Photograph: Brighten your photos using the histogram

Most photographs can be quickly improved with a bit of brightening and contrast boosting. It’s extremely easy and can make a big difference in how your photo looks once printed out. This is a photo I showed you last week when I was explaining how to position your subject to use window light. The top photo is SOOC (straight out of camera) and I was shooting on auto. I brightened the bottom photo using a levels (or histogram) adjustment.

There isn’t a huge difference between the top and bottom photos, but the difference is there. See how his skin glows in the bottom version? It looks much more alive because it’s truer to his real skin tone, which is very pale. His eyes are brighter in the second version as well. (If the second one looks too bright to you turn down your monitor’s brightness – if your monitor brightness is up higher than halfway, what you see on the monitor will be much brighter than what you see when you get your pictures printed out.)

This sort of adjustment is terribly easy to do, so let me explain how.

You need some sort of photo processing program that allows you to make changes on your photo’s histogram (even most basic programs offer this – look around for something that says levels or adjustments, etc.). That’s this funny picture:

Photoshop Elements lets you access this using the levels command (control L). iPhoto (which you have if you’re lucky enough to own a Mac) lets you access it using the edit>adjustments buttons. Other editing programs will let you do it as well – you’ll just have to figure out how to get to your histogram.

The histogram shows you what looks like a mountain range. The left side of the mountains represents the dark in your photo (shadows) and the right side represents the light (highlights). A picture that’s well exposed that has a good variety of light it in will have a histogram that shows the “mountains” extending all the way from the left to the right, like the example up above.

However, often your histogram may show the “mountains” all bunched up in the middle, or bunched up near the left side, like this:

The picture above is underexposed: highlights and midtones aren’t very bright, so there’s not a lot of contrast between the light areas and dark areas of the photo. This makes the picture look kind of blah, and when you print it out, it will look even darker than what you see on your screen, since monitors are generally fairly bright.

To fix a picture like this one, grab the rightmost slider, which is for highlights, and pull it toward the left, until it hits the slope of the mountain (red arrow in the example). This will brighten your highlights. Grab the middle slider (for midtones) and pull it to the left as well, until skin tones look bright and beautiful (blue arrow). Dont’ worry if the dark portions of your photo start to look washed out at this point – simply grab the leftmost slider and pull it back to the right until it hits the mountain on this side (yellow arrow). This will darken the shadows and add contrast back into the photo.

Each picture is different, so you may want to play with the sliders a little to get the best look. In the above picture, I brought the shadows slider in a little past where the mountains to begin to give more definition to the shadows. You can experiment a bit and still spend less than 90 seconds on this step. Here’s the before and after:

The after picture is going to print much brighter and look a lot better than the before photos. A little effort makes a huge difference here. Have fun brightening all your photos!


  1. 1

    Denise says

    Awesome post. 🙂 I just turned down my monitor’s brightness! I always knew they were darker, but I didn’t even think to turn down my monitor’s brightness instead of just guessing how bright to make the pics. Thanks. 🙂

  2. 2

    autumn says

    That should help a lot! When I’m editing pictures, I keep the brightness quite low, probably at about 1/4 of the way up. It’s made a big difference in the quality of prints I end up with.

  3. 3

    Amy says

    Thank you so much. I think you’ve helped save my wedding pictures taken 12 years ago, in a low-lit church at night. I can’t wait to try. Your explanations are so easy to understand. Thank you thank you thank you!!!!

  4. 4

    Wendy says

    Thank you so much. This will help save a lot of my photos as well. Great tut. Easy to understand.


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