3 Easy Steps Using Photoshop to Making your Images POP


Image Post Processing Techniques

Having taught in-depth image post-processing workshops for Photoshop users, I’ve found that three of the simplest techniques are the ones that people love the most. These are quick and easy tricks that work for most image processing situations.

If you’ve got your exposure, aperture, focus and white balance all correct during shooting, you’ve got all that you need for a great image, but with these three easy steps using Photoshop we’ll add some serious POP to the colour, contrast and sharpness of your images.

I’m going to assume that you’ve already corrected your image in Adobe Camera Raw to fix any blown out highlights and shadow detail. This can sometimes leave you with a low contrast image that lacks lustre. HDR users will often find that a full HDR image lacks some punch once it has all the dynamic range fixed for highlights and shadows. Here’s how to add some pizazz to images.

I’ll start with a RAW file from last year’s trip to Moab, Utah.

Unprocessed RAW file

I was more than happy to get this shot of Courthouse Towers in Moab, Utah but the RAW file was total Blandsville.

Step 1 – Make Those Colours POP

Open the image in Adobe Photoshop. With the image on the background layer of Photoshop, right click on the layer (in the layer window) and choose ‘Duplicate Layer’ (see screenshot below left).

Duplicate Layer Multiply Layer

Now click on the newly duplicated layer and change the blend mode to ‘Multiply’ (see screenshot above right).

Multiply Blend Mode

Right away you’ll notice that all of the colours are more striking and the contrast is extreme. It’s also way too dark so we’ll fix that next.

Next go to Image > Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights and drag the shadows slider all the way to right then hit OK (see screenshot below left).

Photoshop Shadows / Highlights Photoshop Layer Opacity

By doing this, you’ll reduce the darker parts of the image ONLY in the duplicated layer. It’s still a little too dark, so in the layers window reduce the opacity of the duplicated layer until it’s at about 58% (see screenshot above right). This percentage will be different for all of your images so use your judgement and don’t overdo it. Usually I find that a setting of 28% works best in most cases.

Step 2 – Selectively Boost Colours and Brighten

I think that some of the colors need a little encouragement. For this example you want to boost the blue sky so combine the two layers that you’ve been working on so that you can make changes to that. You can do this ‘none destructively’ by pressing ctrl+alt+shift+e which will now combine the two layers you have selected, and create a new layer from those. The original layers are still intact underneath this new one.

Next, go to Image > Adjustments > Color Balance > and bring up the RGB sliders. As I mentioned earlier, you’re going to be boosting the blues in my sky so click on ‘mid-tones’ and then pull the blue slider up to about +42.

Photoshop Color Balance

Boosted Blue Midtones

Ooooh, now that sky is looking vibrant but I’m not too sure about boosting the blues in the land area. Let’s fix that by erasing the land in this blue layer so that the layer underneath is revealed, where the blue mid-tones have not been boosted. You can also do this with ‘layer masks’ but this method is much easier to understand.

Do this with the eraser tool and select a brush size that fits inside the land area of the image. In the layer with the boosted blue mid-tones, erase a large area of land at first and then choose a smaller brush size for tighter control. To do this, simply click inside the layer you want to erase. The settings below show a brush size of 1053 pixels and a hardness of 0% which gives a soft, feathered edge.

Photoshop Easer Tool

Erase Bruash Tool

Click in the area you’d like to erase to reveal the layer beneath. In this case the layer beneath won’t have the boosted blue mid-tones that you want only in the sky.

Now you’ve managed to selectively boost the blue colour in the sky without ruining other parts of the image that didn’t need that blue boost. Here is an image of how the ‘sky’ layer looks after the land has been erased out, and below you can see how it looks in the layers panel.

Erased Land

This is what’s left of the ‘boosted blues’ layer. The layers under it are temporarily switched off so that you can see the isolated sky.

Photoshop Layers Palette

Layers panel showing the partially erased boosted blue sky layer

Notice that the opacity of the sky layer has been reduced to 49% so the effect is more subtle when laid over the top of the lower two layers. Again, you’ll need to use your own judgement for your own images as they won’t all be the same. Maybe you have red clouds and would like to boost the red highlights? You can do this procedure multiple times with multiple layers to tweak the colours selectively. There are more accurate ways to do this but if you’re new to Photoshop, this is the easiest method to understand and has hardly any learning curve.

