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Working in low light you are very often going to be facing images that are too dark when you get to post-production. It's just kind of the nature of the situation. No matter how careful you are, there will be times when you miscalculate your exposure or you run into parameters that keep you from shooting an image that's bright enough. Here, I've got an exposure that was a 30th of a second. I was at ISO 16, so I didn't want to take my ISO, ISO 1600, I didn't want to take my ISO up in any higher. I was using a lens that the maximum aperture was f/4. I didn't have a tripod with me.
There wasn't much I could do; I had to shoot this image dark. I want to just quickly go over some of the brightening tools that you have at your disposal. There are lot of them, spread through Camera Raw in Photoshop. None of them are necessarily the right or wrong choice for any given situation. You will probably use a balance of them. So just kind of as review, I thought we would go over some of the tools that you have at hand when it comes down to brighten up an image like this. Curiously, in Camera Raw, one of the quickest, easiest way is to immediately brighten up an image is to hit the Blacks slider. By default, Blacks always comes in with a value of 5, which is pretty aggressive, and you can see here in my histogram that I am really clipping a lot of black information.
If I just drag the Blacks back to 0, suddenly I have got a whole lot of extra latitude down here at the bottom of my histogram to play with. Let me put that back where it was, and you can see, watch these areas in here, which are very, very black. Suddenly it turns out there's some more detail there in those transitions. That can be handy. Of course, in Camera Raw, my primary tool for brightening and darkening is the Exposure slider, which works just like dialing an exposure compensation on my camera; it's measured in stops. So here I just brightened the image by 1.05 stops.
I can, of course, go the other direction if I need to darken something. The Exposure slider does double duty as a highlight recovery tool. If I drag to the left, you can see that these clipped highlights over here go away. The problem with doing this is that by recovering highlights this way, my image has gone much, much darker, way too dark to really be usable. So instead, I am going to put this back over here. I am going to brighten my image back up and not recover my highlights. So that way, instead, I am going to use the Recovery slider. Now I understand at this point, we are not brightening; we are actually darkening some highlights with the Recovery slider.
But if you look here, you can see that I have definitely got some clipping. If I turn on the Highlight clipping warning, it's pretty much where you were going to expect it; it's in these bright streetlights. I'm going to turn that off. They've got a really big diffuse glow around them. You may decide you would like that, but there's nothing wrong with that particularly in a low-light image. But I want to see what it looks like if I just dial my highlight recovery up, and there that's pulled it way down, giving me some more detail in there. I think I am going to keep it like that because I am going to be brightening other parts of the image. That gives me some latitude to brighten these things up without them going too far.
So that's looking good. Fill light is kind of like firing a giant flash into my image. It looks for things in the image that it thinks are shadows and it brightens them. As I dial this to the right, shadows in the image get brighter. Now there is a very interesting distinction here between shadows and blacks. This is not a shift in my black point, because if you will note, this black water right here is not brightening as I pump in the fill light. It's brightening a little bit on the edges, but for the most part, it's correctly identifying things that are simply shadow,s and it's brightening up and it's pulling some detail out of them.
So this can be a very, very valuable tool for brightening. Finally, I have the Brightness slider, which adjusts--it's basically the midpoint in levels. It adjusts the brightness of my middle tones and tries not to alter black or white. So by sliding the Brightness slider up, I can brighten the middle values without worrying about washing out my blacks. So now that I have got some more brightness in here--and I am brightening this up a little bit more than what I think looks right to my eye, because I am going to print it that I know that as I print it, things are going to darken by half to maybe even a stop, depending on the type of paper I am going to use.
Now I see that, well, my blacks are really a little weak. So I am going to start putting my blacks back in here. Whoa! The Blacks slider is a really blunt instrument. It takes very little motion to get a lot of results from it. That's looking pretty good. Now you have noticed I've ignored the white balance situation, and that was partly because it was so dark I wasn't sure what white balance was, but also because I'm seeing this image as a black-and-white image. So do I really need to correct white balance if I am just going to go to black and white? I typically say yes, just because it's good to have more accurate results, more accurate color when I go into my grayscale conversion.
