Digital editing 101 – Keeping things light and bright

editing2.jpgNow, despite our best efforts, us home/hobby photographers working with just the camera in our hands and no other equipment often have to struggle with less than ideal lighting situations – it might be too bright and sunny, or alternatively, it might be too dark. Both situations give rather unsatisfactory results and can wash out or mute colours, but depending on your software, there are a number of tools at our disposal that we can use to combat this:

1. Exposure

2. Levels

3. Curves

4. Brightness/Contrast

5. Shadows/Highlights

If you’re using a basic, bare-bones editor such as Google Picasa then you’ll be working with just three sliders (fill light, highlights and shadows) which you can manually edit or ask the software to automatically edit it for you. From what I’ve seen, the auto editor doesn’t appear to be too bad so long as the photo is of decent quality to begin with, but you might want to make the $100 investment into something like Ulead PhotoImpact, Paint Shop Pro or Adobe Photoshop Elements. Or, if you want something that works for free and has the capability to make all these changes and don’t mind the extra headache of working it out for yourself, you can always try having a play with GIMP!

I know that having 5 options just to control the light seems a bit excessive, but I’ll take you through them one by one to explain just what they do, and how to use them and hopefully you’ll see that used wisely, they can be a great asset to you!

1. Exposure


So something happened while you were taking the photo – you misjudged the exposure or through trying to tweak all the settings necessary you ignored or forgot about it altogether. Exposure has a great deal of effect on the image, and not managing it properly can prove disasterous – if the image is exposed to too much light, some areas of the photo may become ‘burnt out’, effectively losing almost or all detail, and thus salvageable. While sometimes this can actually work in your favour (e.g. my strawberry jam photos, I deliberately shot all white to really make the strawberry jam stand out) if uncontrolled or mismanaged, it can lead to the photo needing to just be trashed as it cannot be saved.

Alternatively, if the image has not been exposed to enough light, such as in the example image, not only will it appear too dark, but the colours will also appear quite muted and dull and the image itself will appear flat because of lack of light dynamic range (lack of range between the lightest and darkest areas).


Above you can see that I’ve begun my editing by tweaking the exposure values of the original image. You can see how by increasing the exposure, I’ve immediately brought more light to the photo and the colours (particularly of the cucumber, sesame seeds and bamboo mat) have become much lighter (though very unattractively washed out). However, I’ve encountered two problems that are very common when digitally increasing exposure, and those are increased noise and loss of contrast & detail. For these reasons, you always need to pay careful attention to just how much you increase or decrease your exposure by in order to get the maximum benefit with as little detrimental effect to your image as possible.

2. Levels


This tool has the ability to do great good as well as great evil, and it is with a moderate and controlled hand that you need to apply it. In laymans terms, what this tool does is to tinker with the range of brightness/light dynamic range in the image. As the arrows on the slider bar indicate, the black arrow controls the darkest/black point, the grey controls the midpoint and the white arrow controls the white point. Generally speaking, photos tend to appear best when they utilize a broad range of brightness as that helps to give depth to the image instead of looking dull and flat.


Looking at the image above, you can see how editing just the levels or just the exposure can affect the image. In the ‘levels’ image, you can see that the photo has preserved more detail and dynamic range and the colours are quite bright in compared to the somewhat washed out ones of the ‘exposure’ image. However, the one thing that the ‘exposure’ image has that the ‘levels’ image does not is warmth and more natural colours, visible particularly in the bamboo and sesame seeds. If we were however to take the ‘exposure’ image and fiddle with its levels, we get the following:


Now, how’s THAT? We’ve got lovely and much more natural colours when both tools are applied, and I think you can see why I’d try and manipulate both rather than just either one of the tools discussed so far! Don’t expect to learn how to use these immediately, as this will take a little practice, but next time you’re sitting in front of the idiot box and idly channel surfing, try popping onto the computer and learning your way around these tools to practice a gentle touch and how to best use them to your advantage. Once you’ve done that, you can try your hand at the next tool, which is:

3. Curves


Now, I have a confession to make – I rarely touch the first two mentioned tools. Why’s that? Because I’ve spent the past few months trying to slowly learn and understand the capability of the ‘Curves’ tool. There is a reason that this is very often referred to as one of the most powerful and flexible tools available to anyone trying their hand at photo manipulation. However, I do have to warn you that it is also one of, if not THE most complex tool available to you, so if you’re feeling impatient or can’t be bothered with the finer tweaking this involves, then you’re probably best off skipping it altogether until you are feeling like you’ve got enough interest to attempt it.

