Brightness/Contrast Not Just “Not Bad,” It’s Actually Great

If your images look drab, it’s often because they are either too light or too dark and they may also lack contrast. Sometimes the lack of contrast can even be hidden until you lighten or darken the image. When dealing with such a photo, the Brightness/Contrast command is one of the most basic adjustments you can make, so it’s not surprising that it’s one of the first commands most folks try. It’s also one of the rare features in Photoshop that actually makes sense to the uninitiated.

photoshop cs5 brightness contrast graphic

Deke admits he used Brightness/Contrast for nearly all his adjustment work during the first six-or-so months that he used Photoshop. (Back in 1990, mind you.) That’s both a testament to how intuitive the command is and to Deke’s fortitude. Because it automatically clipped shadows and highlights, Brightness/Contrast used to do more harm than good. Happily, that’s no longer the case. Ever since its reinvention in CS3, Brightness/Contrast can breathe life into your colors and dramatically improve an image with little effort.

This tip comes from Chapter 7, “Basic Color Correction,” in Deke’s Photoshop CS5 One-on-One: Fundamentals video series for If you’re a veteran dekester, you’ve heard much of this before, but scroll to the end of the post for some more advanced techniques.

These two butterfly photos are drab in different ways, and they’re perfect candidates for treatment with the Brightness/Contrast command.

butterfly image dark

The biggest thing the Brightness/Contrast adjustment has going against it, is its legacy, which goes back to CS3 and earlier. If you’re curious to see some typical bad behavior from the older version, turn the Use Legacy check box on. It reverts the command to its older, nastier self, which was notorious for clipping highlights and shadows.


Translation: Large bright regions of the photo would be converted to pure white, and large dark regions would be made solid black. The illustration above shows the result of setting the sliders to Brightness = 100, Contrast = 50.

As long as you don’t use the Legacy version, the command is completely re-tooled, and won’t destroy your images like that anymore. To apply the adjustment, do the following:

  1. Select Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast… from the menu bar.
    photoshop cs5 brightness-contrast dialog
  2. Turn on the Preview check box.
  3. Make sure Use Legacy is un-checked.
  4. Adjust the Brightness level until it reaches a value that looks good to you.
  5. Evaluate the Contrast and try moving the slider to see if it improves.You’re most likely to increase contrast, but there may be rare occasions where you want to decrease Contrast.
  6. Toggle the Preview check box off and on to compare before and after. You can readjust the sliders, with Preview checked, as needed.

That’s all there is to the basics. With those few steps you’re on your way to adding richness and “pop” to the colors in your photos. Give it a try. You’ll probably like it, and use it a lot.

Where does Brightness/Contrast fit in among Photoshop’s arsenal of adjustments? It fits in between Levels and Curves. Under the hood, the Brightness slider in Brightness/Contrast is analogous to the Gamma (middle) slider in the Levels adjustment. However, Levels can only adjust the black and white points of your image. The contrast slider in Brightness/Contrast works more like a Curves adjustment. You can do even more with Curves, but Brightness/Contrast is simpler to use.

Here are a couple of “extra credit” options that are not covered in the video:

  • The items in the Image > Adjustments menu apply a destructive edit to the pixels in the active layer. If you want to build a degree of roll-back into your image, you can duplicate the layer and apply the command to the duplicate. To duplicate the background layer, drag it to the Create New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel.
  • Better still, you can also apply the Brightness/Contrast command as an adjustment layer instead of a direct edit. You can add a Brightness Contrast adjustment layer from the menu under the black and white circle at the bottom of the Layers panel or by selecting Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Brightness/Contrast… from the menu bar.

You can take the adjustment layer technique a step further by employing a mask which uses the light and dark values within the photo to constrain where the adjustment is applied. In this case, the lighter parts of the image will be adjusted more than the shadows. You can furtheradjust the impact of the masking by reducing the density of the mask via the Masks panel.

We apply the Brightness/Contrast adjustment to our starting image:

photoshop brightness-contrast control before
photoshopbrightness-contrast control no mask
photoshop brightness-contrast layer controls

Adding a simple mask to the adjustment results in the following image.

photoshop brightness-contrast layers
photoshop brightness-contrast control heavy mask

That’s good, but there’s virtually no adjustment applied to the darker areas of the image, creating an effect that’s too intense. We can tame the effect by reducing the density of the mask to produce the final image.

photoshop brightness-contrast layer masked density
photoshop brightness-contrast control final mask

The final image: Masked Brightness/Contrast adjustment; B = 110, C = 100, Mask Density = 20%.

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