Painting With Light Redux

Adding Excitement to a Dull Photo in Photoshop

Here’s a technique I use often to add interest to an otherwise dull photograph and draw attention to its subject, without making it look “Photoshopped.”

First, let’s take a look at a shot I took of a fantastic Gumbo Limbo tree at Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park near Islamorada, Florida:

Gumbo Limbo Tree unprocessed (‘before’ image).

It’s a potentially dramatic image, shot with a ultra-wide 10mm lens to show all of the tree’s forked limbs with the sunlight filtering through the canopy. The problem is that the tree itself is underexposed and lacks much of the reddish coloration I saw when I took the shot.

I could have used the HDR technique, which I discussed in a previous post. However, I did not think to do so at the time; and, I only took this single exposure. I also could have used Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to increase the exposure or otherwise brighten the image. But, that would have blown out the rest of the image, making the leaves, branches, sky and sun overexposed.

So, what to do? How about selectively brightening the subject!

Here’s how to do it using only one additional layer in Photoshop and a little skill with the brush:

The Workflow

  1. Open your image in Photoshop.
  2. Make sure the Adjustments panel is displayed and click on Exposure to create a new Exposure adjustment layer. As you can see, the adjustment layer comes with its own layer mask.
  3. In the Exposure adjustment properties panel, increase the exposure using the slider. You’ll see that the entire image is brightened. This is OK for now. Adjust the exposure slider until the subject looks close to the way you want it to look. Don’t worry about getting this exactly right. With this technique, you can go back at any time to adjust the Exposure adjustment layer!
  4. Now, press Command-I on your Mac (Ctrl-I on your PC) to invert the layer mask that was created for you. The layer mask will now turn all black, thus completely hiding the adjustment layer you just created.
  5. Select the Brush tool from the Toolbox or press B. Choose a soft-edged, medium-sized brush from the Brush Picker and set the Opacity to somewhere between 25% and 50% (experiment to see which works best).
  6. Press D to set the foreground/brush color to white.
  7. Using your mouse or trackpad—a Wacom tablet is a much better solution—begin to paint on the areas of the image you want to add the extra “light” to. Start with one stroke at a time, so as to not overdo it and to avoid making the photo look like it was “Photoshopped.” The areas you paint will show as white “holes” in the layer mask, thus, allowing the Exposure adjustment to come through.
  8. You can change the brush size and opacity as you go. Remember: go easy. You want a natural look.

Here’s how my Gumbo Limbo photo looked after I applied this technique (plus some additional processing to enhance the sky, canopy, colors, and other elements):

Same image using the described Photoshop workflow along with some additional processing. Purchase a print or gallery wrap canvas of this image.

One of the benefits of this technique is that you can go back to the Exposure adjustment panel and change the exposure level if you like at any time! As an alternative to creating an Exposure adjustment layer, you can create a Curves Adjustment layer. This will give you more control over the effect you want to achieve, but can be a bit more complex.

Experiment with different brushes and opacities. It will take some time to get good at this, but it’s worth it. You’ll love the results!