Photo Tip Tuesday: How to Color Pop Images

I really want to get back to sharing more photo tips, so this post is about how to color pop images.  I shared this post several years ago when I was a contributor at The Idea Room, but I’m changing it up some to share here. I use photoshop SOLELY to edit my images. I know a lot of people love Lightroom or even PicMonkey, but I don’t know those programs.

For those of you familiar with my blog, you know I wrote a little beginner photography book called Say NO to Auto. I strongly emphasize shooting in full manual settings to learn how to get the most beautiful images possible.

I strongly believe that you enhance beautifully taken images with photoshop, it wasn’t created to simply “fix” bad images. It can do that, but it will never be as beautiful as a well taken image–enhanced.

That’s what photoshop is to me with color–an enhancer. Did you know that when we all switched from Film to Digital–away went the saturation glow that came from film. Soooo, we get to bring it back with editing.

color pop images #photoshop #photography

{For this image, I show with my 85 mm prime lens at f/2, 1/500 shutter speed, ISO 200}


 I used photoshop elements 2 for a very long time, there is a lot you can do with it.  It is a basic photoshop program that can be purchased at Amazon now for around $70 (last I checked). Starting with this basic version program, is just perfect.

Photoshop lingo is a foreign language. A few years ago, I’d ask how to do something, and I’d hear “blah blah blah blah blah blah blah” as the response and I sat there with my jaw dropped staring at the person who just spoke to me. Ok, maybe I was staring at my computer screen as I read the words, but same thing, right? This, like switching to manual settings can be a frustrating process that will not come overnight. I’ve never liked when my husband says to me, “Don’t try to do it all at once.” And my reply would be…”but I want to, and I don’t know which to choose first!” This is true about the photography process, you really have to try to work on one thing at a time…but do what you will:)

I pop my color with a soft light layer.

Here is MY workflow—or steps I take to get my images to my own personal perfected state.

Let me just say that I shoot in RAW.  I won’t go into detail, but shooting in RAW allows you to do minor tweaks to exposure and saturation on a file before converting it to JPG. Shooting in RAW just makes processing 300 images per session MUCH faster. I love it.

When you look at this image below, it isn’t all that bad.  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.

Let’s do that.

I open up my JPG file and see what needs to be done.

Is it too dark? To lighten, I open up levels—control “L” There is a slider (3 arrows under the histogram/mountain) and I can move the middle arrow right or left to lighten or darken. Play with the 3 arrows as you look at your image to determine a stopping point. Lightening a slightly dark image is easier than darkening a slightly light image. Blown images (too much light) are harder to save. After you like it, hit OK.


After I’ve played with levels, I go to the soft light layer. Not sure this is in all versions of photoshop, please let me know! I go to the top menu where is says: File- Edit- Image- Layer and click on LAYER. From the drop down choices, I select DUPLICATE LAYER and hit ok (see sample below).

Duplicating my layer allows me to have two layers of my image on top of each other. Keeping my original on the bottom, that layer stays the same.


Once my duplicate layer is highlighted in blue (it says background copy here) I can add the soft light layer.

Tweak the opacity to your liking. Opacity is how transparent a step in the process is, lightens or darkens.

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%.
I like 100%, the only thing that bothers me is the trees in the background got a lot darker (middle left).  I can dodge that a bit after.   I love the skin glow, so I stay with 100%.  The image was slightly underexposed, mostly it was just foggy.  If it were darker, the soft light layer wouldn’t look right. That is why it is important to do the levels before to lighten an image as needed first.

I tweak the top layer to my liking and eventually merge the two layers (layer + flatten image) into one.


 Now, I want to lighten that dark patch of trees in the back, left. I get my dodge tool, have the flow sorta low so it doesn’t go all white, but just a little.  The brush size big so it just “dusts” the area we want to lighten.
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 control+alt+z.
 I use dodge/burn/sponge a LOT. It is in the same spot, 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.
 Next, I get the SPONGE and want to saturate the color in the trees and grass. It stays at the same 25% flow and I run my circle tool in circles around the areas I want a bit richer in color, making sure to avoid the skin tones (they will turn orange).

