How to Use Mockups - Pro Tips from a Mockup Maker

by Kaleb Dean

The best mockups are simple, easy to use, and have just the right amount of customization options. They also come with a number of inherent layers that allow you to customize them to fit the documentation art direction of your project. 

Since we make mockups, we're pretty familiar with the ins and outs of what makes them tick. That also means we know how to break them, hack them, and turn them into something no one else will recognize as a mockup. Here are a few tips we've learned and how you can use them to improve your documentation.

1. Never Use Black (#000000)

We're designers—of course black is our favorite color. But that dreamy hex code doesn't work so well on synthetically altered images. Because of the blend modes, layering, and lighting effects that get reintroduced in photo-realistic mockups, solid black just doesn't cut it.

Use a dark grey instead. 

By using dark grey, you're able to keep the lighting effects on the mockup images more intact. Specifically, when you use a dark grey, you're able to keep more deep shadows from the original photograph that makes your design come to life. Besides, we all know that 'black' is never black, unless you've managed to produce your design with vantablack (or maybe that's what you're mocking up?). 

2. Customize the Lighting to Fit Your Mockup

We've all swoon over paper textures and paint finishes that run the gamut. While we photograph and edit for the most likely occurring finish, there's a chance you're looking for something different. If that's the case here's the scoop:

Test and Use Varying Blend Modes

Our mockups come with a few distinct layers that help you customize the finished look: a Design layer (usually set to 'Multiply') and a Lighting layer (usually set to 'Screen' and lowered opacity). It's these layers that hold the key to your finished look

Sometimes you want a harsher light (set the Lighting layer to 'Linear Light) or you want to have a bit more 'airyness' to the design (increase the Lighting opacity), or sometimes you want something to look a bit more reflective (use an 'Overlay' setting). Whatever your use-case may be, feel free to adjust the layers to create the image you want.

3. Customize Beyond Recognition

We try to keep our mockups fairly neutral—they're not too art directed, not too over stylized, and not too recognizably a mockup. They should be an image you could have created, but we just saved you the time.

It follows then that you should be able to edit the image to a point that people don't recognize where it came from. Change the background color, crop it differently, put one mockup into another mockup and then on your website. Whatever! The more more make the image yours, the less likely viewers are to think, 'Oh, that's a mockup'.

4. Pay Attention to Lens Blur

We take real photos like we would if the products and designs were real (because when we photograph them, they are). Using real settings with real f-stops and real depth of field means that there is real blur happening. The best mockups match the object blur enough to be convincing as a really real photo. Really.

5. Pair Mockups with Digital Files

Most designers only ever see their designs in the Illustrator file, or as part of a collaborative Figma document—show those too. Maybe not the whole thing, but break up your mockup images with bright, slap-you-in-the-face graphics so people can see the intended designs and what it looks like in the 'real world' (the mockup real world, of course).

6. If You Don't Document It, It Doesn't Exist

I had a professor that once said this to me and it has rung true ever since. Mockups are the best way to make your work look as real as possible. 

Have a client who cancelled on you right before publishing their campaign? No you don't. How about that apparel line that never got approved? Looks like the shipment just arrived. You can use mockups to make any work look like it really exists—especially the amazing work you've done that deserves a place in your portfolio and case study deck.