Brightening a photo in Photoshop

When I take my photos, I tend to underexpose them. This is because one can usually recover shadows from a RAW file, but not really highlights. Once something is burned out in a photo, it’s gone for good. But then I have to brighten them in the end. So today I will show you a way, that I apply almost to every one of my photos. It does not only brighten it, but also gives a bit of contrast, color and overall pop to the photo. Works well on most of my photos.

This is more for the ones that are less familiar with luminosity masks, as those who use them probably do this all the time :)

Using levels to brighten a photo

So what I do, is to create a selection of only the shadow areas in a photo and then add contrast and brightness to those. I don’t want to change anything with the bright areas of the photo, just the dark ones. One has to:

1. Open a photo one wants to edit
2. Go into the Channels window. If you don’t see it, you can turn it on under Window/Channels
3. In this window, hold down Ctrl and click on the RGB channel. This will select all the bright areas in a photo and you will see the selection marching ants on your image.

Using levels to brighten a photo

4. Now, we need to inverse this selection, so instead of the bright areas it selects the dark ones. Hit Ctrl+Shift+I (or Select/Inverse from the menu). The selection will change to the inverse one.
5. Go back to the layers window. Choose Create new Adjustment layer in the bottom right (circle icon that is half white, half black) and from the menu choose levels.

Using levels to brighten a photo

6. A new levels layer will be added with a mask already applied to it. In the levels window, you will see, that the histogram is towards the left and not the right. That means no highlights are select and will not be modified.
7. To add brightness, start dragging the white triangle on the right side of the histogram to the left. Until it touches the histogram, you are no overexposing any parts of the photo, so you can safely move it as much as you need.
8. To add contrast, move the middle triangle to right. I would not overdo this, usually staying between 1.0 and 0.9 works best.

Using levels to brighten a photo

You can repeat this process multiple times, as after each edit, the selection changes. If you are getting very saturated colors afterwards, you can just change the blending mode of the layer to Luminosity and then it will have no effect on the color saturation at all. Yo can also use this only on part of your image, depending on what you need.

One can get a similar result by using Curves or the Brightness/Contrast adjustments. Mostly depends on which one are you most comfortable to use.

And here are few before/after comparisons. The changes are subtle, but noticeable. Maybe a bit harder with the photos next to each other, but much more when you can flip between the two versions in Photoshop. Most editing is just these subtle changes used multiple times.

Using levels to brighten a photo
Using levels to brighten a photo
Using levels to brighten a photo

This is a very simple edit, but once one gets used to it and luminosity masks, one can get really great results with it. I have some photos, where all of my edits were just levels with different masks applied :)

Time of day

Sunrise and sunset are the most popular times to take photos at. And it’s not really a surprise. The low sun can give you great color and makes for some wonderful photos. But which one to choose? Let me give you my thought on that :) Btw. most of the points are the same for morning vs. evening blue hour.

Sunrise vs. Sunset

At sunrise you have the place for yourself – Most of the places are empty very early in the morning. No cars, no people, no tourist and mostly not even other photographers. Nobody will stand in you way, nobody will photo-bomb your photos. Even very busy tourist spot (Eiffel tower, Tower bridge and similar) are empty in the morning. Of course there are exceptions. For instance there are always people at the Charles bridge in Prague. At any time.

The sun position is more unique at sunrise – Not many people do photos at sunrise. And there are probably even some that never seen one. As the sun is in a different position as for sunset, this makes for a more unique photo.

Sunrise vs. Sunset

Sunrise in Amsterdam

The air is clearer at sunrise – As it’s usually colder during the night than during the day, the moisture in the air condensates and it results in a more clearer view. Like this you will get more sharper photos. This does not work always and everywhere, but mostly it does.

Better water reflections at sunrise – If you ever been in Budapest, Amsterdam or any other city with a lot of water traffic, you would seen how hard is to get a reflection in a lake that is always being disturbed. But if you go in the morning, there is not traffic, and the water is perfectly calm. Like this you can get the most beautiful reflections.

