Lighten Portions of a Photo That Is Partly In Shadow Using Photoshop

Hi there! Lydia here! If you’re like me, you have a few photos that you really love but don’t feel like you can use because half of the subject is in shadow. And, if you lighten the entire image, the part of the photo that was well-lit originally will be too bright and over-exposed. Today, I’m going to show you a simple method for lightening the part of your photo that is in shadow without blowing out the rest of the image. I am doing this in Photoshop CS3, but the method should work in other programs with just a few simple tweaks. Here we go!

Here’s an unedited photo. This photo was taken on a covered porch, and as you can see, half of my face is in light, and the other half (and that cute little baby) are in shadow, much darker than the rest of the photo.

First, duplicate the photo layer (Ctrl+J or Cmd+J on a Mac).

The next thing you want to do is lighten the top photo layer until the part of the photo that is in shadow looks the way you want it to look. Be aware that this will probably make the rest of your photo look over-exposed and blown out. Try not to pay attention to the light part of your photo, and just get the dark part of your photo to a point where you’re happy with it. You can do this using several different methods, depending on your preference and the capabilities of the program you are using. I usually adjust Curves, Levels, or Brightness/Contrast—or a combination of them.

For this photo, I’m going to lighten it by adjusting the Curves. This is done by clicking on the half black, half white circle at the bottom of the Layers palette and choosing Curves.

When the Curves dialogue box pops up, click in the center of the grid and drag the line upward until the dark part of your photo is as light as you want it.

This is what the image looks like now. As you can see, the light half of the photo is way too light. But, we’re going to fix that.

Merge the Curves adjustment layer with the top photo layer (Ctrl+E or Cmd+E on a Mac). You now have two layers with the same image. But, the top layer is much lighter (and kind of blown out).

Now, we’re going to reveal the parts of the bottom photo layer that we want to show. The first step to doing this is to add a Layer Mask to the top photo layer. Simply click on the grey square with the white circle at the bottom of the Layers palette.

Now, select the Gradient Tool in the Tools palette. Along the top tool bar, select Linear Gradient, Normal mode, 100% opacity, and make sure that the Reverse, Dither, and Transparency boxes are all checked.


Now comes the fun part. Since I am lightening the left side of my photo, and I want to reveal the right side of the bottom photo layer, I am going to click and drag across my photo from left to right. If you want to reveal the left side of the bottom photo layer, click and drag across your photo from right to left.

You’ll want to play around with this step. If you drag half way across the photo, you will reveal more of the bottom layer. If you drag all the way across the photo, you will reveal less of the bottom layer. You can also drag diagonally or from the center outward. Experiment until you like what you see. Your layers palette with look something like this:

And, here’s what my photo looks like after adding the gradient to the layer mask:

Merge your layers together (Ctrl+E or Cmd+E on a Mac), and you’re done. Well kind of.

While lightening the shadows, you may have noticed that the colors in your photo got a little washed out. At this point, feel free to play around with Hue/Saturation, Levels, or make other adjustments to make your photo as beautiful as possible. Here’s my finished before and after:

At this point, I want to make a disclaimer. In an ideal world, this photo never would have been taken in this location. We would have chosen a spot with better overall lighting. And, you might be able to make more fine-tuned adjustments in other programs, like Lightroom or Aperture. But, sometimes you just have to work with what you have. And, this little trick has helped me many times to “fix” a photo and make it much more “scrappable.”

There are variations to this method as well. Here is another before and after:

In this example, the middle portion of the photo was too dark. So, instead of using the Linear gradient setting, I used the Radial setting. Then, I clicked and dragged from a point in the middle of the photo outward to the edge. This kept the original lighting on the edges of the photo and lightened up the center. Again, it’s not perfect, but it’s a great improvement.

So, go play around with some of your photos and see how many of them you can “rescue” with this little trick!

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  • I really enjoy tutorials, especially when dealing with photos. I could not pass this one by without reading it. I am so glad that I did. I am physically unable to take photos; therefore, I have to depend on family members. I had forgotten all about using gradients and really appreciate the reminder. In fact, this is not only a reminder, but that a truly updated tutorial with additional information.

    Thank you for helping us photo novices correct obvious defects in our photography through your tutorials. You are the best.

  • LOVE this one, just used it and rescued an old favorite photo that I never thought I’d get the chance to use :)

  • Thanks, Lydia! I’m about to try this.

  • Thank You… Its very useful

  • Thankyou, this has been amazingly helpful! Im a 3rd year uni student studying photography… though my art school focuses more on concept than technique, so THIS was a goldmine find!

  • SO useful, thank you! Landscape architect trying to improve so-so photos

  • Thank you Lydia. I am going to try this. I have a bunch of recent photo shots that have exact problem looking for a fix. I hope I understand your tutorial well enough to rescue them. Thank you again.

  • Great Tutorial! Different!

  • You just saved my fanny. You made my month. Thank You
    so much. The baby is adorable.

  • Very interesting insight. I believe in professionals so this is a very useful article for everyone. Thank you very much for sharing..

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