Lastly, all this tweaking has made the image a little too dark so a boost the overall brightness by 36 has been done.

Photoshop Brightness

Step 3 – Let’s Resize and Get Sharp

Sharpening is often something that I leave to the end of my image processing, depending on the medium I’m using to display the image. I’ll use different sharpening settings for a high resolution print than I will for the web, so it’s always a good idea to save an ‘unsharpened’ version of your processed image for safe keeping.

Assuming that you wish to display your images online, here are some fairly universal sharpening settings that I use for sharing my images online. Before we sharpen, let’s flatten and resize our image for the web. You can decide how large your image should display on screens but for the purposes of this tutorial let’s go with 1200 pixels wide.

Go to Layer > Flatten Image so that you’re now just dealing with one complete layer that has all of the changes. Next go to Image > Image Size and tell Photoshop that you’d like your image to have a resolution of 72 dpi which is standard for web images. Next, specify the width by entering 1200 pixels in the ‘width’ window. The height should auto adjust if you have ‘constrain proportions’ checked by default (the little chain icon).

Photoshop Image Resize

Next open the Filter > Sharpen> Unsharp Mask tool.

Use some fairly safe sharpen settings for web so that you don’t over it. It’s worth noting that ‘sharpening’ deserves an article as a separate topic but for now these basic settings should get you going. Try: Amount > 128%, Radius > 1.7 pixels and Threshold > 58 Levels.

Photoshop Unsharp Mask

The Final Result

POP! There you go, three easy steps an you’ve now got an image with plenty of punch. There are many different ways to achieve the same results, but for this tutorial, I wanted to give you an easy to understand process to introduce you to some of Photoshops most powerful tools. Try these three simple techniques for your image post-processing and let me know it works out for you.

After Processing

IMPORTANT NOTE: Backup your files before editing or saving your edits.

Read more from our Post Production category

Gavin Hardcastle is a fine art photographer, writer and instructor from BC, Canada. Become a better photographer today with his free photography guides and photography tutorials. You can learn from Gavin directly at his global photography workshops in some of the worlds most spectacular locations. Upgrade your post processing skills with his online video tutorials for Photoshop and Lightroom.

  • Michael Owens

    Great outcome.

  • Brazil123
  • LirumLarum Löffelstiel

    two important notes (imho):
    – work with smartobjects; you have multiple instances of the very same layer, when you change one, all duplicates with go along (if you change something _within_ the smartobject…)
    – work with masks!! do not erase anything…. who knows when you change your mind.. then you just modify the mask…. re-add parts, etc…..
    makes the whole process much less destructive and gives you flexibility to come back and re-tweak….. just my two cent.

  • Gavin

    Those are both good methods and ones that I use a lot. Having taught post processing workshops in person I’ve found that complete beginners seem to grasp the concept of layer blending by using the eraser tool much quicker. My goal with this tutorial is start with the most basic tools so that everyone can easily get started.

  • When you changed opacity of the duplicated layer (multiply mode) you’ve reduced it to 58% and then say 28% usually works best – is this a typo?

  • Gr8Ray

    Sorry, but there are far more than 3 easy steps in this process. I counted 11.

  • I’ve been using friends’ photos to improve my Photoshop skills–I just take the stuff they put on Facebook, tinker with them, and send the photos back to them–because my photos tend to come out just as I like them with only slight adjustments to the overall photos, but then after reading this article I realize that there are several photos of mine which could be a hell of a lot better if I did this with those as well.

    But then I’m wondering why you don’t just touch up those parts of the photos rather than using various layers. Is it just plain neater this way?

  • Paul Ridyard

    Facebook is now 96dpi resolution.

  • mgmvtx

    What is the Apple command for this please…….You can do this ‘none destructively’ by pressing ctrl+alt+shift+e which will now combine the two layers you have selected

  • Vince Contreras

    I was thinking the same thing. No question the process is effective, but my eyes kind of glazed over around de facto step 5 or 6.

  • just replace “ctrl” with Command

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Hi David,

    No it’s not a typo. I’m saying that 28% works best in most cases, however for this image I used 58%.

  • Not sure how that’s possible. Anything displayed online is pixel size DPI applies when printing.

  • 3 main steps and some smaller “sub” ones maybe

  • Interesting information. Thanks for sharing this.

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  • mgmvtx

    Thank you!!!!!

