There’s this new thing (and by new-ish I really mean it’s years old) where photographers will greatly wash out their stock images, because the idea is that filter/look makes it look higher-end. Here’s the problem with that, while it does look “heavenly,” washed out photos just don’t print well. So what if you’re only using it for digital purposes? Well, you will still run into a similar problem. Printed light photos can run into the issue of printing too lightly, and thus causing the image to look like a mistake – or even like the printer made a mistake and ran out of toner. With digital media, you can run what I like to call the “monitor” problem. It’s tough to get two monitors on the same workstation to display color the same, let alone every monitor across every device.

So let’s think about that for just a second. The number of monitors (regular old desktop monitors) is probably in the millions. Each one has a different age, different resolution, different manufacturer, different brilliance, different color/gamma, and flatly just different quality standards. The same image is going to look washed out on some, saturated on others, desaturated on still others, and rockstar on the most sensitive/expensive monitors. And that’s just monitors. Now consider what else has a screen that could be displaying that PDF ebook cover or that slideshow banner. We have Androids and Apples, iPads and Notes, flatscreen TV advertising kiosks, and in-flight movie screens.

My point isn’t to get you not to use the sun-in photos, but to approach their use much like you would treat graceful degradation. (What does that mean, Wendy?) Graceful degradation is a term used to describe what a website programmer has to do to allow for older browsers to still be able to view a webpage, even if their browser isn’t capable of the latest gadgetry of a newer browser. For example, a pop up modal window may not work on Internet Explorer 8, but a programmer can write a script that will detect if a user is on an older browser, and if that’s the case make sure the content they would be looking for is still accessible. The same goes for images. If you know the end-user of an image will probably have newer monitors, newer phones, etc. then you might be able to get by with a washed-out image, because you’ll have reasonable assurance the people viewing it will be able to see it in the way you intended.

But compatibility aside, stock photos that come already filtered can come with setbacks to. For example, here are two images I downloaded straight from One has a “on-purpose” washed out look, and the other just seems like they over-lightened it. If you really want to make your images better, work with the levels and hue/saturation settings in your photo editing program (like Photoshop). 9 times out of 10 you can achieve a stronger look – colors will pop, less white-overlay on the image, and simple sharpening it brings them to life.

For each of the photos below here are the steps I took:

  1. Worked on the levels (brightness/contrast) to remove the sunlight effect.
  2. Increased the saturation with attention to the dominant colors.
    In the first that would be the skin tones and greens, in the second that would be the barn and blue sky.
  3. Finally, sharpen your images.
    Pay special attention to the corn stalks in the farm picture. In the original they are blended together, and in the updated version you can see individual stalks.

Not for distribution, but shown here as a learning tool.

The fallacy is that stock photos come ready to roll, and as you can see above each can be improved – and this is on most stock images. It’s a very easy way to make your great images even better.

Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts/questions in the comments below. Or if you have work you’d like to have reviewed (for free!) please head over here to the Review My Work page.