The Secrets You Never See: How a Photo Becomes an Ad

To most people, a photo is just a photo: you shoot it and it’s done. But to an art director, a photo is just a beginning: raw material to be transformed, in ways big and small, on the way to a finished design. A recent ad we did for our client Passionfish (a great restaurant in Pacific Grove,California) shows what I mean. We're lucky that Passionfish co-owner Cindy Walter is a lovely photographer, and she’s always sending us impossibly cute photos for use in their ads. She sent us one such photo (below), and I spent the afternoon seeing if I could incorporate it into a seasonal ad. (Although it's great to have access to terrific photos, sometimes you just can't make them work.) I love using Passionfish's personal photos in ads, as we are focused on telling the Passionfish story.


Looking at the original photo on the left, the first thing you see is that the little girl is underexposed, especially around her face. (I wasn't worried about the top of the photo because I felt fairly certain I wouldn't be using it.)

I took the photo into Adobe Lightroom and started working to bring out the highlights in the photo. (Incidentally, our company has several subscriptions to Adobe Creative Cloud, which allows us to download almost any Adobe product, and provides automatic updates. As a creative who has been using Adobe products for 15 years, and updating them every other year or so, this service is fantastic! Highly recommended.) At any rate, I brought the photo into Lightroom, and was very quickly able to lighten/darken the appropriate areas. 

In Lightroom, I first imported the photo, and chose Develop from the top menu. This revealed a slider menu on the bottom-right of the screen and several tools directly above it. I chose the Brush tool to 'paint' a mask over the areas I wanted to change -note the brush tool can be modified by size and feather (the hardness of the edges), and several other factors.

Once I had the mask created and positioned correctly, I 'hid' it so that I could see the photo underneath, and was then able to modify the selected parts of the photo by many variables: contrast, tint, exposure, highlights, saturation, etc. I kept experimenting until I was satisfied. I repeated the process, but his time limited to the face, to make sure the features were easily seen.

Then, I exported the photo (under a new filename, of course, so I wouldn't overwrite the original), and brought it into Photoshop. You can see in the original photo that the top and bottom of the photo will need some work. The girl is in a driveway, next to a house. The top of the photo is overexposed, while the bottom contains items we don't really need in the photo (coffee cup top, paper scraps, etc.). And, after looking closely, I determined that the top of the photo didn't add any necessary information either. 

In Photoshop, I created a new file that was the size of the finished ad, and then opened the newly updated photo. Dragging the photo over into the new file tab, I found that not only was the photo not large enough, it really wasn't the right shape. I needed a much taller and thinner photo to match the ad size and shape, versus the more square shape I had. At this point, I knew I would be recreating a lot of the photo background.

But, with the ability to clone/create more image comes freedom - you can edit to fit your sense of balance and style. Using the clone tool, layer blending, masks, and both curves and levels layers, I added enough real estate to the top and bottom of the photo to hold our perfect tag line "Who said you should dress up just once a year?" (thanks, Spencer!) at the top and the contact info at the bottom. (You can see where I darkened the top and the bottom of the photo to pop the text and pull focus to the subject in the center of the ad - the little girl.) Choosing fonts and placement took another bit of time - finding the right balance that sets off both the message and the image. Again, the finished product: