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Photoshop Tutorial: How to Lighten a Dark Photo

Updated on January 13, 2015

Retouch a Dark Photo with Adjustment Layers

Here's a beginner's Photoshop tutorial on how to lighten a dark photo.

The simplest way to brighten a dark photo is to use Brightness/Saturation. Check out the "Brightening a Photograph" video below for a 1-minute tutorial.

Try that first: sometimes it's all you need! But sooner or later, you'll want to learn about Photoshop Layers and blending modes for two reasons:

  1. They give you more ways to fine-tune shadows and bright areas, to make sure you don't screw up one while fixing the other.

  2. Photoshop layers let you preserve and protect the original photo while experimenting with different effects and lighting on layers above it that change how it looks.
Below, I'll introduce Photoshop layers and the blending modes I use to lighten or darken photos in Photoshop. I include two examples with step-by-step instructions that you can try on your own photos.

Easy Photoshop Trick: Adjust Brightness/Contrast - The Simplest Way to Lighten a Dark Photo

"Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast..." is found under the "Image" menu in Photoshop. Sometimes, the simplest tool does the trick!

Use Blending Modes to Brighten/Darken a Photo

How I Retouch My Own Photos

On most photos, I do the following routine to pull out as much detail as possible:

1. In the Layers Palette (see my quick intro to the layers palette), DUPLICATE the background layer.

2. Change the duplicate layer to a different "blending mode." Blending modes tell Photoshop how to combine a layer with what's under it.

3. Lower the opacity of the new "blending" layer until it's not too overpowering.

4. Repeat steps 1-3 with a few different blending layers, running through the blending modes quickly to see what looks good.

If your original photo is...

Too light? I recommend Soft Light, Overlay, Multiply, or one of the Burn blending modes.

Too dark? Try Screen, Linear Dodge, or Color Dodge. It depends on the photo which looks best.


For a list and demo of ALL blending layers, see this in-depth
Photoshop Blending Layers Tutorial. It includes blending modes that affect color as well as lighting.

Example #1: Brighten a Twilight Photo - Try This With Any Gray, Muddy Photo

I get home, find the cactus that only blooms for 12 hours once a year has done its thing, and it's getting dark. Quick! Grab the camera!

Now go inside and start retouching.

First, I duplicated the background layer and changed the new layer to Screen Blending Mode. It's the simplest way to lighten.

I had a problem. If I put the Screen layer at full opacity, it bleached the petals so much that I started losing detail. So I eased off: Opacity 50%. At right, you can see how much it changed.

I'm starting to lose the petals just a bit, but the background is less gloomy. So let's try one of my "darken" tricks to make the dark parts just a little darker. Soft Light is funny: it's like putting two transparencies of the same photo one on top of the other, so their details reinforce each other. The dark parts get darker, the light parts get lighter, and the midtones stay about the same.

At left, I duplicated the Screen layer and changed the new layer's Blending Mode to Soft Light at about 45%. Now the background is lighter, but we haven't lost too many details in the petals.

Can we do any better? Well, to fine-tune even more, go to the Layer menu and choose "New Adjustment Layer... > Levels".

This shows a graph of how many darks, midtones, and light tones there are.

This graph shows what we can already see: a large spike in the light grays (the back petals and the wall), another spike in the off-white zone for the bright petals, but no pure whites. See? There's a gap on the righthand side of the graph. It's not making full use of the range of tones.

If we move the righthand arrow under the graph, we're changing the "this is the lightest tone in my picture" cutoff. I'm going to move it left so it's on the lightest grays in my photo, forcing them to be white. That pushes the midpoint left too, so I'm going to scoot it back to the right. In effect, I've stretched out the grays until the lightest grays become whites.


Finally, because I'm a color junkie, I choose a "Hue/Saturation" Adjustment Layer from the Layer menu, and boost the saturation up about 15%.

At left, you can see all the layers. The Background Layer is the original photo. Now Save the file to get a full master version with all the layers, and use "Save For Web" to get a jpg.

So let's see how it looks.



RECAP: Duplicate your photo.

Change the blending mode of the new layer to Screen (or try Dodge).

If you lose too many details, add a Soft Light, Overlay or Multiply layer.

If the effect is too strong, try lowering the Opacity on that layer.

Once you've got 2-3 blending layers, try fiddling with the opacity on each of them until the details pop.

Example #2: Brighten a Gloomy Snow Picture - Lighten Up, Already!

Here's a photo I took of a buffalo in the snow. It's pretty hopeless, but I know some tricks to make it better.

This photo is dark and muddy, so let's try a few Blending Layers to brighten it.

Here's your "Lighten Up, Baby!" Blending Modes that will brighten a dark photo:

Screen, Linear Dodge, Color Dodge.

Screen Blending Mode

Color Dodge, 80% Opacity

Linear Dodge, 80% Opacity

So, after fiddling a bit, I settled on Screen. This was an especially tough photo because the buffalo is SO dark, any attempt to lighten it would bleach away everything else.

At this point, it's time to pull an intermediate technique out of the pocket: a CURVES Adjustment Layer. Curves let you fine-tune how much different parts of the picture get lighter/darker. You can say, "Just the dark parts should lighten" or "just the light parts" or "only in this range."

1. Under the Layer menu, pick "New Adjustment Layer... > Curves"

2. Now we'll adjust. The horizontal or x-axis shows you the original "input" tones from light to dark. The vertical or y-axis specifies how those tones should be changed. I can never remember which axis is which: I just drag the curve up and down and watch what happens. :)

3. For this photo, the two anchor points in the middle ensure that the midtones of the photo don't get changed. The lower left point pushes the light gray areas (snow) whiter. The upper lefthand point makes the darkest tones (shadows) darker. If you get Curves too out of whack, use "Auto" to reset and try again.

Last but not least, try a little saturation to make the colors richer. Under the Layers menu, choose "New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation". Here's saturation at 35%:

(original photo for comparison)

Obviously, it's better to start with a great photo, but the point is, you can bring out more detail in ANY photo with blending modes and curves.

Video Tutorial: Crash Course on Blending Modes - Adjusting brightness or color on a photo with layers

This video introduces some of the most useful blending modes. The one I use most, Screen mode, is demonstrated at 1:00.

Video Tutorial: More About Blending Modes - The Three Most Useful Modes for Adjusting Lighting

There's some very powerful Photoshop tricks in this video, but he throws a lot of info at you in a hurry.

Update: newer editions of Photoshop have added an "Exposure" filter that lets you brighten the picture, then use gamma correction to darken the shadows a bit. There's no hard-and-fast rule for how to set it, but it can be even faster than tweaking adjustment layers as I did above.

Under the Layer menu, choose "New Adjustment Layer..." > Exposure, raise the exposure a bit, then darken the shadows with the gamma correction slider. You may also want to add a Vibrance layer for additional fine-tuning (although that's more for color enhancement than light/dark).

You can still use adjustment layers as I did above, if the Exposure layer doesn't do the job (or does too much).

Try adding different layers (exposure, screen, soft light/overlay, levels/curves) to see what effect they have, then gradually reduce the opacity of each blending layer until you've got a nice balance of sharpening and brightening without losing too many shadows. Don't forget you can click the eyeball on and off in the Layers menu to see how the image looks with/without a blending layer.

© 2010 Ellen Brundige


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