How to Use Photoshop Adjustment Layers To Fix A Dark Image

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How To Use Photoshop Adjustment Layers To Fix An Underexposed Photo

The Before image is shown in upper right corner above the completed image.
Adjustment layers require subtlty and corrections are subjective, not objective.

In the previous article I walked through four ways of dealing with an underexposed image. If this were an ideal world we would all be working with RAW images but, more often than not, we get a jpg image and, more often than not, that image is underexposed thanks to digital cameras.  What digital cameras do is decide on exposure based on Highlights and Shadows by achieving what the camera regards as the correct balance between the two. Toss in the jpg format and you will have issues.

Keep in mind JPG is a lossy compression algorithm. In the quest to achieve that smaller file size, jpg compression throws out colour information. That information is lost, thus the  term “lossy”. As well, the odds are really good that image has been compressed once or twice before you work on it. Keep doing that and you will be working with an image that just may be “dead on arrival”.

In this “How To” I will be using an image of the Los Angeles Opera House that was shot with my Nexus 5 smartphone on a somewhat cloudy October day. In typical fashion, the Nexus handed me an underexposed image thanks to the bright clouds and the shadows in the street.

Let’s see if we can improve this image. Here’s how :

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Start With A Smart Object And Lens Correction In Photoshop CC 2015

The Serach Criteria area in the Lens Correction dialog box is highlted.
Start with Lens Correction and a Smart Object.

One of the first things I do when opening any image in Photoshop is to unlock the Background Layer and then convert it to a Smart Object by right clicking on the layer and selecting Convert To Smart Object. This way the original image is “protected”. if I make a major mistake I can always open the Smart Object and start over. It is a good Photoshop habit to develop.

The next step is to select Filter> Lens Correction … This will deal with any distortions introduced by the Camera Lens. I know the camera make so I select it and the lens model and click OK. The really neat feature about this filter is that it reads the EXIF metadata added by the camera to determine the camera make and lens.

With that out of the way, I can concentrate on working with this image.

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Add An Adjustment Layer And Brighten The Image

The Midtone slider in the Levels histogram is highlighted.
Brightening is done in the midtone area of the levels histogram.

To start the process I added a Levels Adjustment Layer. This opened the Histogram in the Properties Panel. Sometimes the histogram will show a sharp spike in the blacks and the whites. In this image the spikes were based on the solid shadows in the Opera house and the clouds. I tend to ignore them.

To adjust the brightness, I moved the grey slider to the left. This is not one of those techniques where one gives the slider a “mighty yank”. I paid close attention to the clouds and the detail in the Opera House. Too much movement to the left and the clouds become a white mass and the Opera House details look overexposed.

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Use A Brush To “Dial Back” Bright Areas

The Photoshop Brushes panel is shown and the Brush Settings are highlighted.
use a soft brush and opacity to reduce some of the brightness add to the image.

When you add an Adjustment Layer, a Layer Mask is applied to the image. This means we can use the Mask to “dial back” the brightness. In this instance, I wanted to work with the clouds and bring back some detail. The tool to be used is the Brush Tool.

To start I clicked once on the Mask in the layer and defaulted the brush colours to Black and White with Black as the foreground colour.

The brush I chose was a Soft Round Brush with the Hardness value reduced to 0. I also increased the Brush size to 70 pixels and set the brush opacity to 25%. I was going for subtle. For a stronger effect, increase the Opacity and, if you want to see where you painted the mask, press the \ -key. The painted areas appear red. To turn it off, press the \-key once more. If you want to remove some of the making, change the foreground colour to white.

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Add Details With A Vibrance Adjustment Layer

The Vibrance slider is highlighted in the properties panel.
Vibrance will selectively boost less saturated colors.

I wanted to bring up more detail in the clouds and to bring up some of the colour in the building. The obvious choice here was to add a Vibrance Adjustment Layer and to increase the Vibrance. Essentially, Vibrance selectively saturates colours. What that means is that some colors will get more intense than others.  Usually the less saturated the color in the photo appears, the more effect the vibrance slider will have on it. By adjusting the Vibrance slider, I was able to add a bit more detail to the clouds and to bring up colours on the building.

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Bringing Back Contrast With A Curves Adjustment Layer

The curves panel and points on the curve are shown.
Curves hand precision to the correction process.

Having spent a lot of time dealing with brightness the final step in the process is to deal with contrast. Using a Brightness/Contrast Adjustment though a logical choice is not exactly a sound decision. Contrast expands or shrinks the overall tonal values in the image. In the case of this image there is a risk of detail loss. Thus the decision to use a Curves Adjustment Layer.

Curves are one area of Photoshop that mystifies the casual user. In fact, they really are easy to understand. The graph shows shadows on the left and highlights on the right. In the middle are the midtones. Between the Shadow and Midtones is another are for quarter tones. Same thing on the other side. To adjust a tone you click once on the graph line and drag the resulting point upwards or downward. Move a point up, and things get lighter. Move a point down and they get darker. As you may have gathered, Curves offer a precision unavailable to tools using sliders.

As well, you make minor moves of the points because the effect can be quite dramatic. One other thing you don’t do is to clutter the graph line with points. If you accidentally add a point, simply drag that point off of the graph and release the mouse.

In the case of this image, I added points on the quarter tones and moved them a short distance. To see the previous state of the image after moving the points you can either press and hold the \-key or click and hold the eyeball at the bottom of the Curves in the Properties Panel.

If you need to make final “tweaks” to the image, try selecting an adjustment layer and reducing its Opacity value in the Layers Panel.