Do you have any photos in your collection that are very dark? That doesn’t mean they’re a lost cause! Here’s just one way to lighten them up!
For this method, we’ll employ one of my favorite tools, the good old Curves Adjustment. Bringing your dark photo into Photoshop, duplicate the background layer (Ctrl or Cmd + J). As you may know, I advocate this so there’s a pristine “before” copy for that all important before & after that’s so important in photo restoration. In Photoshop CS4 and CS5, go to the Adjustments Panel and select the Curves Adjustment; If you have CS3 or previous, go to Image > Adjustments > Curves. In Curves, using the black eyedropper and select a dark, or black area of the photo. I used the little boy’s bowtie. With the white eyedropper, select a light area. You may have to try different areas to keep the whites from blowing out; usually the whiter the area is, at this stage, the better. I used the satin ribbon around the little girls waste.
The darker the photo, the more times you may need to repeat this step. It’s not something that can be done in one step. So, in the spirit of wash, rinse, repeat, let’s do it again! Use the black and white eyedroppers again, finding the darker and lighter areas. They may actually be different than the first pass. Try a number of areas in both tonal ranges to see which come out the best.
Depending on how dark your photo is, you may find you don’t need another curves adjustment. The sample photo, though, does! So, another Curves Adjustment!
The clothing is looking about right, but some areas, such as the faces, especially the altar boy at the top, are still looking dark. Therefore, yes, you guessed it! Another curves adjustment, but this time with a little difference. Instead of the eyedroppers, take the histogram up towards the upper left hand corner to lighten. Go a bit lighter than you normally would; we’ll take care of that in a bit.
Back in the layer stack, with this current Curves Adjustment layer selected, inverse the mask (Ctrl or Cmd +I) so that the mask is black instead of white.
With white as your foreground color, paint in the areas of the mask that you’d like lightened. Start with the most obvious. You can always repeat this step as you go along, if need be. The areas you paint in will be very light.
When you’ve painted in all the areas white that you want lightened, blur the mask slightly, somewhere between 2.0 and 4.0 pixels. You only want to soften the edges of the mask to help with the blending.
Lower the opacity of the mask until the light areas blend well with the dark, so they don’t look so obvious. A good starting point is somewhere around 50%; you can go lower or higher as needed.
This should give you a good base with which to really start your restoration of a very dark photo. As you go along, you may continue to lighten the darker areas until you get a more even overall photo.
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