Photography A Few Different Ways to Adjust Image Brightness

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A good looking image consists of many different things, most of which are subjective. In this article I want to briefly discuss one specific variable, which is image brightness. While I don’t plan on going into much detail and getting very technical, I do want to show you how you can adjust image brightness and the final look of your image using a few different methods in your post processing software. Although I’m using Lightroom, the method and concept should be similar regardless of what software you prefer using to edit your images.

To start with, we should figure out what the term brightness means. We all know what the concept of “bright” means in our everyday lives. For example, if I say that the sun is bright you know exactly what I mean. This is not the same meaning as “brightness” in photography. When you change the brightness of an image, you are mainly affecting the mid tones of the image. Compare this to changing exposure, which affects the highlights, mid tones and shadows evenly, and you’ll see that adjusting the brightness of an image can be quite powerful.

Let’s look at some examples. So that you know what’s going on, these are screenshots from the Develop module in Light room. We’ll specifically be looking at the sliders in the “Tone” sub-module on the right side. Here’s a straight out of the camera snapshot that I took of my wife while we were driving down Highway 1 near Big Sur. You can see that the overall exposure looks pretty good, but the image looks a little flat.

You might have noticed that the entire image seems to have a change in contrast. When the white levels are increased the sky and her skin are greatly affected, while the shadows on her shirt barely change. When the white levels are decreased (-100), the image looks much flatter

Let’s do the same thing with the “Blacks” slider. You can see how it changes the image when we adjust the slider.

This time the effect is opposite of when we adjust the whites. When the black levels are increased (+100), the image looks flat and when the blacks are decreased (-100) the image has more contrast.

Now, compare this to adjusting the exposure by +1 and -1 stop:

You can see that everything is affected when we adjust the exposure. Both the highlights and the shadow levels (of the image, not the controls) increase or decrease depending on if we increase or decrease the exposure.

So now that you have an idea of how adjusting the Whites and Blacks tone sliders affects an image, let’s see how we can use them to adjust the brightness of an image during editing.

Here you can see an image that is slightly underexposed. You might notice that the Tone sliders have been slightly adjusted. By default, when I import images, slight adjustments are made to the image to give it a bit more pop. Let’s use this as a starting point and see what can be done to make this image look better.