Photography Tutorials

10 ways to make a boring photo stunning (or a stunning photo mind-blowing)!

You know how it is. The photo that looked amazing on the tiny, digital viewfinder of your camera now looks a little… uninspiring on the ‘big screen’. You want to save it because you won’t be seeing that person/going to that place/etc again but you wish it looked better – what’s to be done?

We live in a world where most of the imagery we encounter has had some sort of post-production tinkering in Photoshop. This is OK. Some people will get snobby and say it isn’t OK, but I think it is. This is what we used to do in darkrooms; it happened then and it happens now, it’s all part of the process – here are a few tips to get you started

Obviously it’s better to have taken a flawless photo that needs no work at all – it would also be nice to wake up in the morning with perfect hair! Also like hair, the amount of tinkering and enhancing you partake in is all down to personal taste; be subtle and know when to stop.

  1. “One, two. One, two.” Check your levels.
    This is quite a science (and worthy of a lengthy post of its own) but don’t be scared! Somewhere in any photo editing software will be a control called ‘levels’ (in Photoshop’ you go to Image>Adjustments>Levels or create a new adjustment layer) you’ll be presented with what looks like a histogram and if everything is OK will be a steady hump with no flattening out at either end. If there are gaps at the ends then pull the black and white sliders in to where the hump starts to rise. Gently does it though, you can very easily ruin things doing this if you go too far. 

    levels in photoshop - before and after

  2. A different crop/angle.
    Ideally every photo we took would be framed perfectly and wouldn’t need any cropping, but the truth is, this isn’t always possible. If you are cropping I would recommend trying to keep the proportions of the original, or try it as a square – my favourite film cameras produce photos that are square (the ones that take 120 film and of course my Polaroid). Cropping down to a perfect square can really change the balance of a photo and make it awesome! 

    crop your photo to a square

  3. Black and white.
    This really can make a huge difference to a photograph. If possible, don’t rely on a built in ‘convert to grayscale’ option in your software, you will always get a much better result if you can alter each colour layer/channel individually (in Photoshop create a new ‘black & white’ adjustment layer and experiment moving each of the six colour sliders until you get the result you want). 

  4. Desaturate and increase contrast and brightness.
    Sometimes the reason a photo looks a bit… cluttered is because there’s so much competing colour trying to grab your attention. Just bringing down the colour (saturation) and emphasising the contrast between the dark and light areas is enough to reinvigorate a photo. 

    brighten and desaturate

  5. Apply a texture.
    If you’re happy to play around in Photoshop (or a similar photo editing package) then you can create some quite beautiful effects by applying a texture on top of a photograph. I’ve created more detailed instructions in this tutorial, but it boils down to applying a not-too-contrasty image on top of your photo and changing the blend mode (to something like ‘soft light’) until you can see through it to the photo below and then adjust transparency if required. 

    add a texture

  6. Double-up.
    It’s always surprises me that by simply putting two photos next to each other they somehow become ‘more than the sum of their parts’ – they tell a mini-story; the viewers brain can’t help but try and make a connection. You don’t even have to pair with one of your own photos – why not collaborate with a fellow photographer or artist, select a theme and see how you both interpret the same subject. 


  7. Add some typography.
    The right words coupled with the right photo can make an otherwise ordinary photography poignant and memorable. 

    toe the line

  8. Investigate actions and presets.
    All the main photo editing software packages have a way of importing in actions and presets so you can use the settings that somebody else has created. Some of these are free and some you will need to pay for. I’ve created this one myself and can recommend these ones by Michelle Black which I have loved using in the past. Try playing them back step-by-step to see exactly how certain effects have been created – it’s a great way to learn, and don’t feel you can’t go in and change things if you want to. (If you know of any other great actions or presets for Photoshop or Lightroom, I’d love to know about them)!
  9. Go extreme.
    Normally I would say ‘keep it subtle’, but if your photo really can’t be saved then why not take the opportunity to try out some extreme effects and filters – you never know, it might just be crazy enough to work!extreme editing in photoshop
  10. Do nothing.
    Sometimes you need to embrace your work for what it is and love it despite any flaws you may or may not see. There have been many photos I’ve taken that I’ve hated (or at least been disappointed by) and often these are the ones that have been adored by others – you’re not always the best judge!

Do you have any before and after photos? Show me, show me, I’d love to see them!

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  • Reply
    14 October 2011 at 06:17

    Hi! I found your blog today, and have been enjoying looking around it. I really enjoyed the five-fives!
    I came to photography through editing, really (I used to work in photo labs) and I don’t know which I love more, taking photos or editing them.
    Here are two of my photos from a recent day out. Both benefited from cropping and color adjustment. For the final version of the tree I used a glow filter, and the picture of Gion has a selective focus filter.

  • Reply
    7 January 2012 at 03:23


  • Reply
    13 May 2015 at 19:29

    Just found your blog… Great atmosphere. Can you transform your blog into a cafe?…I would definitely be a customer. Thanks for the resource 😀

    • Reply
      14 May 2015 at 19:05

      Thanks you! I’ve just bought a Nespresso machine and 200 pods of coffee so the cafe option is a distinct possibility :)

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