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Bair Art Edition's Tutorial on:
Adjusting Color & Exposure
In Adobe Photoshop

Solving Exposure Problems: Using Contrast/ Brightness

I find that almost every image, no matter how accurately shot or how consistent the camara's contrast settings are, benefits from a contrast/ brightness adjustment. This is especially true of any image that has been lightened, these images tend to come out looking quite flat, and need a boost in contrast.

HOWEVER, this tool is not the best one to use for adjusting contrast! You would be better to use Curves to increase contrast if you have it (Elements doesn't have curves). Otherwise, this does a pretty good job.

Why should you read this module? You then ask. Because there is a cool tip at the end!

The Contrast/Brightness tool can be found under Image/ Adjustments/ Contrast/Brightness. However, we will be using, as always, thid tool as an adjustment layer.Adjustment layers are always preferred (learn more about ajustment layers).

Either go under Layer/ New Adjustment Layer/ Contrast/Brightness

Or on the layers palette (accessable in Window/ Layers) click on the half white & Black circle and choose "Contrast/Brightness"

What comes up is perhaps the most simple pop-up window in photoshop. The concept is very straight-forward, the top slider adjusts brightness, and the bottom one adjusts contrast. The approach we like best is to adjust for contrast first, and use the brightness slider to correct for any changes in exposure.

The way this works is that basically the values on the lighter half of the tonal scale get lighter, and the values on the darker half of the tonal scale become darker; all proportional to the amount of "contrast" you select. The result is more definition between areas of differing values, which gives the image more depth. For some this definition may sound simplistic, but it works for this tutorial.

Here is a before and after of that image, I added 20 points of contrast:

It is also interesting to note that an increase in contrast intensifies values from a saturation standpoint as well. The over-all increase in intensity can have a pleasing effect in terms of saturation, but it can also damage the highlights and shadows. Areas that were barely holding onto detail, far into the highlights, fall prey to increased intensity, and go completely white. This is why it is important to do this adjustment in a layer.

If it is done on a layer, the information isn't lost, and still exists in the background layer. There are many ways to bring out that information, one involves burning it (discussed in a later section), or you can "erase" that portion of the adjustment layer mask.

This is the tip:
As you can see from the layers, I have painted black on the layer mask where I didn't want the change in exposure and contrast to take effect:

You can see how much better it is to not blow-out the highlights anymore:
Before Masking
After Masking

Again, probably the best way to avoid this is to use the more precise, albiet more complex method of boosting contrast using curves.

All in all, the contrast/ brightness tool is very simple, almost too simple to even be included in this tutorial; however it is important to make note of it simply to bring it up. We find that often an image just . . . lacks something, and that something can often be acheived by boosting the contrast.

These are the other sections in this module:

  • Main Exposure Page - Discusses basic exposure issues in digital images, including histograms.
  • Using Levels to Correct Exposure - Covers the power of levels as an adjustment layer to correct underexposed and slightly over exposed images. This is my favorite method.
  • Using Curves to Correct Exposure - This method is favored by many who like te freedom to move the adjustment in all directions. (I like the controlled, linear levels, but then again I'm not that artsy). It is also most powerful in lightning/darkening only certain ranges (highlights, midtones, or shadows).
  • Using Curves to Add Contrast - A better, more controlled approach to adding contrast. It "pinches" shadows and highlights rather than clipping off information.
  • Dodging and Burning - There are many known ways to do this in photoshop, including using the tool of the same name. However, we won't discuss that tool, we'll be using a more powerful method that involves layers. This allows it to be turned up or down and on or off!

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- Stephen Bair, Utah Wedding Photographer

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