Do you have that potentially great shot sitting on your hard drive, ready to be made into a beautiful print or sold to some publication that could really use such a brilliant image? Except for one little problem. The photo is too dark or too light to be used in those ways. Maybe it’s not even the whole photo, but just a part of it; but that part is too important and serves as a distraction to the overall image.
We all have images like these. I’ve had images that were too dark because I forgot to reset my auto bracketing, and the camera gave me a dark shot just when I didn’t need it. Or I’ve ended up with big, bright areas of sky because the ground was just so dark that I couldn’t expose properly for both areas and, of course, I forgot to bring my graduated neutral-density filter.
This is a common problem for most photographers. No matter how much we study and practice the craft, we sometimes end up with images that we like, but that need some work. I work hard to get the best exposures I can, but to be honest, I sometimes get excited by a scene as the light is changing and I seem to regress as a photographer to some earlier point-and-shoot stage.
What can you do? Solutions to the dilemmas of dark or light photos can be found in most image-processing software. I’ll show you some of my favorite techniques in Photoshop, though these techniques work just fine in Photoshop Elements, Paint Shop Pro and other programs.
When A Photo Element Is Too Bright
Dealing with picture details that have lost proper tonality and color because of too much exposure
As soon as exposure increases too much, color washes out and you start to lose important tonalities for your subject. This can happen from mistakes in exposure or dealing with a scene that can’t be properly imaged with your camera’s sensor. Here’s a photograph of the common yellow sneezeweed in Yosemite National Park in California. I was overcompensating for the bright sun and overexposed the shot. I didn’t check it right away because the bright light made the LCD hard to read (that’s why you should always evaluate exposure with the histogram).
I like the limited depth of field on a wide-angle close-up of these flowers. It gives the photo character and a lot of depth. I used a full-frame fisheye up close to get the dramatic look of the background trees in the photo. Too bad the color and tonalities don’t match that drama. Neither Levels nor Curves can do the optimum job correcting this sort of photo.
There’s an easy fix, but you need to have a rudimentary understanding of layers. Layers scare a lot of photographers, but they’re worth the effort of learning. This is such a simple use of layers, that it might be a good place to start.
You need to add an adjustment layer. Which one doesn’t matter because you’re not using it for its adjustment capabilities, but for its blending-mode possibilities. Choose Levels to start because it’s one you can use for added adjustment if needed (Figure 1). I like to use the adjustment layer icon for selecting such a layer—this is the black-and-white circle at the bottom of the Photoshop Layers palette. You also can get adjustment layers from the Layer menu.
When the Levels dialog box appears, click OK without changing anything. You’ll probably see a big gap in the Levels histogram on the left side, indicating no blacks (Figure 2). You don’t need to make any adjustments for blacks at this point. That will come. You end up with a Levels adjustment layer in your layer stack, but it isn’t doing anything at this point (Figure 3).
Now go to the layer blending modes by clicking on or to the right of the word Normal at the top left of the Layers palette (Normal is the default for blending modes). A drop-down menu appears with a long list of words. It would be nice if you could turn off all except the key modes for photographers, but you have to search the whole list for what you need.
Choose Multiply, which is near the top in a group of modes that all make a photo darker. This immediately turns your photo dark and instantly dramatic (Figure 4)! It even brings the blacks in line where they should be on most photos (you always can check by using Levels in another layer). The layers are talking to each other and the underlying photo is being intensified. This is a bit like sandwiching two pale slides together to get one with more density (Figure 5).
At this point, the image is close, but maybe a little two dark. This is easy to correct. Go to Opacity and change the density of the layer (Figure 6). In recent versions of Photoshop, you only have to click on the word Opacity and drag your cursor left or right to change opacity. When your cursor hovers over Opacity, it changes to a hand with an arrow, indicating this control.
Another option is to use the layer mask. Layer masks aren’t the easiest to learn, but try this, and you may find it helps you master a great feature. Be sure you’re on the layer mask by clicking the white box in the adjustment layer. Then pick a large, soft, black brush with a low opacity (Figure 7).
When you paint black into a layer mask, it blocks the effect of the adjustment layer—a low opacity gives less blocking. White allows the effect, black blocks. You can change the color (using the foreground color), painting effects in and out as needed.
In this photo, I painted a low-opacity black over the flower and the lower part of the image. I also did a little on some shadows and painted back white on a hot spot (Figure 8). The result is a more dramatic photo because I haven’t tried to reduce the multiply effect from the whole image, only on specific areas (Figure 9).
This technique works well with skies. Often, skies record weak compared to how we see them. In the first shot of Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior’s North Shore in Minnesota, the image is adjusted properly for how the camera interpreted what it saw. The sunset sky is a little weak, however.
I added an adjustment layer and chose the Multiply mode again. This made the whole image too dark, so I painted black across the bottom of the layer mask. The key to using a layer mask is to start with a large, soft brush, change its opacity as needed and then go back and forth between black and white to get the effect you need (Figure 10).
Now the sky is much more evocative of what I saw at the scene. This is like using a graduated neutral-density filter, but it’s more flexible and it increases contrast. You still need the grad filter, though. You must capture some detail in the image file for Multiply to work. This is important to remember—you can’t add detail where none exists with this technique. If the contrast range of the light is too great, you need the grad filter to bring it down to a level that the sensor can handle.
