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Adding A Brightness/Contrast Adjustment Layer In Photoshop

Adding A Brightness/Contrast Adjustment Layer In Photoshop

Written by Steve Patterson. In the previous tutorial in this series on tone and color correction in Photoshop, we learned all about the Brightness/Contrast image adjustment and how it can quickly and easily improve the overall brightness and contrast of an image. Unlike the fully automatic Auto Tone, Auto Contrast and Auto Color commands that we looked at in the beginning of this series which offer no way to adjust or fine-tune the results after applying them, the Brightness/Contrast command gives us manual control over our settings with easy to use, independent Brightness and Contrast sliders.

There's two ways that we can apply Photoshop's Brightness/Contrast command; one is as a static adjustment, the other is as an adjustment layer. We covered how to apply it as a static adjustment in the previous tutorial. The problem with static adjustments, though, is that they make permanent changes to the pixels in our image which makes it tough to go back and re-edit things later. This type of workflow is known as destructive editing and is something we should always try to avoid. A better way to work is by using non-destructive methods to accomplish the same things, and one of the best ways to do that is by taking advantage of adjustment layers. So in this tutorial, we'll learn how to easily apply the Brightness/Contrast command not as a static adjustment but as a flexible and fully-editable adjustment layer!

Since I covered everything about how the Brightness/Contrast command works in the previous tutorial, I'll be moving a bit more quickly here so we can focus more on how to apply it as an adjustment layer. If you're not familiar with the Brightness/Contrast command, I highly recommend reading through our Applying A Brightness/Contrast Image Adjustment In Photoshop tutorial first before you continue. As with all tutorials in this series, I'm using Photoshop CC (Creative Cloud) but everything is fully compatible with Photoshop CS6 as well.

Here's an image I currently have open in Photoshop. It's not bad, but it definitely needs a boost in brightness and contrast. Let's see how a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer can improve it, and how it can do so without permanently changing a single pixel in the image:

A mailbox surrounded by purple flowers. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The original image.

Step 1: Add A Brightness/Contrast Adjustment Layer

Back when we were learning how to apply Brightness/Contrast as a static adjustment, the first thing we needed to do was make a copy of our image and place it on a new layer. That way, we could apply the adjustment without harming the original image. With adjustment layers, there's no need to do that because they're completely non-destructive. All we need to do is add one, and there's a few ways to do it. One is by going up to the Layer menu in the Menu Bar along the top of the screen, choosing New Adjustment Layer, then choosing Brightness/Contrast:

Choosing a new Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer from under the Layer menu. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
Going to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Brightness/Contrast.

Another way is by clicking on the Brightness/Contrast icon in Photoshop's Adjustments panel. It's the first icon on the left, top row (the name of each adjustment layer will appear as you hover your mouse cursor over the icons):

Clicking the Brightness/Contrast icon in the Adjustments panel. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
Clicking the Brightness/Contrast icon in the Adjustments panel.

If you're not seeing the Adjustments panel on your screen, go up to the Window menu where you'll find a list of all the panels available in Photoshop, then choose Adjustments. A checkmark next to the name means the panel is currently open, so you may just need to look for it (by default, it's nested in with the Styles panel, or as of CC 2014, with the Styles and Libraries panels). If you don't see a checkmark, select the Adjustments panel to open it:

Selecting the Adjustments panel from under the Window menu. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
Selecting the Adjustments panel from under the Window menu.

The third way of adding a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer, and the one I tend to use the most, is by clicking on the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel:

Clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon in the Layers panel. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
Clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon.

Then choosing Brightness/Contrast from the list:

Selecting a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
Selecting a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer.

Nothing will happen to the image just yet, but a new Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer appears above the image in the Layers panel:

The Layers panel showing the Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The Layers panel showing the Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer.

Step 2: Click The Auto Button

When we applied Brightness/Contrast as a static adjustment, the options and controls for it opened in a separate dialog box. With adjustment layers, they appear in the Properties panel which was added to Photoshop in CS6. Here, we see the same Brightness and Contrast sliders, the Auto button and the Use Legacy option, all of which we covered in detail in the previous tutorial:

The Properties panel showing the Brightness/Contrast options. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The Brightness/Contrast options in the Properties panel.

Just as before, the first thing we'll usually want to do is click the Auto button, which lets Photoshop compare your image with similar images from other professional photographers as it tries to figure out the ideal brightness and contrast settings:

Clicking the Auto button. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
Clicking the Auto button.

In my case, Photoshop decided to set the Brightness to 54 and the Contrast to 66. Of course, each image is unique so if you're following along with your own photo, chances are these values will be different:

The Auto brightness and contrast settings. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The Auto brightness and contrast settings that Photoshop came up with.

Here's my image with the Auto settings applied:

The image after trying the Auto brightness and contrast button. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The image after trying the Auto button.

Step 3: Adjust The Brightness And Contrast Sliders

If you think your image could still look better after trying the Auto button, you can make further adjustments using the Brightness and Contrast sliders. Dragging a slider to the right increases brightness or contrast. Drag to the left to decrease brightness or contrast.

I like what Photoshop came up with for the most part, but I think I'll lower the Brightness value a bit, down to maybe 45 or so, and I'll increase the Contrast to 75. Again, this is just my own personal preference with this specific image. You'll want to keep an eye on your photo in the document as you drag the sliders to come up with the settings that work best for you:

Manually adjusting the Brightness and Contrast sliders. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
Manually adjusting brightness and contrast with the sliders.

Here's my photo after making my own manual adjustments. For comparison, the original, untouched version is on the left. The adjusted version is on the right:

A before and after comparison of the Brightness/Contrast adjustment. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
A "before and after" comparison of the Brightness/Contrast adjustment.

