5 Easy Ways to Lighten Dark Underexposed Photos in Photoshop

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We all have shot dark underexposed photos at one time or another. Blame it on the lighting or the flash, such photos are common. Luckily, Photoshop provides you with amazing abilities when correcting photos like these.

There are many ways you can lighten dark photos in Photoshop. In fact, there are usually many ways to achieve a particular results when working with Photoshop. The one you eventually choose, would depend on the photo and your level of expertise in Photoshop. It involves a bit of trial and error and some experimentation. Here are some techniques that I use often when brightening a dark photograph.

As an example this is the image we will be working with. Our objective is to lighten the background and bring back some details in the foreground as well.

how to lighten dark photos in photoshop

Ready? Let’s get started.

Brightness and Contrast

The name says it all. To use brightness and contrast:

  • Open up the photo in Photoshop.
  • I always like to duplicate the layer before applying any adjustments, just in case I go too far and make a mistake, the original image isn’t affected. Press Ctrl + J or Cmd +J to duplicate the layer
  • Go to Image > Adjustments > Brightness and Contrast and play with the sliders a bit, till you get the desired result.

how to lighten dark photos in photoshop

New users would be tempted to use brightness slider to lighten their dark photographs. While it is easy to use, it only does what I would call a fairly good job of lightening your photos. Any time you are find yourself pushing the brightness slider too far, you are better off using any of the other mentioned ways or else it would be evident that you brightened your photo in post processing.

Levels

Complexity moves up a notch when you use Levels for this kind of work. You can summon the levels dialog box by going to Image > Adjustments > Levels or hitting (Ctrl/Cmd + L). Immediately, you are greeted by a histogram. Histograms in image processing and digital cameras let you know how many pixels or each brightness value are distributed in your image. Having graph lean towards towards the black slider means your photo is predominantly dark; if the graph leans towards the white marker, that means your photo is predominantly bright. (Things get a little more complex when we move into individual color channels, so you can leave that part out for the moment!)

You can use Levels to lighten photographs as follows:

  • As always, feel free to duplicate the layer before you apply any adjustments. (Ctrl/Cmd + J)
  • With the duplicate layer selected, hit Ctrl + L and you will see the Levels dialog with the histogram.
  • Start moving the white slider under Input levels towards the center. As previously mentioned, if you are having to move the slider too far in to get what you want, perhaps you are better off with one of the advanced methods.

    lighten dark photos in photoshop

  • If you looking for a drastic change you can play with the Output Levels slider, but note that this time you would have to move the black slider inwards to brighten.

how to lighten a picture in photoshop cs3

Tip: Hold down the Alt Key while dragging and Photoshop will show you the overexposed areas in the photo. You want to keep this area to a minimum!

Curves

Curves gives you the greatest control when doing a job like this. It is just a bit complicated and not as intuitive as the brightness/contrast sliders, but it also gives you finer control. I would suggest using one of the presets when working with curves for the first time. There is even a preset to lighten your photos. Go ahead and try it out:

  • Duplicate the layer and select the duplicate layer you just created
  • Hit Ctrl/Cmd + M to show the curves dialog. Choose “Lighter(RGB)” from the Presets drop down.
  • You will notice slight brightening in your photo, if that is a little less and you need to lighten more, just click on the square that appears on the curve and while holding the click down, drag upwards.
  • As you move further from the baseline you would see your photo lighten even further.

    how to lighten a picture in photoshop cs3

  • Choose the sweet spot and click OK

how to lighten a picture in photoshop cs3

Some Pro Tricks

While those are the conventional ways you would lighten a dark photograph, there would be tens of other ways to achieve the same inside Photoshop. As you play around, you will discover new tricks of your own. Here are some I find useful in similar situations:

Screen Blend Mode

  • Duplicate the layer, select the duplicate layer and change its blend mode to screen.

  • Incase the effect is too intense you can lower the opacity of the duplicated layer.

photoshop lighten shadows under faces

Soft Light Blend Mode

  • Create a new layer (Ctrl + Shift + N) or by clicking the new
  • layer icon on layer’s palette.
  • Hit the D key and press Ctrl + Backspace to fill the new layer with white.
  • Now change the blend mode of the new layer to “Soft Light”

    photoshop lighten shadows under faces

  • If the effect is too intense, you can lower the opacity, if its is a little subdued you can duplicate the white layer to intensify it.

photoshop lighten shadows under faces

So there you go, five ways to lighten your dark photographs in Photoshop. Actually, there are many more but you are pretty much covered with these five. If you have any other creative way to achieve similar results, we would love to know about them. Let us know via comments!

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9 Comments - Write a Comment

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RougeCrown

For the duplicate layer trick, Overlay works equally well. For pictures with really low saturation, i find overlay working better than Screen or Soft light (the diff is not that much actually)

One more tip for grainy photo: Duplicate the layer, Filter –> Median. For the setting, choose 5 pxl.

Change the top layer to “overlay” and change the opacity. this should reduce the amount of grains. :)

Reply

Jason

These are some great tips! I have not tried the more detailed approach to using the brightness and contrast before but will give it a try. Using more than just the sliders should produce a good deal more detailed control.

Reply

Steve

Rougecrown tip is great, you can also improve sharpness, by duping a layer, go to high pass, about 4, then go to overlay and voila, increase in contrast and sharpness, you can use the sliders to adjust the opacity of the sharpness.

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