How to Improve (Almost) Any Digital Photo, Without Auto-Enhance

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Film photographers had it easy. They could just click the shutter button and their photos would look awesome. Each film had it’s own unique look. It was simple to look at an image and go, “Oh, that was taken with Kodak Ultra”, or, “That was obviously shot on Tr-X”.

Digital photographers, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. While each film treated a scene differently and choosing the right film for the job was part of the photographic process, digital sensors all try to capture a flat, neutral exposure.

These days, a lot of folks turn to the one-click “Auto-Enhance” feature in their image editor of choice. While that sometimes does a decent job, you’ll get a much better looking image if you make those small enhancements yourself—and they’re really easy. Here’s what auto-enhance does behind the scenes, and how you can do it yourself for more control.

For this lesson, I’m going to use Photoshop, but you can use any alternative you want. The more familiar you are with your image editor, the easier a time you will have. To get up to speed with Photoshop, check out our eight part learning guide, and our lessons on layers and masks, and adjustment layers.

In addition, you’ll get the best results if you’re working with a RAW image, but this process will still work on JPGs and other image formats.

I’m going to work through the process with this image of Rebecca Dionne.

1startpoint

Step One: Clean Up Any Problems

The first step is to fix any problems. Take a look at your image and assess if there’s anything that’s detracting from it. Do you need to crop in a bit tighter? Is the horizon straight? Are there any photobombers in the background? Any pimples or blemishes on the model? Dust spots from your sensor?

Nothing will ruin an otherwise great image faster than an easily fixed problem. Depending on what the issue is, use the Crop Tool, Spot Healing Brush Tool, Healing Brush Tool, or Clone Stamp Tool to go in and fix it.

We’ve covered each of these processes in detail before:

Let’s look at the image I’m using. There are one or two small blemishes on Rebecca, and I think there’s a bit too much space on the left side of the image.

2problems

These aren’t major problems, but they do take away from the image. By using the crop tool and the spot healing brush, though, I can fix them and get this stronger image.

3fixed

Step Two: Add a Little Contrast

Digital sensors try to capture a flat image with as much information as possible. While this is a good way to play it safe and make it as easy as possible to get a photo that looks fine, it’s a terrible way to get photos that look good. Adding contrast is one of the quickest and easiest ways to make your digital photos look better.

We’re going to do it with a Curves layer; it’s the most powerful tool in Photoshop for adjusting exposure and contrast.

Go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves to add a Curves layer.

4curves

Click on a point somewhere in the top third of the line and drag it up to increase the brightness of the highlights. Be careful not to go overboard!

5brighten

Click on a point somewhere in the bottom third of the line and drag it down to darken the shadows. Again, be careful not to go too far.

6darken

When you add contrast with a Curves layer, it can cause the colors to shift a bit. We don’t want this to happen. To fix it, select the Curves layer and change its blend mode to Luminosity.

7luminosity

And here’s what the image looks like with a bit of contrast added.

8contrastadded

Things are already started to look nicer.

Step Three: Enhance the Color

Digital sensors tend to capture drab colors so the final step is to enhance them.

Go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Vibrance.

9vibrance1

There are two sliders. Vibrance and Saturation. Vibrance saturates the least saturated colors in the image while Saturation saturates everything equally.

10vibrance2

Drag both sliders to the right. You’ll almost always be able to drag Vibrance much further without things looking silly. I’ve found that a value of about +30 for Vibrance and +10 for Saturation tends to give a good result, but see what works for your image.

11satadded

The next steps are optional, and require a bit more thought to get right. Your image should already look a lot better, so feel free to stop now. If you want to take things a bit further, go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation.

12heslider

We’re only interested in the Hue slider. Drag it from left to right to see what it does to your image. Generally, you’re going to want to keep it between about -20 and +20.

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For this image, I really like what a value of about -7 is doing for Becky’s hair so that’s what I’ve gone with.

14hueapplied

The final step is to pull all the colors together. Go to Layer > New Layer or use the keyboard shortcut Control+Shift+N (Command+Shift+N on a Mac).

15newlayer

Click OK and go to Edit > Fill. From the Contents dropdown, select Foreground Color.

16fill

Move your cursor away from the Fill dialogue box and you’ll see a little eyedropper icon.

17eyedropper

This is the Color Picker. Any color you click on will be set to the Foreground Color.

Click on one of the dominant colors in the image. In my image, it had to either be Becky’s red hair or the green in the background. I went with Becky’s hair.

Click OK and the layer will be filled with that color.

18colorfilled

Select the layer and change its Blend Mode to Color.

19colormode

Now you’ll see something that looks like this.

20colortoned

Every color in the image has been replaced by the red-brown. Now, this is obviously a bit much so lower the Opacity of the layer.

21opacitylowered

A value of between 5% and 20% normally works great. I’ve gone with 15%.

22finished

This looks awesome. The final layer has just pushed every color a little bit more towards that red-brown and pulled everything together.

Here’s a before and after.

23beforeafter


This process will make almost any digital image look a lot better. As you get more familiar with it, you can try different things. Play with different colors, or even removing contrast and saturation.

As long as the end result fits your vision, you can’t really go wrong.

Harry Guinness writes occasionally when he’s not busy skiing, sailing, partying, lifting weights, or otherwise dodging responsibility. His main areas of interest are himself, gin, and crazy people with interesting stories to tell. When people won’t pay him to write ill-thought-out opinion pieces, he covers photography, technology, and culture. You can follow him on Twitter.