The "Use Legacy" Option

Just as with the static version of the Brightness/Contrast command, the adjustment layer version includes a Use Legacy option which tells the Brightness/Contrast command to behave the way it did prior to Photoshop CS3. I won't spend a lot of time on it here because I covered it in detail in the previous tutorial, but just as a quick refresher (and for anyone who hasn't yet read the previous tutorial), I'll click inside its checkbox to select it (it's turned off by default):

Selecting the Use Legacy option for the Brightness/Contrast adjustment. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
Selecting the Use Legacy option.

Use Legacy tells the Brightness/Contrast command to behave the way it did prior to Photoshop CS3, when Adobe made major improvements to it. Back then (in CS2 and earlier), the only thing Brightness/Contrast did really well was destroy your image. As a quick example, with Use Legacy turned on, I'll drag both the Brightness and Contrast sliders all the way to the right, increasing both to their maximum value. This results in a completely blown out image (with strange color artifacts). That's because all Photoshop did was push the pixels in the image to extremes, sending the lighter tones to pure white and the darker tones to pure black:

The image with Use Legacy on and both Brightness and Contrast at their maximum values. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The image with Use Legacy on and both Brightness and Contrast set to their maximum values.

By comparison, the same increase in Brightness and Contrast results in an image that, while definitely too bright, still retains most of its detail when the Use Legacy option is left off:

The same increase in Brightness and Contrast but with Use Legacy off. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The same increase in Brightness and Contrast but with Use Legacy off.

Likewise, if I turn Use Legacy back on and drag the Brightness and Contrast sliders all the way to the left, decreasing them to their minimum values, I get an image that's not simply too dark; it has no detail remaining at all:

Turning Use Legacy back on, then lowering Brightness and Contrast to their minimum values. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
Lowering Brightness and Contrast to their minimum values with use Legacy on.

With Use Legacy off, the same decrease in Brightness and Contrast still keeps most of the image detail intact. There's no reason to enable the Use Legacy option these days (except in cases like this where you just want to compare the old version of Brightness/Contrast with how much better it works today). It's turned off by default, and it's best to just leave it off:

The same decrease in Brightness and Contrast but with Use Legacy off. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The same decrease in Brightness and Contrast but with Use Legacy off.

Comparing The Original And Adjusted Versions Of Your Image

Something you may have noticed is that the Properties panel does not have the same Preview option that we saw with the static version of Brightness/Contrast. The Preview option allowed us to temporarily hide our adjustments in the document so we could view our original image. Does that mean we can't do that with an adjustment layer? Nope! It just means there's no actual Preview option, but there's still an easy way to do it. Simply click the layer visibility icon at the bottom of the Properties panel to toggle the Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer on and off:

The layer visibility icon in the Properties panel. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The layer visibility icon in the Properties panel.

With it off, you'll see your original image once again in the document:

A mailbox surrounded by purple flowers. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The original, uncorrected image.

Click the same visibility icon again to turn the adjustment layer back on and view the image with your Brightness and Contrast settings applied. This makes it easy to compare the two versions to make sure you're on the right track:

The photo with the Brightness/Contrast settings applied. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The corrected version.

If that little eyeball icon in the Properties panel looks familiar, that's because it's the same visibility icon that's found in the Layers panel, and they both do the same thing. Clicking either one toggles the adjustment layer on and off:

The same visibility icon in the Layers panel. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The same visibility icon in the Layers panel.

Resetting The Brightness/Contrast Settings

At any time, you can reset both the Brightness and Contrast sliders back to their default value of 0 by clicking the Reset icon at the bottom of the Properties panel:

The Reset icon for the Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer in the Properties panel. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The Reset icon restores the default values.

Re-Editing The Brightness And Contrast Settings

If we were applying Brightness/Contrast as a static adjustment, we would need to click OK in the dialog box to accept our settings and commit them to the image, at which point the pixels on the layer would be permanently changed. With adjustment layers, there's never a need to do that because they remain forever editable, with no loss in image quality. To show you what I mean, I'll add a second adjustment layer to my document, this time choosing a Vibrance adjustment to boost the colors. To add it, I'll click on its thumbnail in the Adjustments panel:

Adding a Vibrance adjustment layer. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
Adding a Vibrance adjustment layer.

Notice that by adding this new adjustment layer, my Brightness/Contrast settings in the Properties panel (upper right corner of the screenshot below) have been replaced by the Vibrance settings. Since this isn't a tutorial on how Vibrance works, I'll just quickly increase my Vibrance value to around 30 and the Saturation value to 10:

The Properties panel now shows options for the Vibrance adjustment, not Brightness/Contrast. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The Properties panel now shows options for the Vibrance adjustment, not Brightness/Contrast.

If I want to go back at this point and re-edit my Brightness/Contrast settings, all I need to do is click on the little thumbnail icon on the Brightness/Contrast layer in the Layers panel:

Clicking the Brightness/Contrast thumbnail icon. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
Clicking the Brightness/Contrast thumbnail icon.

This selects the Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer and changes the Properties panel back to the Brightness/Contrast settings so I can make whatever changes I need:

Retouching an image with a Brightness/Contrast adjustment in Photoshop. Image © 2015 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com
The Properties panel shows the settings for whichever adjustment layer is currently selected.

And there we have it! That's how to easily improve the overall brightness and contrast of an image, and keep your settings both fully editable and non-destructive, by applying Brightness/Contrast as an adjustment layer in Photoshop! In the next tutorial, we'll learn how to restore hidden detail in the shadows and highlights of an image with Photoshop's powerful Shadows/Highlights image adjustment!

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