But in low light, it's actually really pretty critical to have good white balance, because very often your white balance will be skewed so far that reds, things will turn really red and orange in your image, and they will start to posterize. You will actually lose detail in tem. By resetting your white balance to where it needs to be, you know that you're getting back a lot of detail in red and orange areas, the areas that are blown out real bad, and that might be the detail that you want when you go to your black and white conversion. So those are some of the brightening tools that I have in Camera Raw. Let's go ahead and move on into Photoshop, where I have a couple of other tools at my disposal.
And I will go ahead and do my black-and-white conversion here. So right away, it's surprising to see with my white balance correction how accurate my color is. It's great that I have got green in here on these trees. My eye really couldn't tell that was green while I was at the location. I am going to go ahead and dial in my black-and-white conversion. If you're not used to working in black and white, if you don't have a lot of experience with black-and-white photography, you might want to take a look at my Foundations of Photography: Black and White course. It will work you through all of the particulars of dealing with black-and-white images and why you might like working in black and white.
So that gives me an initial hit of my tone. Now I would like to do some other brightening options. I have something very akin to fill light. I am going to duplicate my background layer to make a copy of it, because this next edit is going to be destructive, and I want to know I can back out of it if I need to. Then I want to go up here to Image > Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights. Now, when I pull up this dialog box, my image is going to go all wonky. Don't worry about that. Pull this up and right away it looks terrible. That's because the default Shadows slider or the default value for the Shadows slider is way out of whack.
I want to put that back at 0. This Shadow slider is just like the Fill Light slider in Capture Raw. It looks for things that are shadows and it brightens them. What's nice about this is I have a few more options. I can control what is a shadow and how much brightening to apply to it. You can find out more about these particular sliders in the Photoshop Help screen. I am going to turn off the More Options for now, because what I am actually interested in here is this Highlights slider. I want to see what it will do to these bright highlights, because this can sometimes be away of pulling some highlight areas more under control, and you can see it's pulled--it's done a good job of pulling those haloes down a little bit.
In this image, I actually like the haloes so I am going to keep them. So Shadows/Highlights is one option you have. Of course, the other are all the traditional toning controls that you would always use, predominantly Levels and Curves. I am going to ditch this layer because we don't need it, because I am not actually going to do that brightening. And I am going to come in here and add a levels adjustment. I can see here that my white point is set over here at this little spike, and that's a good place for my white point if I want to be sure that I'm not overexposing these things. But it's very important when you're looking at the histogram to pay attention to what the significant data in the image is.
Yes, there is data in here. I can see a tiny little line of pixels right there. But that data represents really just these halos around these lights, and I don't really care about those so much. So I'm going to go ahead and pull my white point all the way over to here, because I'm assuming that all of the stuff, these very, very brightest tones, are simply specular highlights and other halos and things, and I'm worried about getting all of these middle gray values set properly. So I think my significant data probably doesn't start till about right here. I want to bump my black point in a little bit and maybe adjust the mids.
Let me give you a before and after there. That's before, that's after. So you see that I've really taken that dingy haze off those midtones there and pumped up the contrast in the middle parts of the image. Now, I have also blown my lights out a bunch. That's a really easy thing to fix because I have my layer mask right here. So I am going to switch to black paint, grab a paintbrush, and I want a really big brush. I can really just cheat this one a lot. I am going to stamp some black paint on there and on there, and that's going to take this levels adjustment off of these lights and put them back to the glow they had before.
This levels adjustment also blew out this area, this reflection right here. I am just going to tone it back down by filling in that part of the mask, and there we go. So, levels and curves are going to be, in Photoshop, your predominant toning controls, your brightening controls. In conjunction with Camera Raw, you've really got all the power you need to get your middle tones, your whites, your blacks, get them all back where they need to be and get them working together. If you get stuck trying to figure out how to isolate an edit, don't forget about layer masks. They are really an easy way to punch very particular amounts of brightening or darkening into any part of your image.
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