7 Ways of Changing Brightness in PS

Options how to darken and brighten in Photoshop

Level: Increasing from Basic to Advanced

Photoshop is a pretty liberal, open-minded, and tolerant tool. Not always the way you know to solve a task is the right way or the wrong one. Often there is more than one solution. Either you can stick to one method in religious kind of belief. Or you learn more than one technique, enabling you to choose the best in a specific situation. I prefer the second approach.

Let’s have a look on the options of how to brighten an image in Photoshop:

Brightness/Contrast Adjustment

First and most obvious way to brighten an image is to choose a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer. Though this method is the most obvious to Photoshop beginners it usually is the worst, the most brutal. If you want to be gentle to your image use it just in very small scale.

Exposure Adjustment

The Exposure adjustment layer again is a pretty brutal one. This tool also is self-explaining. No need to write about it. I rarely use this adjustment method but maybe that’s just ignorance, hehehe.

Levels Adjustment

Open the Levels adjustment layer and you’ll see a graph with some anchor points beneath. Slide the anchor points in the edges as well as the center one left and right you will change the brightness of the image. Take care this is a very rough tool!

Tipp: Holding the Alt-key when moving one of the outer sliders will show when you lose information either in the highlights or the darks. If your image is a bit flat this tool quickly will give it some punch again.

Curves Adjustment

Not the simplest tool but one of the most precise is the Curves adjustment layer. Create a curves layer by clicking the tool in the adjustments panel. You will see a pop-up open with a histogram and a diagonal line. As a start move the center point of the line slightly up or slightly down (depending on your setup) for changing the brightness of the image.

If you just want to work in the highlights, move the center point back to its original place and move the upper part of the curve up and down. For the adjustments in the shadows move the lower part of the curve. If you don’t want to move the whole curve but just parts you will need to add anchor points by simply clicking on the line.

The curves tool needs some practice but once you understand it you can do virtually any changes to your image (brighten, contrast, even color balance and much more). Make sure not to do too crazy moves.

Writing these lines I decided to give this tool a bit more attention in a separate post. Will come very soon, remind me if not.

Screen Blend Mode

Duplicating the background layer (Ctrl+j) you get an exact copy of it. Look for the modes box right above the layers next to the opacity box. Standard setting should say “Normal”. Click on your new layer and change “Normal” to “Screen” mode. For sure you will have to scale down the effect with lowering the layer opacity (as learned in previous layer and masking tutorials past days).

Sometimes a duplicated layer in screen mode is a pretty quick way for painting in a bit of brightness where needed.

Tipp: In case you already have made other adjustments before, you first have to merge all layers by adding a combined one on top with the magic shortcut Shift+Ctrl+Alt+E (press all keys simultaneously). This creates a new base layer on top of all others which can now be duplicated by Ctrl+j.

Dodge and Burn

For dodging and burning in Photoshop we have to create a new layer manually with Shift+Ctrl+n. In the window popping up rename the layer “Dodge and Burn”. Leave the color box in default mode of “None”. In the mode dropdown pick “Overlay” and check the box “Fill with Overlay-neutral color 50% grey”. Click ok and you have created a layer with neutral grey.

In the tools panel pick the Doge tool to brighten or the Burn tool to darken parts of the image. Shortcut for these tools is the key “o”, for walking through the tools of this group press Shift+o. Usually I would set the opacity (strength) of the tool pretty low like 20 percent or less.

Make sure to have your new Dodge and Burn layer activated by clicking it once. Then start painting in your image. Again, the Dodge tool will brighten and the Burn tool will darken the painted parts.

Lab Mode

Each time you change the brightness of your image you are in danger of simultaneously changing the color contrast. In color sensitive images I duplicate the image (Image -> Duplicate), then this copy I switch to Lab mode (Image -> Mode -> Lab Color), right-click on the layers and pick “Flatten layers”, open a curves layer and use it exactly as described in the Curves paragraph to brighten or darken the image.

In Lab mode color channels and light channel are separated – so brightness change in the image will have no effect on the color contrast. In the end you have to again flatten the layers of the Lab mode copy and then drag this layer into the “original” we worked on before, as a new layer on top.


There are even more methods to darken or add light to an image in Photoshop. Sometimes one works better than another, sometimes it does not matter at all. Take your time and test.



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