4 Ways to Make Your Photographs Pop

Okay, I lied. There is only one way to make your photographs "pop." Print them on balloons!

Seriously, if you want your images to have greater impact, even before you open up Photoshop or Lightroom, do the following in camera when you are taking your photo:

 

Simplify It

Get rid of the clutter. Zoom in. If you can't zoom in with your camera, use your feet — move closer to your subject. 

Just the boxers. No ring. No ref.

Filling the frame with your subject guarantees more "pop" for your photos. When the subject is the same size as the rest of the items or people in the frame, it's hard for the viewer to quickly decide what that subject is. While the subject doesn't have to completely fill the frame, its size relative to everything else should make it clear that it's the dominant part and, therefore, the subject of the photograph.

 

Compose Yourself

Or, rather, compose your photograph. You've probably heard of the Rule of Thirds, creating or imagining a tic-tac-toe grid on your camera's viewfinder and placing the subject at the intersection of two of the lines. I use it frequently. But not exclusively.

There are any number of ways to organize a photograph. A few of them are: leading lines, s-curves, use of triangles, and so on. Most of them create a hierarchy of information, with the top of that hierarchy being the subject. 

Breezeway entrance to the Latino Cultural Center in Dallas. A good example of both Rule of Thirds and Leading Lines composition.

If you usually place the subject drop-dead-center in all your photos, you might want to take a look at doing it differently. Drawing the viewer into the frame toward the subject is the goal, however you compose your image.

 

Colorize 

Because of the way the human eye sees, red objects really jump off the screen, particularly on a blue background. This is because the eye cannot focus on both the red and the blue ends of the light spectrum at the same time. Sometimes with this color combination, you may experience a vibrating of the colors or even a faux-3D effect with red coming forward and blue receding.  

A very red 52 Chevy truck. Who knew that a 60+ year old pickup truck fender could be so enticing you'd want to lick it?

Often a different color will stand out from its surroundings, particularly if they are complementary colors. Using this method to indicate your subject is particularly effective for, say, fields of flowers. You'll often find one flower that is either a different color or a different color and a different species. Use those differences to your advantage.

Red isn't the only color that will "pop." It's just one color. No need to rush off and shoot nothing but red subjects. However, that's not a bad idea for collection of images or even a show.

 

Create Contrast

Technically speaking, contrast is the degree of difference between the blackest black and the whitest white in your image. And that type of contrast is definitely something you should strive for most of the time in your photos. (For every rule there's an exception, however.)

But let's talk about other kinds of contrast, shall we? Since the word contrast comes from two Latin verbs meaning to stand against, consider that opposites make good contrasty subjects. For instance, a photo of a big, adult dog and a sweet, little kitten almost always gets some kind of emotional and/or verbal response, regardless of how overused it may be. (Awww!) Forgetting for a moment the difficulties that scale presents, how about a photo of tiny Matchbox® car crossing the Golden Gate Bridge? See where I'm going here?

Feather on Slate Stairs

Feather on Slate Stairs

The kind of contrast that depicts subjects that are not often thought of together — a cop and an artist, a billionaire and a immigrant dishwasher, a clown and a doctor — create a third, implied, subject: the difference between them.

 

The Eyes Have It

It almost never fails. . . we are drawn to look into the eyes of those with whom we have are having a "conversation." That includes, I think, a photographic subject with whom we are having a brief tête-à-tête. If you can illuminate the subject's eyes more prominently than the rest of him/her, do it that way. Subtlely. If you can't use a flash or strobe to fill the eyes, use a reflector to bounce some ambient light into their eyes. A little bit of light works wonders.

Subtlety is the key. I had to use Photoshop to lighten the subject's eyes instead of a light or reflector but they certainly do "pop."

Failing all of that, you can do it in Photoshop or Lightroom. Since there about a ka-gillion ways of doing everything in Photoshop and somewhat fewer in Lightroom, I will leave the exact method you use to your Internet search skills. However you lighten the subject's eyes, do it with restraint. The whites don't actually have to be white. You don't want them to look like Godzilla shooting death rays out of his eyes, melting everything in his path. Leave that to the sci-fi special effects guys.

—ø—

These are just a few of the things that will help you to create photographs that "pop" off the page or screen and into your viewers' hearts and minds, and, perhaps, their wallets, too. Share your own techniques below in the comments.

– Lawrence Standifer Stevens


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Lawrence Standifer Stevens has been shooting for longer than he cares to remember. But he remembers his first photo — a squirrel on a phone pole. And he can't get it out of his head. Perhaps you can help him forget. Subscribe to his newsletter and he'll tell you his photographic secrets.