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Contrast is very important in Photography, which means that you should have a decent range between your highlights and shadows. When your images are too light or too dark, you lose important image information in the highlights and shadows of your image, ruining the overall appeal of the photograph.

There are adjustments in Photoshop that can save your images. Which one you use depends on the situation and the photo. With each of these methods, I am going to use adjustment layers, found in your Layers Panel at the bottom. They will allow you to adjust your photos, and if you need to go back and tweak adjustments, you can do so at any time.

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In the image below, the overall photograph is too dark. You can hardly see any details at all, especially in the shadows.

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A good adjustment to use in this occasion is the Exposure Adjustment Layer. With this adjustment, you can lighten the entire image evenly with the single Exposure slider. Using the Adjustments Panel makes things easy. If you need to go back to this adjustment, just double-click the adjustment icon on that adjustment layer in the Layers Panel. I increased the Exposure setting by +3.11 to bring back some of the details in the shadows.

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With that simple adjustment, I was able to get the results below:

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The trees in the background are blown out, so we need to use the brush tool with 0% hardness and at 50% strength. Select the mask on the adjustment layer and paint the tree detail on the right-hand side back into the image. Another key point of interest is the lantern in the center of the image. The detail was blown out here as well by our adjustment layer. Lower your brush size and click over the lantern to paint the detail back in. The results are shown below:

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One thing to remember is that when you are making adjustments to Levels, Exposure, Brightness/Contrast or anything else, there is usually a limit to how far you can adjust the brightness of an image. If you go too far, you will see a lot of graininess and noise in your image. This is because Photoshop is trying to compensate for pixel information that it has no way of creating. Photoshop is an amazing tool, but even it has its limits.

The image is still dark around the tour guide’s face, but you can fix this by adding another Exposure Adjustment Layer. You can stack as many adjustment layers as you need to in order to get the job done. You can either duplicate the Exposure Adjustment Layer, or create a new one. It doesn’t matter because you can adjust the settings however you would like. Some areas of the image will appear to be too bright, but each Adjustment Layer comes with it’s own mask.

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Select the brush tool and choose black as your foreground color and paint with it to mask out the areas where you don’t want to adjust the exposure a second time. Another way to do this is use the Quick Selection Tool and make a selection around the tour guide’s face and hit command/cntrl + shift + I to invert the selection, and fill it with your foreground color (make sure it is black) and hit command/ctrl + delete to fill the selection with black. Then, to soften your mask, go to Filter> Blur> Gaussian Blur. Choose something big enough to blur the mask so that it is a gradual blend between his face and the rest of the image. I chose 15 pixels. Then, you can adjust the strength of the Exposure settings in the Adjustments Panel.

I lowered the Exposure setting for this adjustment layer to 1.64, because I could only lighten the face to a certain extent before it began to look pixilated and grainy.

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You can also use the Levels Adjustment to brighten an image. It uses the red, green, and blue channels, and you can adjust all three channels at once, or you can adjust each one individually. Be careful when using this to brighten your images, because you can cause color casting in your images when using individual channels. You usually adjust all 3 channels at once when using Levels to lighten an image.

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Click on the black slider and drag it to the right to darken an image. Click on the white slider and drag it to the left to lighten an image; the gray slider in the center adjusts the midtones in your image. The chart in the middle lets you know where the color information is, and you usually drag the corresponding slider close to where the chart starts to climb. Dragging it too far will blow out your image and you will lose a lot of detail in the highlight areas of your image.

The eye dropper tools on the left side of the Levels Adjustment allow you to set the black point, grey point, and the white point of your image. For example, if an image is dark, and your whitest area is gray, but it is really supposed to be white, you would select the white eyedropper tool and click on that area to make it white. This works the same way for the other eyedropper tools. If an image is too light, and an area is really supposed to be black, you choose the black eyedropper and click that point to make it black. Keep in mind that it will adjust the entire image, so this may not always leave you with desired results. You can also paint a mask on the areas that you do not want to lighten or darken.

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The Brightness and Contrast Adjustment will also lighten your image. For this image I pushed the brightness slider all the way up, but the image was still too dark. I lowered the contrast slider all the way down, and it brought back enough detail in the image, that I achieved similar results to the other 2 adjustment layers. The results are that the trees and the lantern are blown out as in the other adjustment layers, so we will need to paint a mask over those areas to bring back in the detail that we are missing.

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Exposure, Levels, and Brightness/Contrast are great tools to help you lighten your images and bring back details in the shadows and highlights of your photos. You have a lot of flexibility with masks and being able to go back at any time to make adjustments. In some cases you can combine adjustment layers to fix specific problems and focus on specific areas. It is important to know which one to use in different situations, and with the right adjustment layers you can fix photos quickly and effectively.