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Monday, October 1, 2007

The Value Of Brightness/Contrast

How a much maligned adjustment tool can help you work images like a darkroom master

The Value Of Brightness/Contrast

As soon as I mention the Brightness/Contrast adjustment control, I know some Photoshop sophisticates will turn up their noses and figure that I’ve lost it. Brightness/Contrast is the adjustment control that the experts love to hate and denigrate. Yet it has powers that are perfect for anyone interested in going beyond basic Photoshop adjustments.

I once told a friend who’s a well-known Photoshop expert that I was using Brightness/Contrast for some special purposes. He sat down and determinedly worked at the computer, trying to find an alternative because, of course, everyone knew Brightness/Contrast was a lousy control only used by rank amateurs. He just couldn’t permit me to go down that path of darkness. But I did. And Brightness/Contrast did what I needed to be done better than anything he could come up with.

Let me first tell you when I don’t use Brightness/Contrast. I never use it for overall adjustments of an image. The problem is that Brightness/Contrast is a rather blunt instrument. Using it for overall adjustments is like trying to sculpt detail in a statue with a sledgehammer. You may get the groove you wanted, but you’ll get a lot more happening that you don’t want.

So for overall adjustments, you start with Levels to adjust the blacks and whites, then Curves for midtones (see Digital Horizons, August 2006 for more details). These controls offer the ability to adjust one thing without affecting everything else in the same way. Brightness/Contrast doesn’t work that way. It makes everything brighter or darker, everything more or less contrasty. That rarely makes an image look its best.

When exactly is Brightness/Contrast best employed? I use it to give me the control I used to have in the darkroom, a control that I always used for black-and-white work, then I rediscovered its benefits in Photoshop for any image, black-and-white or color. This is burning in specific areas of a photo to darken them to bring out the best in an image.

The term "burning in" comes from the darkroom. A darkroom master would "burn in" areas of a print by adding more light in highly restricted ways while exposing the print under the enlarger. Ansel Adams was a master of this. If you read books about his technique, especially The Print (still in print), you’ll discover he did a lot of darkening along the edges of images, then darkened other parts of a photo as needed. He’d also dodge (block the light) to lighten areas, but I don’t find Brightness/Contrast works for that (I use Curves).

The great photojournalist W. Eugene Smith was another master of the darkroom and loved to burn in specific areas of an image to ensure the final print matched his vision of the scene. In fact, most photojournalists burned in the edges of images, at least, because it helped keep the eyes of the viewer on the subject.

The reason for all this burning in is simple. Photography records the world much flatter than we see it. Of course, part of that has to do with a two-dimensional medium, but it also has to do with how a camera sees the world compared to our eyes. Imagine a landscape with a flowering tree in front of a large scene. We see the tree as dominant in our field of vision, with everything else less sharply seen and definitely subordinate to what we’ve focused on.


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