Make Your Colors Pop Using Photoshop

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Contrast between original and color saturated photo

One thing most new photographers don’t realize is that no matter how good a photo is when you press the shutter release, you can easily make it better with a few tweaks afterwards. After all, photos taken with a digital camera often lack the vibrancy and color saturation you get with film. Want to get that vibrancy back? I’ll share how I make my photos come alive and “pop” with color — and I’ll do it with just tools available in even the most basic versions of Photoshop and other photo editors.

Contrast between original and color saturated photo

As an aside, I shoot in RAW.  Shooting in your camera’s RAW mode lets you easily make tweaks to exposure and saturation before converting it to JPG. And it makes processing hundreeds of images per session much faster. I love it.

Let’s get started. The image below it isn’t all that bad. It’s a little dark, but… decent, right? It isn’t until you see it as it could be that you realize it could be much better.

Photo in Photoshop example

Is it too dark? To lighten, I open up levels—press CTRL+L. Under the histogram “mountain,” move the middle arrow right or left to lighten or darken. You can play with all 3 arrows, while keeping an eye on your image, to find the best light levels. Keep ion mind that lightening an underexposed image is easier than darkening an over-exposed one. Blown-out images (ones with too much light) are harder to salvage. After you like it, hit OK.

Photoshop editingAfter I’ve played with levels, I then go to the soft light layer.
To do that, click the Layer menu and then choose Duplicate Layer,” followed by OK.
Duplicate layer

This puts two identical versions of the image on top of each other. I’ll keep the original (on the bottom) the same.
Duplicate layer

Make sure the top layer is selected (on the right side of the screen, you’ll see “Background copy” highlighted), and it’s time to add the soft light layer. Click where it says “Normal” and choose Soft Light.
Add soft light layer

Now tweak the opacity to your liking. Opacity is how transparent the layer is — so decreasing the opacity lets more of the underlying layer shine through.
Adjusting opacity

Depending on the image, I might want to keep the opacity at 100% or I might want to lower it to where I like the look.

Here is a sample below of 0 soft light, at 50% opacity and at 100%.

Examples of opactity in photoshop

The original image was slightly underexposed, and that made it look a bit foggy. I like this particular photo with the opactity set to 100% —  except that the trees in the background bother me. The trees got a lot darker (check out the middle left to see what I mean). That’s okay, though; I can “dodge” that a bit afterwards — I’ll show you how to do that in a while. For now, I love the skin glow, so I’ll stay with 100%.

Next, I’ll tweak the top layer a bit more to my liking, and eventually merge the two layers into one.
Merge and flatten image in Photoshop

Now, I want to get back to that dark patch of trees and lighten it with the Dodge tool (which is a little more than halfway down the tool palette on the left side of the screen). I set the Flow somewhat low, and I keep the brush size big so it just “dusts” the area we want to lighten.

Lightening with Dodge Tool in Photoshop

You can see my brush size and how it lightened just a touch. Just go around in a little circle. If you’ve done too much, go back a few steps with CTRL+ALT+Z.

Color saturation using brush in trees

I use the Dodge/Burn/Sponge tools a lot. They share the same button in the menu – you just right click on the square for the button to change. Dodge lightens an area, burn darkens it, and sponge gives a burst of saturation.

Dodge Burn and Sponge Tool

So let’s try the Sponge. Using the Sponge, I’ll saturate the color in the trees and grass. I run the tool in circles around the areas I want a bit richer in color, making sure to avoid the skin tones (or they will turn orange — ouch!).

Color saturation in trees with Photoshop
Use it just a little — not too much. But if you want more, up the opacity a bit.

At the end, I always make a copy of the photo and keep my original.

And that is your basic color pop.

Photo credit: Kristen Duke

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