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Lightening A Dark Photo

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.

About Janine Smith (114 Articles)
Janine Smith is the owner of Landailyn Research and Restoration, a Fort Worth, Texas based company whose services include family history research and photo restoration. Janine honed her skills in restoring badly damaged photos as a volunteer with Operation Photo Rescue, a non-profit organization whose mission is to repair photographs damaged by unforeseen circumstances such as house fires and natural disasters. <br> Janine’s work is well-known in the world of genealogical and historical societies, museums, libraries, university archives, and non-profit organizations; appearing on the board of directors for several organizations and institutions. She is a sought-after lecturer on photo restoration and preservation to libraries, genealogical and historical societies. <br> In addition to being a Lynda.com author, Janine is the author of many articles on research and restoration appearing in newspapers and magazines, both on and offline. Janine's history and photo restoration columns appear regularly on TipSquirrel.com and in the popular Shades Of The Departed Digital Magazine. <br> Janine is the winner of the 2010 “Photoshop User Award” in the photo-restoration category.

14 Comments on Lightening A Dark Photo

  1. Thank you for the awesome timely tutorial! I was just planning on touching up a batch of “hopeless” family photos this weekend.

  2. Harry // 21/06/2010 at 3:09 am //

    I have found that you can duplicate the layer, then in layers palete click the normal box arrow and change it to screen. This does a nice job for a photo that is only half to dark.

  3. Agreed Harry, the use of duplicating a layer and using Screen mode is a great fix.
    Why I believe Janine is using Curves here is to have absolute control, to the greatest level of detail she can, keeping the ability to go back at a later stage and tweek.
    This is indicative of all of Janine’s tutorials and why, I believe, she is such a well respected restoraitionist.

  4. Thanks for taking time to comment, Harry! While screen mode (and the layer blend modes) are a well known fix, I like to bring up options occasionally. Different photos will require different techniques, and while this particular example has a better result with blend modes, I like to put other things out there that maybe people can use other than the old tried & true Blend Modes! In my thoughts, restoration is not done by blend modes, or any one method, alone.Just trying to show possibilities! Oh, and the control thing that Tipsy mentioned is HUGE! LOL!

  5. SpiritJC // 24/06/2010 at 6:42 pm //

    Curves has been one of my favorite tools but I have never used the inverse and painting tools with it. I am looking forward to trying it. Thanks for sharing the tutorial!

  6. Awesome tut, very helpful, and so easy to do, thanks man and keep da good tuts up

  7. gerard andree // 24/06/2010 at 8:10 pm //

    Wow! this is marvellous Janine, thanks heaps, I sure am going to try it out soon. Am still getting the hang of Photoshop, these tutorials are most welcome.

  8. Howard Haigh // 24/06/2010 at 8:41 pm //

    Follow up with shadow recovery of 50% and highlight recovery of 10% and it looks even better…

  9. Blackberry Jam // 24/06/2010 at 8:53 pm //

    Decent tutorial, curves are a powerful tool. What I don’t get is why not create a curves adjustment layer. You don’t need to create a duplicate layer for your effects cutting down on pixel info and reducing file size. You can also create masks and go back and make tweaks and corrections after you initially work with the curves unlike working directly on the duplicate image.

  10. Juan Martínez // 24/06/2010 at 10:28 pm //

    Indeed, it is a very useful and simple technique. It takes 5 min, only.

    Thanks for sharing!!!

  11. Thank you all for your comments!

    Blackberry Jam: There are a hundred different ways to go about any technique in Photoshop. I’ve just presented one in this particular tutorial. Are there different ways to go about lightening a photo? Absolutely! Are there ways to make it look better? Of course! You can do so much with Curves in so many ways, as with all the tools in PS! I actually did use Curves Adjustment Layers, just not ONE Curves Adjustment layer. I like the control of using multiple adjustment layers. That may not work for everyone, and that’s fine! Everyone should seek out the ways that work best for them! No one way is right, just as no one way is wrong. Whatever works for you is great! We’re just trying to present some options! 🙂

  12. Yu Lai Ing // 25/06/2010 at 9:24 am //

    Thank you for the awesome timely tutorial! I will be try for it.

  13. sonola peter // 25/06/2010 at 12:36 pm //

    the step is gud

  14. Very cool tutorial. I just started playing with curves and adjustment layers in the past year. They’ve definitely made a difference in my photography and restorations.

    I like the idea of using more than one curve adjustment layer. You’ve got my gears turning!!

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