How to Brighten a Photo in Photoshop

In Post-processing by Michael AllenLeave a Comment

Sometimes when we take photos, we mess up our exposure. Whether because we are trying to learn a new technique we are unfamiliar with, perhaps we used the incorrect metering mode, maybe we were simply rushing and failed to take or have the time to check the images prior to moving on. Sometimes, we are capturing a scene our cameras simply do not have the ability to manifest digitally. Whatever the reason, we occasionally pull images into Photoshop which require us to brighten them.

There are many ways to accomplish this in Photoshop, and this article will cover several of them – with a brief introduction to the pros and cons of the methods. Each technique has a time when it will be the technique you’d like to use, so do not feel like you have to become proficient in only the most complex of lightening techniques in order to succeed with these edits. I will be using a dark, back lit image I captured at a recent concert.

Before we get into it, you should take some time to familiarize yourself with layer masks. There is a really great article written by Brian Pex that discusses Luminosity Masks, which are related to this article – you can find that article by clicking here. Luminosity masks are used to blend multiple images or exposures of a composition together in order to create high dynamic range (HDR) type images. That article also discusses the use of masks and how to paint them in, so I encourage you to investigate that article as well.

Option 1: Exposure Adjustment Layer

The first and quickest way to lighten an image inside of Photoshop is simply by using an exposure adjustment layer.

Once you have the adjustment layer up, you can utilize the properties panel to increase the exposure. As you can see in this image, it didn’t seem to work effectively. This is because the shadow detail is so underexposed due to the backlighting that the file doesn’t have any information to create. The skin looks more properly exposed, but the shirt has started to generate some artifacts, because the program cannot be sure what information to put there. This is the biggest con to utilizing the exposure adjustment: since it makes a global shift of your exposure (similar to adjusting your ISO), you will quickly notice artifact presence in your image.




Option 2: Brightness Adjustment Layer

The second way to lighten an image is, once again, through the adjustments menu. This time, however, you can choose the “brightness” option.

Depending on the situation, this may work better or worse than the exposure, as the brightness option functions slightly differently than exposure. The exposure slider takes all your data, and effectively slides the information to the right or left on your histogram (adding or subtracting equal amounts of data to each pixel). The brightness slider, however, affects ONLY the data in your mid-tones. It refrains from shifting your upper and lower portions of your data. So, in an extremely dark and back lit shot such as this example, the brightness slider may result in more pleasing alterations that generate fewer artifacts, as Photoshop isn’t trying to create data in the areas of the image that are pure black.


In the image I'm using, there are far fewer artifacts generated when the brightness slider is used. In this example, the brightness slider performs more adequately than the exposure.

Option 3: Screen Blend Mode

A third way to lighten an image is to duplicate the layer, and change the blending mode to “Screen”. This blend mode impacts the way the image interacts with the layers underneath it. Screen functions in a very simple way: pure black and pure white are not impacted – everything in between those two points gets lighter. As such, it becomes a simple way to lighten your image without having to worry about adjustment layers or sliders; it just takes your image and makes everything that is not pure white or pure black lighter!



One of the nice things that’s possible with screen is that you can duplicate the screened layer multiple times, and the effect will stack. Here is a highly over exaggerated (and thus not very pretty) example for you to see what I mean:




Option 4: Curves Adjustment Layer

The final way that we are going to examine for lightening an image is using a curves layer. This is by far the most versatile, and arguably the most effective way to lighten an image. The curves adjustment allows you to graphically manipulate the data on your histogram. You start with a simple straight line from the lower left (pure black) to the upper right (pure white), and you can create points within the chart and drag the line to create these curves – compression or expansion of various areas of your histogram.


The biggest advantage to using a curves layer is that it is completely non-destructive. Using this type of adjustment layer, you not only have the ability to turn it on/off as you do with the previous methods, but you can go into the graph itself and continue to manipulate it. You can revert it back to the original state of the image, you can simply alter where you want the highlights point to move, or where you want the shadows point to move.

A gentle curve up from the middle creates the same effect using the brightness slider would, but with more control.

Dragging the top right anchor to the left interacts with the image the way the exposure slider does, but with more control.

If you hear photographers talking about the “s-curve”, this is where it happens. It is comparable to utilizing the tone curve in Lightroom; not only are you able to brighten or darken an image and portions of an image, you can draw an S curve through the graph until you have a pleasing amount of contrast in your image.

Here, I have brightened the image as well as created an S curve for increased contrast. The S should be centered around your middle point (if you increase brightness, the actual S should move up as well)

You also have the ability, when you get extremely comfortable with the adjustment, to use this on individual color channels. This allows you to go in and make lightness/darkness/contrast adjustments for individual color groups as well. Add that to the use of painting in masks so as not to have global adjustments on the entire image, and you have the ability to fine tune the lightness values of any portion of any of your images, without impacting the image globally. It is such an amazing tool, and I hope you get in and start to use it like crazy!

I want to point out one final thing. All of these adjustments are varying degrees of non-destructive edits. If you are unfamiliar, this simply means that you have the ability to revert back to the original image should you ever need to. None of these adjustments alter the layer on which your image resides – they sit on TOP of the layers in Photoshop and simply interact with the layers underneath. The sliders are less effective than the graph of the curves adjustment, simply because you can really tune in the adjustments when you are able to impact ONLY particular places in your histogram.

All of these adjustments have the potential to be destructive edits, if you use the adjustments menu available at the top of the program in the file menus. You should absolutely avoid these menus at all costs! They will make the same edits, but they will alter the data of the layer with your image, NOT create separate adjustments. This means once you leave any of the menus, those changes will be permanent (assuming you save the file).

Make sure you avoid these at all cost! These are destructive edits made directly to your layer, and we DO NOT want that to happen.

There are several other ways that one could lighten a photo within photoshop. These are four of the easiest and most effective ways to accomplishing that goal. If you have other ways to brighten your images, drop a note in the comments, I’d love to hear how you approach underexposure struggles!

About the Author

Michael Allen

Michael is a photographer and educator in the suburbs of Chicago. He does event photography – primarily weddings and concerts – but thrives on opportunities to pursue fine art in order to challenge and catalyze thought and conversation with the audience.

Leave a Comment