Make great images

Never surrender.
How to shape a meaningful image.

This blog is all about working with images & photos and how to get the best out of them.

Working with Photos

I have a very simple policy: I don’t turn a photograph down, because for me, photographs are about catching something special. Sometimes that special thing is not in focus, it’s not the best quality, and it’s broken all the rules of great photography, but that doesn’t matter. A moment is a moment, even when sometimes it’s seen through hazy tears.

I’m not saying these tips and tricks will make every photo or picture amazing, but they’ll certainly help. I’m also not suggesting you have to live by them. Pick and choose what you need to make a picture you are comfortable sharing (or not).

Subject Matters

All that matters is the subject.

Don’t get me wrong, great photographs are amazing and if you have the opportunity I thoroughly recommend getting a photographer. In fact I will be so bold as to recommend Elizabeth 😉 I promise you will not be sorry.

That said, images are prolific in our lives these days, with sites and applications like Flickr and Instagram being central to many of our lives. I love Instagram, I think it’s a magnificent way to get a snapshot of the lives we share. This swing towards easy photography has created whole new genres, like food photos, but most importantly, it has freed images up to become a new vehicle to tell stories.

You are a story teller and the camera is now your pen.

So where to start, I think with the device you’re taking photos with. I’m assuming the majority of us will be taking photos with our smart phones, but the principal remains for cameras as well. I mostly use my iPhone, but if I have a special event planned, then I use my proper camera. What’s the difference, well, the proper camera allows me to capture better depth of field, wider shots, I have all manner of super powered lenses which help me. That said, I still find myself taking many shots on my phone and using them all the time. Your phone is ace 😉  cameras do a great job of this.

“The best camera is the one that’s with you.” – Chase Jarvis.

So what are we after? As a designer I’m after the highest resolution possible, what does this mean? Well resolution dictates the size of the image, and the bigger the image, the more things I can do with it. So you’re going to want to make sure your camera is on its highest setting for best quality.

The same image on the left shows facebook compression. Notice the blurs and fuzziness, those are called artefacts.
The same image on the left shows facebook compression. Notice the blurs and fuzziness, those are called artefacts.

Facebook images
Facebook does an auto compression which ruins the quality of the image. Here’s a little demo to show the difference. The best format is always the original file. It’s not the end of the world, I still manage to do some nifty things with facebook images.

Compose on paper
If I’m unsure about what my subject is going to be, I do a very quick drawing to plan out what I want to achieve. This is not necessary, but sometimes it really helps to work todays a specific plan. I find it a great way to vet a composition.

Emotional connections
The best pictures have an emotional connection, the same words on a different picture can have a completely different meaning. Remember your context and don’t waste your time working on a picture you are not happy with. The best advice I can give is throw away pictures you don’t need. The downside of all these pictures is they take up space, a lot of space.

Difficult subjects
Okay I’m going to show you a cool little app for taking pictures of difficult subjects (kids, ‘cos they never keep still 😉 ) On the iPhone I use something called Camera +, I use it for its “burst” mode. Burst mode essentially takes loads of snaps in a sequence, as opposed to sitting there trying to capture one perfect image. iPhone has a built in burst mode, but I prefer the way Camera+ handles it.

I can then select my favourite or favourites from the roll. Hey presto, job done 😉

Using the grid.
Using the grid.

All modern apps and cameras come with ability to turn on a grid. I use the grid to compose my images, not only when I take them but when I edit as well. The reason is because of something called the “rule of thirds”. Most of the smartphones come with the ability to turn the grid on or off.

How is the grid used?
Well the rule of thirds is used to create plains of interest which when they cross over create “crash points”. It is believed that these plains and crash points create more tension and dynamism in your images. Most of the very best photographers out there use this simple principle.

It also leaves you space for a message, if you have one.

Treating the images.
There are various different Apps for treating images, but the two that stand out for me – on a smartphone – when I need to treat a photo on the fly are “Snapsneed” and “Stackables”. Both allow for quite comprehensive image editing, and I must say both are pretty powerful.

From an ease of use perspectives I prefer Snapseed, I can adjust my tones and tints, I can add various effects and the save it back to my library for use in others apps. The best way to get your mind around Snapseed is to play with it, it is tremendously powerful.

Once I’m happy with my picture, it’s time to lay the text, on the iPhone I use an App called “Over” to add text. You can by more text options in Over, but the standard fonts are pretty cool 🙂

A few simple rules to follow

Don’t obscure the story
The text is only a part of the story, the meaningful connection is in the picture. Eyes and faces are tremendously powerful, do not cover them.

nanobotDon’t mix too many fonts.
Too many font styles make you message hard to read. It can look cool, but it can also hinder as people try to comprehend your message. Studies show that that font changes make it harder to consume and understand information.

Be aware of your tones.
Be wary of the colours you choose as they might disappear on the background. If your photo is dark, use light colours and vice versa.

Don’t be complicated
Less is more, don’t try too many things, it’ll just end up being confusing.


Avoid cluttering an image with too much information, keep text a safe distance from borders or other objects. Let your objects stand alone.


I hope you found this blog helpful or interesting, if you did, then please let me know and I’ll look into doing some more. If there is any specific effect you’ve seen me do that you want to know how, then just ask me and I’ll show you step by step.

bad tone
See what happens when I change the image to black and white. The red tone of #neversurrender was too similar to the background so it disappears.


Phone tools
My phone constantly amazes me at how much I can achieve on it, I use it a lot. Here is a list of some of my favourite Image based apps

Camera+ – for burst photos
Snapseed – Super powerful image editor.
Stackables – Another super powerful image editor.
Over – Add text to your images easily
Hipstamatic – I love Hipsta, but you need to purchase filters and you also need to understand what each filter is capable of, so it can end up being quite complex. Hipsta doesn’t do after photo editing like Stackables or Snapseed, so it can be a pain. That said, some of the nicest photos I have ever taken have been in Hipsta.

Web tools – Like Photoshop in your browser 

Reasonable mac tools

Pixelmator – Fabulous image editing tool at a very reasonable price. Almost as powerful as PhotoShop
FX Photo Studio – Photo processing and editing software from Macphun
Intensify – Simple image editing tool from Macphun

Professional tools
For my professional use I use the entire Adobe suite.

Photoshop – there are very few competitors to the Photoshop crown, there are very few images I make, that haven’t spent time in photoshop. It is central to my core of tools.
Illustrator – Another massively important tool in my arsenal, all of the illustration and text work I do starts out in illustrator, a hugely underrated tool.
Lightroom – Cataloguing and light quick edits. I love Lightroom, it is by far the best of the pack in my opinion.
Cinema4D – all the 3D work I do, like the popcaps, starts in Cinema4D. C4D is not an easy tool, but it’s very good at what it does. The success of the popcap campaign illustrates that point perfectly, at last count there were over 500 individual popcaps. It was translated into 14 languages and received in excess of 3000 likes across the campaign. Those were the popcaps I could measure. Many of the pop caps took a life of their own on as the community edited and created their own. FYI – I am perfectly okay with people using my imagery to benefit the story, it’s why I make them.

This blog doesn’t mean I don’t want your pictures 😉 I love making the albums and I love being part of the story, so please keep them coming 😀

I wanted to show you the grid composition I used in the first photo, so you can see what I’ve made the focal, and you can decide if it works.

Grid composition showing plains and crash points.
Grid composition showing plains and crash points.

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