Just a little, not too much.  But if you want more, up the opacity to a higher percentage.

At the end, I always save as a duplicate file (file, save as, img_123a) and keep my original as is (img_123).

 There is your basic color pop.  Any specific question on what I did (nothing is stupid, believe me, I asked a lot of “dumb” questions back in the day)?
Do you want more photo tips? I’ve got a whole section of photography tips up at the top under “photography.” For a direct link to past photography tips and tutorials, click the link!
Tell me what you’d like to learn about photography. Something with your camera or a concept that you just don’t quite “get” and need another voice to explain to you? I’d love ideas!!

If you have a fancy camera that you don’t know how to use, check out my books!


Kristen Duke

Kristen Duke

Thank you for stopping by my little spot on the web! If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to my future posts via RSS, Facebook, and if you are looking to improve your photography, see my beginner books HERE.
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  1. Nice tip! Definitely one of my favorite ways to bump that color up just a little bit.

  2. Annalise says:

    Thanks for the information Kristen! I’m going to try this out when I get home tonight :-)

  3. This is a GREAT tutorial! I am very, very visual and always appreciate a break down like this. Boy do I ever have questions. After many years of trying to understand editing, I feel like a failure!

    I’ll start with what you have here. I DO NOT understand when and why you need to flatten in editing. before actions? between actions? after adjusting levels and before running any skin smoothing etc? if you were to run some skin actions on this photo for instance, when would you do it?
    What is the difference between lowering the opacity in the layers palette and lowering it up above in the left part of the menu (?) bar? What if you need to edit more than one face, but the opacities needed are different? how do do you individualize the opacities for each face?

    It seems that sometimes I have flattened an image, only to go back and try to do an action on it and nothing happens! What am I missing?

    So if you shot this one in RAW, when is it that you are changing it to jpeg? after all the editing? I have heard that some people adjust in RAW in LR then open in PS as a jpeg, but wouldn’t that limit your possibilities of editing?

    Saving…Im a hot mess….How many saves? the original edit? the one with the vignette? the one with the vintage action? ugh! Do you save after each one and all in one place? What do you call them? Are they flattened before you save? what if its a work in progress and you want the layers available?

    I wont even begin to mention how I do something wrong when I download my images (apparently only half the time) because I often literally can’t even find them on my computer!

    Oh boy do I need help!

    Thank you for listening while I vent!

  4. I have used photoshop for years doing architectural renderings, but I am still learning about how to use it for photos! Thanks for the simple explanation on the sponge, dodge, and burn tools!
    Rachel @ Architecture of a Mom recently posted..Peanut Butter Sweet PotatoesMy Profile

    • Kristen Duke says:

      you’re welcome! You’ve got a great advantage already being familiar with the program…

      • Haha! I know! But great topics, and I would LOVE to see the tutorials about them! How about just an answer to the flattening question until then! Why did you do it when you did it here and is there a general rule about when. Thank you for responding!

        • Kristen Duke says:

          When you are working with layers, you can tweak items individually, but you have to FLATTEN or MERGE all of the layer to ONE layer to work on something on the entire image. For example if I have an image and put text on the image, that is 2 layer: text and image. I have to flatten them to save it as a .jpg file that is printable. You can save it as a photoshop document and go back later an edit the layers. Does that make sense?

