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How to turn good images into great images

Beautiful, eye-catching imagery is more important than ever in an environment over-saturated with advertising and social interactions. Good graphics help cut through the noise and get attention.

There’s no replacement for professional photography, but hiring a photographer may not make financial sense for smaller or single-use graphics. Or, you may find yourself in a situation where you have to modify or crop a professionally-produced photo. Understanding some basic rules about what separates a good image from a great image will get you on your way to always displaying eye-catching imagery.

Garbage in, garbage out

Before I go into details about how to take a so-so image and make it into an amazing image, I need to stress that the original image needs to be of a baseline quality. No amount of photo-editing will fix poor lighting, shaky hands, or low resolution. Before you decide to edit an existing image into your next masterpiece, assess the following:

  • Is the subject of the image in focus? (if not, your best bet for this image is to use it as a background)
  • Is there adequate lighting? (if not, convert the image to black and white, increase the contrast, and do whatever you need to make the film grain look intentional)
  • Is the image large enough to be displayed without pixelation? (if not, you might just have to toss it)

First things, first
(understanding visual hierarchy)

Whether you are first creating an image or editing it after the fact, you need to decide what the graphic’s most important element is. And then you decide on the second most important element, and so forth. Then, you make the eye view those elements in order or importance.

This is called visual hierarchy, and it is a powerful tool not only in art but also in design. Don’t make your viewer hunt for the subject; they may lose interest before they find it. Rather, use the tools discussed below to make the viewer’s eyes catch hold of the most important element first, and then manipulate the eye to the next location.

Focus

In this context, I don’t refer to focus by how the lens captured the subject (though that is important); rather, I mean make sure your image focuses on the message you want to send with your photo. The hierarchy you establish in your graphic should be based on a clear message that you want to send with your image.

For example, in the following image, the message I intend to send across is “Wonder.”

Image of child staring at butterfly

I decided that, in order to convey the message of “Wonder,” I needed the elements in the photo to be discovered by the eye in the following order:

  1. Butterfly
  2. Child’s face
  3. Outdoors

Once I determined what the image’s primary focus should be, I could manipulate it through cropping and contrast.

Crop with intention

Cropping should be the last step when you are manipulating a graphic for multiple uses; however, you should have a general idea of how you want to crop the image before you begin manipulation.

In other words, if you know that you need an image that is landscape orientation, where the width will be roughly two times the height, you should manipulate the image with that end-result in mind. You could go ahead and crop the image such that it is landscape orientation, without reducing its size any more than necessary, but leave adequate breathing room around the sides of the image to accommodate slight variations in size.

Cropping can be the first step if you are manipulating a graphic for only one use, as long as you will not be enlarging any portions of the image after cropping (see below). The graphic should be cropped according to its final, usable dimensions, or cropped proportionally and larger than its final dimensions.

understanding how the image would be cropped informs editing decisions

The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds dictates that, if an image is divided into 9 equal parts (3 columns and 3 rows), the important, engaging portions of the image should fall on the corners where the edges of the columns and rows intersect.

Photoshop automatically displays a Rule of Thirds grid when the crop tool is engaged. This grid is useful as you decide how to crop your image, and it can also inform how you’ll manipulate specific items within your graphic to work with the final cropped size.

You can use the crop tool and crop grid on your image to see placement of items, and then hit “Cancel” when prompted to finish the crop. That way, you’ll understand how your final image will look without committing to final cropped dimensions.

Contrast

Increasing the contrast of your subject against other elements (including the background) increases the focus on your subject, and makes your image more visually compelling (note I did not say visually appealing).

All of the contrast examples I go through below are created in Photoshop and involve using curves, layers, and your preferred method for selecting and removing a portion of your image (I like to use the pen tool).

Create contrast with size

A cluttered image can easily be fixed by pulling out a single element and enlarging it significantly. For example, in the following photo, I wanted the message to be “I’m on Route 66!” And so, I pulled the Route 66 sign out from the background and enlarged it to the point that there was no missing it.

Enlarging images can be tricky because whenever a portion of an image is made larger than its original size, the element risks becoming pixelated. (This is also why you can’t work with an image that starts out too small). Therefore, instead of actually enlarging a portion of an image, you will need to reduce all other sections of the image.

In order to accomplish this, I like to remove the portion of the image that needs to be “enlarged” and place it into a new document. Then, I take the rest of the image, reduce it in size, and place it in the same new document in a layer behind my original-sized portion.

Depending on the portion of the image you cut out for enlargement, you may need to fill in part of the background. For instance, in the image below, the new, larger sign did not completely cover the hole left by the smaller-sized sign, and I needed to use the clone stamp tool to fill in portions of the background behind it.

Create contrast with blur

If you are trying to call attention to a part of your image that extends to an edge of your image, or will extend to the edge of the image after cropping, you might find blurring the background to be the most effective way to redirect focus onto the subject. Usually when I blur a background, I also lighten it as well.

In order to accomplish the look achieved in the below photograph, I first cut the sign out from the background using the pen tool, and placed it into a new layer. Now, if I simply blurred and lightened the background layer, I would end up with a halo effect around the subject. Therefore, prior to blurring, I needed to use the clone stamp tool to fill in a bit of the background left behind after removing the subject. By doing this, the blur effect looks more realistic once applied. I then used my curves palette to lighten the background to a point where I thought it no longer competed with the foreground sign.

Create contrast with color

Adjusting an image’s color is one of the easiest ways to enhance a certain portion of the image. Like the other techniques described above, the first step is to identify the most important portion of the image and then cut it out from the rest of the image and place it on its own layer. How you manipulate colors depends on the image itself, but I often start by increasing the contrast and saturation of my most important (foreground) portions using the curves palette, and reducing contrast and saturation in the least important (background) portions.

In the below example of the bacon-covered doughnut, I did just that. My message was “absurd decadence,” so highlighting the color of the bacon and the gleam of the icing on the doughnut itself was key. The background of the image was already blurred thanks to the camera settings, but reducing the contrast and lightening the background overall helped pull the image of the doughnut out more. Finally, once I was satisfied with my image, I cropped it so that the doughnut sat in the lower third of the image.

Create contrast with repetition

Repetition is a common designer trick to create interest and rhythm within a graphic. Artificially repeating something calls attention to itself because our brains can usually figure out that repetition did not occur naturally. When I repeat an existing element in a graphic, I know the viewer will probably be able to figure out that I did it in Photoshop; therefore, I like to do a little something extra to the repeated element to augment its absurdity. All these steps ensure my repeated element, and the graphic in general, will get noticed.

Repeating an element is easy if you first select that element and copy it into a new layer. Then, you are free to place it in as many places as you see fit, and you can manipulate each instance of it individually.

In the following graphic, I copied my lone seagull and repeated him two more times, each time changing his feather colors. I also augmented the colors of the background to give the entire graphic a fake, technicolor feel.

To recap:

If you want to make your images noticeable, don’t be afraid to slice and dice them into multiple layers. Master the pen tool, curves, the layers palette, the clone stamp tool, and the crop tool, and you’ll be able to modify your so-so graphics into eye-catching masterpieces.

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