How to Retouch User-Generated Images and Effectively Use Them on Your Channels

How to Retouch User-Generated Images and Effectively Use Them on Your Channels

Trying to be more human (or appeal to a wider crowd)? User-generated images should be a huge part of your branding. But there’s more to the process than just posting them straight onto your social media feeds or website. Pixc‘s Rachel Jacobs shares some insight on how to retouch them for maximum impact.

Brands have to strike a balance between product images, lifestyle shots and the user-generated snaps that make them look human. While both product images and professional model shots get edited and polished for a consistent look, user-generated images are usually raw and gritty, which is part of their charm.

And while keeping these photos authentic is key, it’s sometimes wise to retouch them at least a little bit — think cropping them so they better fit your social media page or applying color correction to adjust the exposure of poorly lit images.

User-generated snaps are often taken with a smartphone. And though these cameras have come a long way and can take great photos, that’s only true under the perfect lighting conditions. Your best bet is to pick images that do need a polish or the occasional retouch while leaving the gritty details intact. This can boost the engagement and effectiveness of the photo.

Let’s take a look at what to retouch and what to leave alone when reposting user-generated images on your channels.

Crop and Add Filters

Probably the most common retouching you have to do on a user-generated image is cropping. The beauty of raw images is that they are spontaneous — they capture a unique mood or action that makes them engaging. But sometimes, the coolest images are poorly composed, and you have to center them so the key elements are visible on a thumbnail.

In addition, make them square so they have more appeal when you include them in your feed. Always ask the original user for permission. And, if you use images often, it might be a good idea to draft a short licensing agreement you can send them.

Frank Body does a great job at mixing user-generated images into their Instagram feed. These photos are always balanced and capture the emotions and lifestyle settings that best fit their products.

Frank Body engages followers with a fun mix of user-generated and professional images.

Filters can be useful when you want the image style of your feed to be consistent, whether you’re aiming for a vintage feel or more color saturation. You can even theme your marketing campaign around a filter and have users add it themselves via Instagram. Alternatively, you can have your team add the filter if images come in without it.

Filters can fix some lighting and color issues and boost views as much as 21%, and the ones that correct exposure, bring out warmer colors and increase contrast are usually the most effective.

Filters are an easy way to spruce up your Instagram feed and build brand identity.

Apply Color Correction, Contrast and Shadows

Heavy retouching is generally not recommended for user-generated images. But if the photos are taken under harsh lighting or with dark shadows , some exposure adjustment might be in order. Just make sure you obtain the publisher’s permission.

Often, a bit of color correction can bring overexposed images or those taken under the wrong light back to life. Be careful not to overdo it, as making them too polished will remove some of their gritty charm. More often, it’s better not to retouch images unless the contrast is really off and it’s hard to tell objects apart.

For example, the images on the video below are beautiful and lively, but the camera was not equipped to handle the low light. Brightening it a bit does a great job of putting the at the center of attention, and there are many free or inexpensive apps that help you do this. Which kind of photo do you think is going to get more likes? 

Choose From Diverse Locations and Themes

Sourcing user-generated images from the web or organizing a marketing campaign to get them all in one place gives you access to photos taken in thousands of places and settings. The creativity of this broad spectrum of people can give you some great images to use on your social media feeds.

Usually, a small competition-type campaign can generate lots of creative user-generated images. This kind of exposure and diversity enriches your channel because more people can relate to it.

Choose the images that resonate with your brand based on theme, colors, filters and mood. Then, re-publish those images as a social proof of your product being widely adopted.

You have to be a little picky because quality also plays a role. Though you may be ok with an uncut, gritty look, those kinds of images are often out of focus and overexposed — qualities that aren’t acceptable on social media.

The wealth of locations and themes that user-generated images offer would be impossible to achieve with in-house photo shoots. And at the very least, they’d be impossible on a reasonable budget.

Calvin Klein does a great job of sourcing user-generated images with their Instagram hashtag #mycalvins, which pulls in a lot of images from all sorts of settings.

How to Retouch User-Generated Images and Effectively Use Them on Your Channels
Calvin Klein’s famous hashtag campaign helps the designer brand reach a wider audience than ever before — all thanks so some savvy marketing.

Add Quotes and Logos to User-Generated Content

Once you get your hands on some good user-generated images and get the owner’s permission to repost them, it’s time to brainstorm a tagline or an emoji to add.

Casual things work best: Think a shout-out to the user who took the photo or a positive note on what you think about it. 

It is best to keep things casual and light, almost like a meme. Anything more formal than that can come off as pushy and take away from the authenticity of a user-generated image. Adding your logo or an inspirational quote can work in some cases. But for the most part, you’re better off letting the raw images grab attention.

Let the Character Shine

Although you can crop, color correct and add text to user-generated images to boost their effect, keep in mind that for the majority of them, it’s best to do nothing. By retouching them, you often take away their authentic appeal. So even if their quality is not up to snuff, let them be and allow them to tell their story.

Audiences trust those honest images the most because they come from genuine customers like them, and keeping an image in its original form attests to that truthfulness. So if you can avoid retouching do it, but if you have a great image that just needs some contrast adjustment, it might be worth a small edit to salvage an otherwise unusable photo.

One brand that does a great job at making their users share awesome images on Instagram is Aerie. Their #AerieREAL hashtag gives them a large pool of authentic images that they can choose from and repost on their feed. Aerie also donates $1 to the National Eating Disorder Association every time a user posts an unretouched photo of themselves in a swimsuit using Aerie’s branded hashtag.

How to Retouch User-Generated Images and Effectively Use Them on Your Channels
Aerie encourages more on-brand content from fans by donating to a great cause.


The general rule of thumb for user-generated images is to let them be what they are: Raw, gritty and unpolished gems that give your brand a human face. If you do have to retouch, tread carefully, and just do so to enhance the image’s clarity or sizing for a better fit on social media.

User-generated images are an essential addition to your social media mix. Their authentic look is usually well-balanced by your polished product images and professional lifestyle shots. So keep it raw, keep it real and retouch only if you really have to.

Wondering how to get great user-generated images from your customers? Email us at [email protected] Featured photo by @clementhodgkinson/Instagram.

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