To help you understand just what it is that you’re looking at, lets take a closer look at that dialogue box:

curves2.jpgWhilst the curves tool is capable of quite a bit of intricate fiddling, I’m only going to cover the bare basics here, just so you have a starting point to understand it – those of you who are keen can always search the vast internet for a better understanding of all that this tool is capable of later šŸ™‚

The first thing I want to bring your attention to is the faint histogram in the back of the graph. You might recognize this from the section on levels, and the reason that it appears here is so that you have a visual guide to the current tonal values of the picture that you’re working with. While the ‘levels’ tool only has three sliders and can only be moved left or right, the curves tool can have as many markers as you need (not want, be careful you don’t go overboard) that can be placed and moved wherever you’d like.

Myself, I tend to stick to 2-4 markers that work roughly to the same areas as the 3 markers in levels – one for black point, one for white point and one or two for the midpoints.

In addition to the histogram, there are two gradient bars running along the X and Y axis of the graph, and as you can see on the marked graph to the left, they serve one purpose – to show you where the original tonal value of that area lies, and what you are changing it to. This can be extremely handy when you are trying to lighten just one section of a picture (e.g. inside a soup bowl) without affecting the rest of the picture too much.

Without getting into the technical jargon, the best way to learn this tool is, I believe, to sit down and learn by trial and error. Get the feel of how it works for yourself, and you’ll find that this eventually becomes quite an invaluable tool in your workflow for photo editing!


Now, I don’t know about you, but I think the curves edited image looks pretty alright and I wouldn’t feel too ashamed to share that with my readers, I’ll continue exploring the last two tools for those who can’t be bothered mucking about with curves.

4. Brightness/Contrast


A very simple tool, this, like all the other mentioned tools here, plays with the dynamic range/tonal values of the image, however in an extremely simple manner. This works on an even simpler level than the ‘levels’ tool, in that you have no control over the tonal points but are just working with the overall brightness and contrast levels in the photo. While I would hesitate from using this for big changes, you can use it quite effectively for tweaking small details, e.g. slightly lowering the brightness of an image, or reducing the intensity of a colour that might be a bit too much for the photo.


Though its done an alright job here, the lack of flexibilty in this tool means that it has exacerbated the exposure issue to the left of the image, making the left side of the bowl appear ‘blown out’ and overexposed. It has also begun to wash out the colours a bit, compared the the balanced light and richness of colour in the ‘curves’ edited image. It *can* be a handy tool, but with this one, its better to think small than big.

5. Shadows & Highlights

shadowshighlights.jpgOnce again, this isn’t necessarily a tool I’d use for making big changes, but it is quite capable of tweaking some finer details in order to help really bring a photo to life.

If the name of the tool didn’t give it away, this particular function alters the shadows (sections with deepest colour in relation to the overall image) and the highlights (sections with lightest colour in relation to the overall image). If you’re a photoshop user like myself, you’ll also have a spiffy little colour correction bar as well which similar to toying with colour saturation, but I’ll cover that in another week.

You’ll notice that both the ‘shadows’ and ‘highlights’ section have three sliders that can be changed:

Amount – this increases/decreases the amount of shadows or highlights, in the case of my program, as a percentage.

Tonal Width – going back to the histogram in the ‘levels‘ section, this affects what percent of the shadows/highlights histogram is affected by your changes.

Radius – the area of change

Easy, isn’t it? And it is a fairly easy tool to use once you get the hang of it, but like the brightness/contrast tool, its something I’d probably use after exposure/levels or curves to make some smaller, finer tweaks. Of course, as you can see in the image below, if used wisely and well, it can be quite the capable little worker should you need it to be.

Just remember, all things in moderation, ey?


Now, you’re probably suffering just a bit of information overload at this stage, and that’s perfectly understandable. Do I think you should use every one of the tools covered in this article? Of course not! But I do think that you should explore each one and familiarize yourself with them, after that point you can determine which you feel most comfortable utilizing, and hopefully it’ll come in handy to help make your already pretty pictures beautiful šŸ™‚

If you have any questions or think I’ve left out a bit of information that should belong here, then please leave a comment and let me know! Also, if you’ve read this article and think that you know others who might benefit from it, then don’t hesitate to share the link love!

Also, don’t forget to come back next week for a lesson on how to manage temperature (the computer-editing equivalent of managing your camera’s white balance) and colours!

[tags]light, exposure, editing, photoshop, photo manipulation, software, photography[/tags]

3 thoughts on “Digital editing 101 – Keeping things light and bright”

  1. Wonderful article! I have been playing with brightness and levels in GIMP but the Curves one scares me so I never bother. This is really helpful. It is true what you said that about playing with it. Doesn’t hurt any – I just have to make sure to make a copy of the pic so if I mess it up, nothing is lost. Thank you again!

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