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You can use an empty adjustment layer. In other words, one in which you haven't set any of the controls, along with a layer blend mode to lighten, to darken or to enhance the tonal contrast in an image. I think you are going to like this technique, because it's a relatively quick and easy fix for exposure and contrast problems in a photograph. This particular image has a couple of tonal problems. First, you can see it's a little bit dark and I think it's also a little flat or lacking in contrast. I think I can improve both its exposure and its contrast with this quick method.
So the first thing I'm going to do is to add an empty Levels adjustment layer here. I can choose a Levels adjustment or a Curves adjustment. It really doesn't matter, because I'm not going to set the controls in this adjustment. So I'll go over to the Adjustments panel, and I'll click on the Levels icon. That gives me my first Levels adjustment layer here. I'm going to name this layer because I'm going to be adding a few more Levels layers and I want to know which one is which. So, I'll Double-click on the Levels 1 label and I'm going to type instead exposure levels, and I'll click off of that text box. Now with that layer selected, note that I haven't change any of the sliders in the Adjustments dialog box. I'm just going to leave the adjustment at its defaults. So it's really not doing anything to the image right now.
I am going to change the layer blend mode of that adjustment layer, by going to the Layers panel and clicking this menu here that's labeled Normal. That brings up this list of layer blend modes, which are basically algorithms or formulas that you can use to blend the tones and colors between layers. This menu is divided into groups according to, what the various blends modes do. So this group right here are blend modes that will give you a darker result than your original. And this group of blend modes here will give you a lighter result than your original and this group of blend modes will increase the contrast.
In this case, I'm trying to make this dark image lighter, and so I'm going to go this group, the Lighten group and I'm going to choose the Screen blend mode, and right away the image looks brighter. So I fixed one of the problems. If you think that the image is a little bit too light, you can lower the strength of this adjustment, by going to the Opacity slider at the top of the Layers panel, moving your mouse over the Opacity label and dragging to the left. Now, I'm going to do much the same thing to fix the flat problem, to give a little more contrast to this image. I'll go to the Adjustments panel and I'll click the green arrow there, to return to the icon view of this panel. I'll go up to the Levels icon again, and click it to add a second Levels adjustment layer in the Layers panel. I'm going to Double-click the name of that adjustment layer, and I'm going to call this one, contrast levels, and click off the text box.
Again, I'm not going to move any of the sliders in the Levels Adjustment panel. Instead, in the Layers panel with the contrast levels layer selected, I'll go to the layer blend mode and down to the contrast area. Now sometimes, I'll use the Overlay blend mode. So I'll give that one a try, but I think that in this case, it increases the contrast too much. It's made the background too light and the foreground really doesn't look good either. So instead of Overlay, I'm going to try the next blend mode in that group, which is Soft Light. And this also increases contrast, but it does so in a more subtle way. And I think that looks a lot better. So to remind you, of how I fix the image so far, I'm going to turn off the Eye icons on the left of both of these adjustment layers.
This is where I've started, then I improve the exposure, and then I improve the contrast. So far so good. There is one more change that I can make, if you have an image or part of an image that you would like to darken. You can use this same technique with the Multiply blend mode. One reason to darken part of an image is to focusing on the bright part. So sometimes you'll see, digital artists darkening the edges of the corners of a photo, and that's what I'm going to do now. I am going to go to the Toolbox and I'll select the Lasso tool, and I'm going to drag all around the border of the image, pretty close to the border and I'm not going to be very careful about the line that I'm drawing, and when I get to the beginning I'll release my mouse. So now, I have a selection close to the edge of the image. Right now, the area in the middle is selected and what I want to do is select the outside. Because I'm going to make that a dark border.
So I'll go up to the Select menu at the top of the screen and I'll choose Inverse. Next, I'm going to go the Adjustments panel and click the green arrow to go back to icon view, and I'm going to add yet another Levels adjustment layer by clicking the Levels icon. And I give that layer a name, I'll Doubleclick the Levels 1 default name, and maybe I'll call this dark border levels, and click off the text box. As before, I'm not going to change any of the adjustment settings, I'm just going to give this layer another blend mode, by going to the Layer Blend Mode menu and this time choosing Multiply.
Now what's happened is that because this area around here was selected that area of the image becomes darker, and the part inside of the border doesn't become darker because I have black pixels on this layer mask which I'll show you now by holding the Option key on the Mac or the Alt key on a PC. So this darkening effect that I achieved with the Multiply blend mode on an empty Levels adjustment layer is only affecting this area that's white on the layer mask. So I'm going to Option- click or Alt-click again on the layer mask thumbnail to go back to this view and I would like to blend that border in a bit.
So I'm going to go my Masks panel, which I have open on my screen next to the Adjustments panel and which you can open from the Window menu, if yours isn't open. And here, I'm just going to use the Feather slider to blur the edge of that mask and I'll go over to the right until I think it looks just about right. And it's just darkening the edges a little bit. So that technique works to make an image darker, to make an image lighter, or to pop its contrast a little bit. Now granted, I didn't have as precise control over these adjustments as I would have if I would use the controls in a Levels adjustment or a Curves adjustment, but this method will come in handy, when you are looking for a quick way to make a simple photo that's too dark or too light or too flat, look a little better.
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