News Flash: B/C No Longer Suckz

Recently, a few of you expressed mild to moderate surprise that I resorted to Brightness/Contrast to fix an image in the Lab mode. (See this and this.) So I figured I’d run an article that I wrote about a year ago for Photoshop User magazine. Okay, so it’s a repurpose, but this version appears as I submitted it, headline and all. By which I mean, with a couple of hours of updating with the denizens of in mind. Anyway, here goes:

Ask a group of Photoshop experts to name the worst function in all of Photoshop and you’ll probably get a variety of answers: Defringe (doesn’t work), Dust & Scratches (removes neither), Pattern Maker (doesn’t work), Edit > Menus (removing commands doesn’t simplify the program), or my personal antifavorite, the sharpen tool (takes a perfectly good image and makes it look like it was rendered in iron filings). But I think you’ll find a fair amount of consensus around what has traditionally been the most notorious image destroyer in all of Photoshop, Brightness/Contrast.

wanted poster

It’s a classic case of bait-and-switch. Brightness/Contrast lures in new users by making them think it can correct the brightness and contrast of an image using two straightforward slider bars, cleverly named — get this — Brightness and Contrast. (Really, you have to admire the utter brilliance of the deception.) But here’s where the fun begins: As soon as you set about increasing the Contrast — when you’re new, it seems every image could use a bit more contrast — Photoshop slowly and subtly punishes you by clipping the highlights and shadows in your image. Once this becomes apparent, the unsuspecting user turns to the Brightness slider. As you attempt to recover, say, the highlights in your photograph, the Brightness control sends even more of your shadows into the depths of out-of-gamut blackness. And so you return to Contrast for a slight adjustment, and back to Brightness, and then to Contrast, and on and on until you discover the true meaning of codependency. And all the while, your image suffers and the dark side of Photoshop laughs its sinister laugh.

And so it went for 16 years: Hundreds of thousands of new users turning to Brightness/Contrast as overwhelmed teachers did their best to convince the masses that more complex commands like Levels and Curves were actually the better, more logical solutions.

But that changed in Photoshop CS3. Suddenly and entirely without warning, Brightness/Contrast no longer suckz. In fact, it’s quite good. Mind you, it’s not as powerful as Levels or Curves. But its two straightforward slider bars, still named Brightness and Contrast — as if to deny all responsibility for their previous string of heinous crimes — now produce benign, even beneficial results. It’s as if a house fell on the Wicked Witch of the East and Glenda the Good rose in her place. Brightness/Contrast is still a witch, but it’s a very good witch.

Let’s try an example. We’ll start with an image that’s a little bit washed out, like the one below from iStockphoto photographer David Politi. Notice how the face appears somewhat flat, presumably a function of straight-on lighting as opposed to the fellow having, say, no depth whatsoever associated with his nose, possibly the result of a tragic power-sanding accident. Certainly, we could fix this image using Levels or Curves, but Photoshop CS3’s non-sucking Brightness/Contrast is easier to use and it just so happens to work wonders.

Step one: Hurt the image with Brightness/Contrast

Go to the Image menu and choose Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast. Or add a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer. Either way works. Just so that we’re clear how bad the command used to be — and to help us better appreciate its more enlightened functionality — turn on the Use Legacy check box. This turns Brightness/Contrast into its bad old Wicked Witch self. Photoshop even owns up to its critics. If you hover your cursor over the check box, a hint comes up that reads, “Use legacy behavior (clips shadow/highlight detail).” Good for you, Photoshop. Confession is good for the soul.

Step two: Hurt the Contrast

Take the Contrast up to about +26 and notice how you’ve already managed to clip away highlight inside the guy’s face (meaning that details have gone absolutely white) and shadows inside his hair (details have gone black). The damaged result appears below.

Step three: Hurt the Brightness

To compensate for the blown highlights, reduce the Brightness value to -25. This restores some contours to his face, but now you’ve clipped the shadow detail to the point that the fellow’s hair and pupils are the pixel-based equivalents of black holes, sucking way all semblances of nuance and organic detail. This is not color correction, it’s color destruction. If I had printed the image, scanned it back in, printed it again, and made a color photocopy, I could not have achieved worse results.

Step four: Be of good cheer

But that was then, this is now. Turn off Use Legacy and the sliders reset, the nightmare that was the old Brightness/Contrast abruptly ends.

Step five: Love the Contrast

Again adjust the Contrast value, but this time, take it even higher, to +57. Clearly it’s overkill, but Brightness/Contrast resolutely refuses to blow a highlight.

Step six: Love the Brightness

Then temper the hot spots, take the Brightness value down to –44. Again, we go too far. Even so, the image holds up okay, as witnessed below.

To what do we owe this miraculous transformation? The more subtle Contrast control compresses highlights and shadows instead of spreading them beyond the mathematical boundaries of black and white. Meanwhile, the Brightness setting affects the midtones rather than the entire brightness spectrum, much like the gamma control inside the Levels dialog box. Both options are modeled after their counterparts in Adobe’s very own Camera Raw plug-in.

Oh sure, Photoshop CS3 still offers its share of wicked witches. There is Pattern Maker saying, “Come, children, come make patterns with me (before you grow sleepy and fall into my oven).” There is Edit > Menus saying, “Look, children, you can make Photoshop less complicated by deleting two or three commands (before you grow sleepy and fall into my oven).” There is the sharpen tool saying, “Honest, children, sharply focused details really do look like products of an aggressively shaken Etch A Sketch (before you grow sleepy and fall into my oven).”

But Brightness/Contrast has switched axes. It’s with the good team now. If Brightness/Contrast still exudes a slight aura of wickedness, that’s because its ease-of-use is so wicked cool.


It occurs to me that Brightness/Contrast starts with the same letters as Bush/Cheney. If Fareed Zakaria’s article in the most recent Newsweek is to be believed, they both got better. Knock me down with a feather.

Next entry:He Said/She Said: The Great Purple Controversy

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