Sunrise vs. Sunset

Sunrise in Cesky Krumlov

You can use a tripod at more locations during sunrise – There are places where normally you cant use a tripod. But if you are there very there is usually nobody to bother you, so nobody will mind if you use one.

Not everything is accessible at sunrise – This is sometimes a problem when taking sunrise photos. Some areas may be closed off and not accessible at all. A nice example here is a viewing platform in the middle of Cesky Krumlov, that has the best view of the city. It’s not open at all before 8am, so no luck if one wants sunrise photos.

Sunrise vs. Sunset

Sunset in Paris

It’s much easier to be up at sunset – Of course the biggest problem of sunrise is that it’s so early. Especially if you have been taking photos until lat at night. I sometimes don’t even go to sleep, as it easier than waking after only few hours.

Street and decorative lights are mostly on – Street lamps and decorative lights in the cities come on closer to the sunset, and usually turn off quite before the sunrise. So it you want the light in the shot, you are better of with sunset. Most decorative light are turned off in the middle of the night and you will not have them at all in the morning. This can be a positive in few cases too. Some landmarks have very strong lights on them.

Sunrise vs. Sunset

Sunset at the Neusidler See

Either way, you should get great photos at both times, just don’t forget that there are also other times in the day :)

HDR panoramas

I already shown you how to create HDR or blended panoramas (panroamas where you use multiple exposures for each shot) with the help PTgui or with Autopano Giga. But what if you don’t have any of those. So today I will show you how to combine blended exposures into panoramas using just Photoshop.

Btw. if you want to use a HDR software, you can fist merge the exposures into tone-mapped HDRs with the same setting and then do a panorama. Personally I don’t like this approach, as tonemaping can create halos and similar issues, that can prevent a nice panorama blend.

Blended panoramas in Photoshop

When using Photoshop to create blended panoramas, the order of doing it is apposite to the other ones. While before, we would fist create the panorama and then blend the exposures, here we first blend, then create the panorama. This is because if you try to create separate panoramas they will all be different. You can try, that even combining the same images over and over into panoramas, will result in slightly different panoramas. So while programs that support HDR panoramas can work around it, Photoshop can’t.

So as I said, we have to go the other way. First blend images, then combine into panorama. So what do you do?

First load all the images you want to blend into Photoshop. These have to be rasterized, not smart objects. Photoshop can’t use smart objects when creating panoramas. If you did some edits on them before this, make sure that photos with the same exposures have the same edits. So for instance if you darkened the highlights on the darkest exposure in a RAW editor, be sure to do it in every darkest exposure.

Then combine the images into layers, that should be together (grab the layer with the mouse and drag it onto a name of the other opened image, once that shows, hold Shift and let go of the mouse button). You should end up with the number of files open, how many different photos you have for the panorama. In this example, I only used two exposures for every photo, and two photos for the panorama.

Once these are in layers, you have to blend them. You can use different techniques here, but the important thing is you do the same in all the parts. So you blend the first one, and using the same technique you blend the second, and so on. Don’t do any other edits on the photos, no color corrections or anything else. Just the blend. Everything else can be done once you created the panorama.

Now, save all the files. Does not matter where, just save them as PSDs and don’t close them. Once that’s done, choose File/Automate/Photomerge. In the popup window, leave the layout at Auto and then click on Add Open files. This will add all the open files into the Source files list. Click OK afterwards.

Now Photoshop will merge the files into one big panorama. You will loose the layers you had, but since you already done the blend, that should not be a problem.

Now just merge the layers if all looks good, and continue with your edits of the final photo. You don’t need the original files you merged into the panorama anymore.

Backing up photos

A year ago I wrote about backing up photos. And there I mentioned the SyncToy application, that I use to locally backup my photos to my Synology file-server. And today I will go a bit more about how to use Synctoy.