  • HHC

    My husband and I have bought several Photoshop books. I didn’t read any, because I don’t like the writing style (quite boring, I think.) He read all, but he said he didn’t understand most of what he read. Anyway, I found your tutorial easy to understand and steps are very clear. Thank you! (Have you publish a book?)

  • I don’t think he has but he does do workshops!

  • HHC

    Thanks for answering my question. I will keep it in mind (since I don’t live in the same area, it’s not as easy.)

  • asim khattak
  • Gavin Hardcastle

    It depends when you mean by ‘touch up’.

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Maybe one day I’ll find the time to get on these ebook thing or sort out some webinars HHC.

  • GlennMcQ

    Thanks. This was what kept messing me up.

  • amicheleg

    Check out Photoshop the Missing Manual. Lesa does workshops for Creative Live, and it reads just like she talks.

  • Mark Holden

    I use Serif photo plus but all tips seem to follow along the same lines. I found your help here a good boost as seem to have stumbled on this method for myself so its reassuring to know I’m on the right track figuring things out.

    Here you’ve used an eraser tool, i’ve been using selection tools to create masks that seem to work the same way. What I would be interested in learning is how to use the three different images as layers from the HDR exposure to bring colour through. This is something I haven’t yet managed with any real success. Do you know of any helpful links or tips of your own.

    The HDR image here has been post processed with the colour boosting method in much the same way you have shared here.

  • Mark Holden

    I’ve should had a chance to have a look round and found my answer.


    seems to be enough in there to get me unstuck 🙂

  • Phil

    Whats an equivalent way in lightroom to match photoshop’s multiply blend mode? I was reading it can be done with tone curve in lightroom?

  • Sabrena

    What fun. I took a relatively yucky picture and followed your steps. The result was a surprisingly rich image. Thanks Gavin. Your tips may have saved many a file from the trash can.

  • Nicolaas Strik

    I had a nice image that I wanted to “POP”. I followed those lengthy steps and my image looked so bad that I closed it and unsaved the image immediately. I would never want my name on an image that looked like that.

  • Pat

    This is a good tutorial that I made a note to come back to and try, and I finally did months later, albeit trying to duplicate the steps in PSE. Ironically the first picture I tried it on was one of Courthouse Towers, taken from about the same location but with a different perspective.

    While my photo doesn’t compare to this one, the technique did make a huge difference. I’ve played around with a couple of other pictures with mixed results. As a re-entrant photographer, though, my big issue is that I still haven’t reached the point where I really enjoy manipulating digital the way I used to LOVE the darkroom.

  • Clive

    I have loads of PS books and it took me ages to get the hang of masks and clipping layers, from books.

  • Clive

    Could we have a link to other tutorials on this subject?, thanks

  • Steve Jackson

    Great outcome, I just wonder though if the same could have been achieved in lightroom on a single image?

  • there’s an entire PS section here on dPS https://digital-photography-school.com/?s=photoshop start there

  • Just what I was looking for. I was wondering if you can only accomplish this with photoshop or if you can get a similar effect with free tools?

  • Ruthie

    Question. how come you are showing three layers? Are we suppose to duplicate the layer twice?

  • Ruthie

    Question. how come you are showing three layers? Are we suppose to duplicate the layer twice?

  • Mine glazed over when I saw it was Photoshop and not Lightroom. Nothing is easy in Photoshop :p

  • Roberto

    Depending on monitor size and screen resolution, I don’t think you can have something at a web for a specific DPI.

  • Stevo

    Hi, I’ve been taught to keep colours within Gamut. I’ve found that this can wash out the image some of the time, which is a pain. Does it matter how much the spike on the right of the histogram goes up, if it’s colour, as long as you don’t have overexposure in the image before you boost the colours?

  • Timothy Dannenhoffer

    I”m a total newbie to editing landscape photographs. In the past if a well composed photograph did not look great with no work I just discarded it. Most of the time it was just a problem with the sky being overexposed or the foreground being underexposed. But I have been able to significantly improve images just tweaking the saturation. But that might create other issues that my untrained eye doesn’t catch. I only know that it’s a quick and easy way to improve upon what I have.

  • Pía Urruzuno

    I thoroughly share your opinion, LirumLarum.

  • Bob Murphy

    Silly question? So, I’m confused right away by this. He states he starts with a RAW file, but I don’t get any layers options when I open a RAW file. What am I missing?

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