A flexible method to bring some light in your photos

Your camera vs. your monitor

Sometimes your photos look better on your camera than on your monitor. You come back home after a shoot-out thinking you’ve done a great job because your shots look fantastic on your camera’s display, but after downloading the photos and viewing them on your workstation’s monitor, it feels like they lost some glitter.

That’s mostly because your camera’s display and your workstation’s monitor have different contrast settings, different hardware capabilities and most probably they operate at different intensities too.

Other than that, unless you’re viewing your pictures with a software that bypasses the JPEG preview that is embedded in your raw file and develops it’s own preview instead (like all Adobe’s software – Lightroom, Photoshop, Adobe Camera Raw) and that’s bad, you’re looking at the exact same graphic content as on you’re camera’s display, therefore there’s some expectation that your pictures should look the same, except they’re not.

Let’s try exposure

Essentially, what you’re after is trying to bring some light in your picture, but without breaking it or affecting it in a way that essentially produces a different picture altogether.

One could think of adding some artificial exposure. You’re developing software of choice most probably has this option. In Lightroom it’s the “Exposure” slider in the “Basic” tab of the development page. In Photoshop you would go to Image -> Adjustements -> Exposure.

Keep in mind that exposure in raw acts differently than exposure in developed content. Also Levels produce similar results, but regardless of which method you’re using to raise the exposure in post, you’ll probably end up losing some highlights if they already are too bright.

Original vs. exposure applied:

Say hello to Mr. Dog. The white concrete he stands on and the fur on his back are lost after applying levels / exposure. Poor Mr. Dog.

Would gamma do it?

Another solution could be to use the Gamma control from Levels (Photoshop or other software). Unfortunately, for reasons we’ll not get very deep in for now, the shadows and mid-tones will look dull. That’s mostly because the contrast / saturation ratio is not preserved among all the luminosity levels. Very few pictures withstand gamma adjustment beyond 1.0 and still look good.

Original vs. gamma corrected:

It looks washy.

Perhaps curves?

Curves in Photoshop could be a winner, but you really need to fine-tune your adjustment before you want to apply them to a bunch of pictures. And since the curve’s control points can be adjusted freely in 2D space, it’s very hard to progress consistently towards a desired look and still be able to come back if you feel you’re going in the wrong direction. Curves are great for a one-time processing. If you want to process more pictures, you need to look at a more flexible and convergent method.

Original vs. curves applied:

Looks better than exposure / levels or gamma adjustment. The the contrast / saturation ratio is preserved across luminosity levels.

How about local shadows? Well…

Maybe you’ll think that reducing a bit the dynamic range of your photo by boosting a bit the shadows (easily done in Lightroom with the Shadows slider) and then increasing the global contrast will do it, but that is prone to give you the “bad HDR” look and unless that is actually what you’re after (really, why would you?), don’t do it. It’s tempting to do it because you see how details show up in the shadows without breaking your highlights, but zoom out your picture and you’ll start to see the post-apocalyptic look taking place in your photo. You can tell these days which photo was developed with Lightroom specifically because a lot of folks abuse the Shadows slider. Let’s not.

Original vs. Lightroom Shadows, blacks and exposure:

Some color tones look washy and not to mention that some chroma shifting is taking place. The colors just don’t look the same anymore. Yet worse, the Shadows adjustment produces some hallows around objects that make the picture look like bad HRD. Perhaps this picture is less prone to this effect due to the low dynamic range of the scene and having some strong textures, but most of the time you’ll notice it, especially on portraits. Even if you don’t abuse the slider.

So what’s it gonna be then?

Instead, a solution I find more robust, flexible for development and better at preserving the highlight details and also at raising some shadows while keeping the saturation and contrast visually uniform is the following:

  1. Import your picture to Photoshop.
  2. Duplicate the imported layer.
  3. Set the blending mode of the second layer (the one above) to Soft Light.
  4. Go to Image -> Adjustments -> Levels.
  5. Now just drag the Gamma slider towards bigger values until your picture looks bright and bold, but don’t over-do it. I find values between 2.0 and 4 to work most of the time almost for any type of photography or scenery. Start with something decent, you’ll see how to produce even more enhanced results later.

For my own purposes, I call this method “enlighting”. Notice how similar the results are with the ones produced with Curves. Keep in mind however that sometimes Curves work in luminosity as opposed to working in RGB. What that means is that depending on their implementation, you may get different results.

With the “enlighting” method:

  • The highlights get compressed (so they don’t just clip to white) and they get saturated accordingly.
  • The shadows don’t look washy. They are raised, but globally. This avoids the bad HDR look you may get with local contrast adjustments like the Shadows slider in Lightroom. Local contrast adjustment can really make pictures pop, but used differently. We’ll address that in a different article.
  • The mid-tones are boosted the most while their saturation is also adjusted according to their luminosity enhancement.
  • No bad HDR look is produced.

As a proof that highlights are not clipped, I’ve added a masked gamma of 0.03 that compresses down all the tones, essentially stretching down the highlights and allowing us to better see the details in the highlights region.

Levels highlights vs. enlighten method highlights:

Notice how the details still exist in the picture enhanced with the enlighten method, but the highlights in the picture enhanced with levels are just clipped to white, hence lost.

You can push it further

The beauty of this method is that you can now just duplicate the top layer as many times (up to a point of course), subsequently obtaining each time an even more enhanced version that seems to pop even more (colors just get more vivid, something that cannot be done by simply adding saturation) while still having your shadows and highlights look good.


Now you may think that doing so many steps is too much for a single photo, but you have the elegant option of creating a Photoshop action that can be used on other photos too by the means of a single click. Not to mention that due to the robustness of the method, the same action can be used to enhance multiple photos at once. We’ll see how it’s done in a different article.

Download and play with the “enlighting” actions I made for my own purposes and experiment while creating yours. To use the actions you download, just go to Photoshop -> Actions tab -> Top Right Menu -> Load Actions. Browse and select the actions file (.atn) that you downloaded. After Photoshop loads the file, you’ll find the Enlighten actions in “ShootGreatPictures.com-Enlighten Actions” folder in the actions tab. Load a photo, select an Enlighten action and click the play icon. Experiment with all the Enlighten actions provided to see the effect they have on your photos.

Having said that, enjoy your pictures and leave any thoughts or questions you may have in the comments section below.

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