten.

11. Go back to Layers palette and look at your image. Too much? It most likely is. Good thing you did it on a separate layer, isn’t it?
You know what to do now – just lower the opacity of the top layer to suit your taste.

With this method you can quickly lose details in the red tones. An easy solution is to select the color range and mask it out. Go to Select -> Color Range, select your red tone and play with the fuzziness and click OK. Now go to the Layers palette and with Layer 1 selected, click on the Add Mask button while holding Alt. This mask will be saved in the Channels palette. Apply some Gaussian Blur to the mask. You can reduce the mask effect (add some saturation to the red tones) by painting the black areas of the mask with a soft white brush at 30% opacity.

A little productivity tip – you can save steps 1 through 10 as an action and assign a keystroke to it.

And one final word of caution: Remember the main rule of “popping” the image: moderation! It still should look like a photograph, not a cartoon.

View Alexey Stiop’s website at


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