ALL IMAGES: Olympus EVOLT E-330, Olympus Digital Zuiko lenses, Gitzo 6x carbon-fiber tripod, Really Right Stuff ballhead.
Over To The Dark Side
Bringing out details in very dark areas that are underexposed because of challenges with the scene or problems in technique
Let’s look at the other side of exposure—underexposure. When not enough light reaches the sensor, important tonalities start to mush together, making dark areas look unappealing and formless. Plus, color can be diminished. Just as in bright photos, this can happen from mistakes in exposure or dealing with a scene that can’t be properly imaged with your camera’s sensor.
Here’s a dark photograph, seemingly unsalvageable. This is a shot made about an hour after sunset along the Knife River in northern Minnesota along Lake Superior. I was using long exposures and painting the rocks and falls with a bright flashlight. Light painting is fun—simply set a long exposure (at least 30 seconds, but minutes are better) and then paint the scene with light by moving the beam of a strong flashlight over it.
Digital makes this technique great because you can see what you’re doing with the light, but it can be misleading as you look at the LCD. The darkness all around you fools you into thinking the photo is brighter than it is. In addition, the light from the sky was fading here, and I misinterpreted the exposure for it.
Let’s go back to layer modes to bring detail out of the dark areas in this photo. Once again, an adjustment layer is added without making any changes to it. You can see how much this image is underexposed by the severely challenged histogram (Figure 1). All of the tonal information is on the left side. Still, no adjustments are done at this point.
Now the blending mode needs to be set once again, but this time we need something to brighten the scene. Click on the blending-mode box in the Layers palette (where it says Normal to start) and you get a laundry list of modes. This time, go down almost halfway to Screen (Figure 2).
This brightens the whole photo a lot. The rocks in the foreground are now starting to look good, but the background falls still are dark. It just didn’t get enough light from the flashlight (it was a big, powerful light—the exposure was probably too short to build up the light at this distance).
The answer is simple. Duplicate the Screen layer. You can drag the layer to the copy layer icon next to the trash can at the bottom of the layer palette or you can use a keyboard shortcut, Control- or Command-J. Now you can see a lot more detail in the whole image (Figure 3).
I felt this change made the rocks in the foreground too bright, and the photograph lost some of its drama. This is corrected by returning to the layer mask. The layer mask for the first adjustment layer can stay as it is, pure white, allowing the entire layer effect to do its magic.
The layer mask in the second adjustment layer is where the tweaking needs to occur. I knew I wanted to bring down the brightness of the rocks, so I painted black with a large, soft brush over them in the layer mask, keeping the opacity of the brush low. If you keep the opacity of a brush low, you can build up its density by painting over the area more than once. I also changed the size of the brush to deal with small, specific areas of brightness. This allowed me to refine the look of the rocks (Figure 4).
At this point, I felt there was too much ambient light being revealed at the top and left side of the photo, so I went in with a small brush and put black in the layer mask to block the lightening effect of Screen in those areas. This brought back some of the drama that I wanted, as seen in the final image (Figures 5a & 5b).
There’s one other thing that happens from underexposure that’s important to be aware of—noise. The sensor that captured this photo handled the noise well, but you can see noise showing up in the brightened dark areas even though this was shot with a low shutter speed and the noise reduction setting was turned on for the long exposure (Figure 6).
Of course, you don’t have to use this technique just for dark photos. You can use it to bring out detail from areas of darkness in the photo. A good example of this comes from the lighthouse photo that was adjusted earlier for the sky. The cliff below the lighthouse is dark—certainly a dramatic interpretation of the scene, but we can do more with it.
Adding an unadjusted Levels adjustment layer and turning it to Screen makes the whole photo too bright (Figure 7). Since most of the photo should stay the same as the original, black can be applied to the entire layer mask. This is easily done by going to Edit > Fill and choosing Black from the Use drop-down menu (Figure 8).
Simply paint white (to reveal the layer’s effect) over the local area that needs to be changed (Figure 9). You can see the rocks appearing in the cliff below the lighthouse (Figure10a). Duplicating that layer and refining the change by reducing the layer’s opacity and slightly tweaking the layer mask does a nice job with the rocks (Figure 10b).
I like Photoshop’s Shadow/Highlight adjustment control, but I generally don’t use it for the challenges seen in this article. The biggest reason I prefer Multiply and Screen is control. I automatically get a layer mask with the adjustment layer that I can use. Plus, I prefer the look I get with these blending modes.
When I do use Shadow/Highlight, it’s generally for smaller-scale adjustments. I might try it with the lighthouse cliff rocks, for example. It’s easy to get unnatural looks when using Shadow/Highlight. Here are some tips that I’ve found to make it work better for nature photographers:
1 Change the defaults. Using 50 for Amount and Tonal Width of shadows is way too much. I change both of them to 30 and click the Save As Defaults button at the bottom of the dialog box.
2 Use a layer. You have to copy your photo to a new layer, but since Shadow/Highlight doesn’t work as an adjustment layer, that’s the only way to gain layer control over it. Often, I’ll look at what the control has done and decide I need to tone it down by changing the layer opacity.
3 Add a layer mask. This allows you to control where the Shadow/Highlight adjusting occurs. This is important—the difference between a nicely adjusted image and one that looks wrong is often the placement of the adjustment.