What is SyncToy? SyncToy is a free application from Microsoft (can be downloaded here), that is used to synchronize folders. It’s not automatic, so you have to run it yourself. But if you are as I am, and like to be fully in control, you will like it. It’s very simple to use and worked flawlessly for me during the two years I have been using it.

It’s much better than just copying files to a new location, as it detects changes, deleted files, new folder and similar and corrects that all for you while synchronizing.

Using SyncToy to locally backup photos

So how do one use it? First, decide on a folder you want to backup. Then, decide where you want to back it up too. So either a file-server, external drive or a second drive in your PC. In my case it’s a file-server, that is attached as a mapped network drive in my PC.

Continue by creating a folder pair with Create folder pair button. You can see in the screenshots, I have multiple, split based on whats in the folder.

Using SyncToy to locally backup photos
Using SyncToy to locally backup photos

Choose the folders, choose the type of synchronization, add a name to the pair and confirm. Since it’s a backup, use Echo as synchronization method. This will mirror you computer folder onto the backup folder, but not the other way around. So if you delete a file from your computer, and sync, it will be deleted also from the backup. Of course if you delete it accidentally, don’t sync, and just copy the file from the backup :)

Using SyncToy to locally backup photos
Using SyncToy to locally backup photos

Once the folder pair is done, you can just click on Run to sync them. But I prefer to first hit on Preview, that will list all the changes it will perform first. Like this I can quickly see what it will do. Once that is shown, I hit Run to finish the Sync.

Using SyncToy to locally backup photos
Using SyncToy to locally backup photos

Now just run this each time you want to run a backup and you are done.

Looking for photo problems

As you take and edit photos, you will often come across the same problems over and over. Dust spots, color banding, bad corrections, bad blends and similar. Sometime you will not even notice it. The colors of the affected area in a photo can be so similar that you just don’t see it. Or it’s too dark, or too bright. And still, that you don’t see it, does not mean that someone else looking at you photo will miss it too. Especially if one is doing a big print, one should try to fix as much as possible.

So today I will show you one technique I use to find areas that need to be fixed in Photoshop.

Finding photo problems using Curves in Photoshop

The technique is very easy. In Photoshop, create a new curves layer, and create an extreme contrast using the curve. Just click on it in the left are, and pull it to the top, and then on the right area create a second point and pull it down. It should look something like in this Photoshop screenshot.

Finding photo problems using Curves in Photoshop

It does not have to be exact, just have something that looks similar. What this did is to brighten the shadows, darken the highlights and added a lot of contrast in the mid-tones. The photo will look crazy colorful and psychedelic now.

But when you look at it, you can see that immediately problems stand out. Things that very barely visible are standing out really brightly right now.

Here are a few examples of it. Fist, a spot when two parts of a panorama were connected. You can see on the left, that it looks fine, but once you apply this filter, the bad transition shows up.

Finding photo problems using Curves in Photoshop

Secondly, here is an example of dust spots, using this filter makes them stand out much more. Will not work everywhere, but most of the time it will help a lot.

Finding photo problems using Curves in Photoshop

Also, lens flares will be much more visible. You can see one in the previous photo, and here is one more example of it. While in the regular photo, the flare is barely visible, after the filter you can see it exactly.

Finding photo problems using Curves in Photoshop

Let’s look at one more example. This is a sky that is not evenly lit due to being merged from multiple photos. If you try to fix it, it’s not that easy, as the differences are minimal. But once you apply the curves layer, the problem is visible immediately.

Finding photo problems using Curves in Photoshop

The simplest way to work with it is to have the curves layer on top, and then edit a layer under it. Then when you are done just turn off or delete the curves layer and you are done.

A little bonus for you. When you have uneven color transitions, mostly in skies or after you removed some object using content aware, it’s easy to fix them. Use strong blur on the area and then add noise to the area. Blur will create a nice transition, while the noise will prevent it from creating color banding. Best to do this on a separate layer and then paint it in with the layer mask.

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