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HomeCREATIVEPhotoshop: 5 Tips to Lighten Dark Photos that are Underexposed

Photoshop: 5 Tips to Lighten Dark Photos that are Underexposed

Everybody takes underexposed photos at times. It can happen when you shoot in low-light and high-contrast situations. It’s not difficult to fix in Photoshop.

Everybody takes underexposed photos at times. It can happen when you are shooting in low-light and high-contrast situations. It’s simple to fix dark photos with Photoshop.

This article will discuss five ways to brighten a photo. Although all of these methods are quick, some may give you more control.

Is Your Photograph Underexposed?

This seems like a ridiculous question. If your photo is too dark it means that it’s overexposed. It’s best to calibrate your monitor before you start editing. Images that are not calibrated correctly will look too bright or dark.

The histogram will give you more precise results. This chart shows the tonal range for your image. It can be viewed from the far left edge (x-axis) to the right edge (y-axis).

You want to see a fairly evenly distributed data distribution across the whole histogram. However, this will depend on the nature and purpose of the shot. It is often an indication that the image has been underexposed if the data is stacked to the left.

Pro Tip: Use Adjustment Layers

You can apply the first four options below directly to your image or use Adjustment Layers. The latter is recommended in most cases. This allows for non-destructive editing. You can modify or even remove an edit later.

Here’s how it works. At the bottom of Layers palette, click the Adjustment layers button. Select the tool that you want to use, such Brightness/Contrast or Curves.

1. Brightness/Contrast

You can brighten photos by going to Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast or using this tool on an Adjustment Layout.

If the overall image is too dark, Brightness/Contrast can be used. The Brightness setting targets only the midtones and leaves the most darkened and lightest parts of the image unaffected.

After checking the Preview box, move the slider to your right until the image is as bright and clear as you want it to be.

Sometimes, adjusting the midtones can flatten an image. To compensate, you may need to increase the Contrast.


You’ll also see Exposure just below Brightness/Contrast. Although it may seem obvious to use this setting to adjust a photo’s exposure for correction, it’s not.

The Brightness setting targets midtones. Exposure increases or decreases uniformly all tonal values. Exposure will also lighten the shadows and highlights. They can become clipped and appear flat.

The Exposure setting can be used to correct camera errors or make minor adjustments. It is best to keep the Exposure setting for RAW files only.

2. Shadows/Highlights

If you shoot in contrasty scenes, the darker areas often end up being underexposed. This can be fixed quickly with the Shadows/Highlights Tool.

You can go to Image > Adjustments > Highlights/Shadows or create a new Layer. The default settings will be automatically applied by a dialog box.

There are two sliders. Shadows highlights the darkest areas of the image, while Highlights darkens those with the most light. Drag the Shadows slider left until you are satisfied with the detail in the darker parts of the image.

If you feel the Highlights slider needs to be moved, it can. This is a great way to show more detail in brighter areas such as the sky.

Our guide to removing shadows in photos will provide additional assistance.

3. Levels

You can adjust your image using the first two settings that we have looked at. You can make precise corrections based upon the histogram with the next two settings.

They are both very simple to use and very effective for brightening dark pictures.

Levels allows you to control the color range and tone of your image. You can open it by pressing CTRL + L Windows or Cmd+ L Mac. Or, you can apply it to an Adjustment layer as we have outlined.

The histogram is the main screen of Levels. It has three sliders below it. The sliders on the left and right set the black- and white points of the image.

The middle slider is what we are focusing on. It affects the midtones. To brighten your image, click and drag the slider left.

Brighten the areas that are brightest in the image by moving the right-hand slider left. The slider should be aligned with the edge of right-most group pixels in the histogram. Do not go too far — anything to the right will be 100% white and have no detail.

The Levels tool offers a lot more. Our introductory guide to Photoshop will provide more information on how you can incorporate it into your daily workflow.

4. Curves

Curves works in the same way as Levels but allows you to have more control over the tonal range. It is an essential part of Photoshop’s image processing and extremely powerful. It’s easy to tweak the exposure for quick adjustments.

You can open the Curves tool using Ctrl+M or Cmd+M.

Curves, like the Levels tool is based upon the histogram. Instead of using sliders, you can manipulate a diagonal line to adjust the tonal range. The shadows are at the left and the highlights at the right ends of the line.

Click on the line and drag upwards to brighten the image. Clicking in the middle of the line is a good option if the image is underexposed.

You can brighten shadows by choosing a location that is approximately 25 percent to the left. Pick an area that has a lot of data on the histogram.


Curves tools are versatile. You can do this as many times as necessary. To darken the highlights again, click approximately a quarter of the distance from the right edge.

Every click adds a point to the line. This is now a curve. Select the point you do not need and hit Backspace.

5. Mix Modes

The final method to brighten your photos that are underexposed is to use layers or blend modes ( How to use the blending mode within Photoshop).

You can duplicate your image layer by pressing Ctrl+ J, or Md + J. Set the blend mode to screen on the new layer. Instantly, the image will appear brighter.

You can add more layers if you wish. You can fine-tune the effect by decreasing the opacity on the top layer.

Blend mode is fast, simple, and flexible. This method works well with fully underexposed images and can also be used to make local exposure adjustments. Masks could be used to modify or protect specific areas.


Make a dark picture lighter

Sometimes, brightening an underexposed photo can make it look flat or washed-out. This can be fixed with a few tweaks.

To give your image more life, you can use the Brightness/Contrast and Levels tools. If you feel the need to restore some color, then use the Vibrance and Hue/Saturation controls. Now you should have a bright, well-exposed, great-looking photo.

There are many ways to use Photoshop for everything. It doesn’t often matter what approach you choose. You can choose the one you feel most comfortable with or that allows you to have the control you want.

Photoshop can help you fix exposure. This is just one of many ways that Photoshop can improve your photos.




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