  5. That’s a great tip. Thank you so much. I ran into it in pinterest, but this is exactlly what I needed now.

  6. Hi Kristin — you’ve definitely inspired me to install my new photoshop elements 11 that I picked up last week. I love your blog. I’m a complete amateur but I made the switch to manual settings about a year ago and haven’t looked back. I can’t quite figure out what I’m doing wrong but it seems to be a challenge getting the proper exposure in a hurry. I usually cheat a bit and switch to shutter priority and a negative exposure compensation to make sure I capture the kids in action. Also, I love the effect of shooting with low f-stops but am unsure how you got your shot at f2 and the kids are all in focus — usually I’ll have some area that turns out to be important that is out of focus because of the aperture. I also find manual focusing just impossible. Last weekend I spent an hour trying to capture bubbles against the sky and got nothing! So if you ever feel like offering tips on those areas, I will definitely be interested. Another area is equipment — which lenses and other equipment. Must admit, I haven’t taken the tour of your tips yet, so please excuse if you’ve covered these before!
    Karin recently posted..Stint, stunt, stentMy Profile

    • Kristen Duke says:

      Yes, Karin, I do have posts about my equipment in the archives…go check it out! When shooting at f2 you have to make sure you are on single focus and it is on the most important part–the faces. I don’t manual focus, either;)

  7. This is great! I already knew about some of this, but I never knew what the sponge tool did! Very cool!

  8. Great tip. I always appreciate your help and willingness to share your creative thoughts and experience. However, like Mary who left a comment asking a lot of questions, I have a lot of my own as well.

    I work with Photoshop, too. Sometimes that can be a daunting task for me because I am still learning. If you have 300 pictures in RAW format what is the next step in Photoshop?

    After editing a picture do you save, save as, save for web?

    I never can get a great indoor shot. Even with my ISO at 800 I still have to use a flash. I even have a speedlite but I still get the harsh lighting. How would you correct that in Photoshop?

    p.s. loved all of your pics from Disney. I bet the kids had a great time.

    • Kristen Duke says:

      Tracy, once I edit my RAW images in bridge, to convert them to jpg, I select image-photoshop-image processor and then pop up comes up that converts. I think that’s right…don’t have it open!

  9. Karie D. says:

    Thank you for the tutorial Kristen! I love how clear and easy it is to follow! I’m looking forward to more tips like these! One question I have is – how do you stitch 2 and 3 photos together like you did to demonstrate the 3 different opacitiies (25%, 50% and 100%)??

    Love your work!

  10. I would love to know if you can use manual settings for everything but autofocus on your DSLR. I like being able to set exposure, ISO, etc. but find with quick moving subjects (i.e. kids) it’s hard to manual focus and get a tack sharp shot when they move so fast! Not sure if this is doable. I usually use AV or TV modes instead.

    • Kristen Duke says:

      Yes, I use fully manual settins for ISO, aperture, and shutter, but DO NOT auto focus! It’s a switch on the actual lens.

  11. I have a question I hope you can clarify… You said you like to shoot in RAW. I have started to o so a bit myself but since I am a novice at editing I need some 101 basics!

    “shooting in RAW allows you to do minor tweaks to exposure and saturation on a file before converting it to JPG”

    So did you do some tweaking in RAW first before you opened your photo as a jpeg to do your levels? Because then you say:
    “I open up my JPG file and see what needs to be done.”

    And its in this JPEG state that you seem to be doing your editing so I am not sure what you did in the RAW state.
    I would LOVE to understand that a little better! HELP!

    A WHAT POINT and HOW so you convert this to a JPEG? When I save at the end, that’s where I always “save as a JPEG”. Mostly because I don’t know what I’m doing!

    I would love your advice about the confusion of what editing is being done in RAW, when and how you are converting to JPEG to continue editing and why you don’t just leave it in RAW for all the rest of your editing.

    Please and THANK YOU!

  12. Linda Jordan says:

    Thanks for the great tutorial!

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  15. I’m a PSE user, too, and love it!! Thanks for the tips. I’ve always used preset actions that I downloaded over at the Coffeeshop Blog {my favorite is the 20/20}, but I love how you explained this.

    Beautiful photo!!


  1. [...] with all of my photography, I edit my images in photoshop with a color pop, and you can read all about that in my photo tips [...]

  2. […] How To Color Pop Images —> From Kristen Duke Photography […]