Step by Step: Brighten Unwanted Shadows in Your Photos

Follow these 10 steps to make your shadows come alive without overexposing the rest of your photo.

The Unbearable Darkness of Shadows

Cameras don't see as well as the human eye--their range of light and dark is far more limited. As a result, it's common to take photos in which you've got some deep shadows in otherwise well-exposed photos. Consider this photo, for example. The overall exposure is fine, but the dog's nose and eyes are too dark. It would be great if we could brighten those regions without affecting the exposure of the rest of the photo.

Step 1: Try Brightening the Entire Photo

Of course, you could start by brightening the entire image to see if you like the result. In Adobe Photoshop Elements, choose Enhance, Adjust Lighting, Brightness/Contrast. As you increase the brightness and reduce the contrast, you'll tease out more detail, though it might also blow out everything else that was properly exposed to begin with. Click Undo and we'll try a different approach.

Step 2: Make a Mask

To selectively brighten just parts of a photo, we'll build a mask using your photo editor's layers tool. Start by opening the photo you want to fix in Photoshop Elements, and then duplicate it by choosing Layer, Duplicate Layer, and clicking OK. You should see two layers in the Layer Palette on the right side of the screen.

Step 3: Name Your Layers

We need to be able to keep track of our layers. This can be especially important in projects with lots of layers; with just the two layers in this photo, it's not such a big deal. But in the interest of staying organized, right-click the layer called Background Copy, choose Rename Layer, and call it Top Layer.

Step 4: Turn Off the Bottom Layer

Next, turn off the bottom layer by clearing the eyeball icon to the left of the image thumbnail. You haven't deleted or damaged the layer, but (as we'll see shortly) this will make it easier to see the difference when you erase bits of the top layer, since you'll see a white canvas peeking through.

Step 5: Erase the Bits You Don't Need

Now it's time for you to practice your delicate painting skills. Choose the Eraser tool (in Photoshop Elements, it's the eighth tool from the bottom of the toolbar) and set the size in the Tool Options palette at the top of the screen. The goal is to completely erase the photo except for the shadow areas that we want to correct--in this case, the two eyes and the nose. You might want to use a relatively large brush to make fast, sweeping erasures across most of the photo, and then switch to a smaller brush as you get closer to the shadow itself.

Step 6: Feather Close to the Edges

As you get very close to the areas you want to keep, switch to a brush style that has a feathered edge so that there's a gentle transition from the erased to non-erased areas.

Step 7: Turn on the Background

We're almost ready to fix the background, so turn the bottom layer back on by clicking the eye. The photo should now look like it did to begin with, with both layers perfectly merging into a single image with the original exposure.

Step 8: Brighten the Shadow

Now we're ready to fix the shadows. Make sure that the top layer is still selected in the Layer Palette, then choose Enhance, Adjust Lighting, Brightness/Contrast. As you increase the brightness and reduce the contrast, you should see relatively more exposure and detail appear in the selected regions.

Step 9: Fix the Halo

It's possible that you might not have erased quite enough of the photo near the shadows, so when you increase the brightness, you get an unnatural "halo" effect around the shadow. If so, cancel the Brightness/Contrast control, then go back to Step 5 and use the Eraser to carefully carve away a little more of the photo. Then return to Step 8 and adjust the brightness and contrast again.

Step 10: Fine-Tune With Opacity

When you're happy with the result, click OK to close the Brightness/Control dialog box. If you still want to fine-tune the photo, you can fiddle with the top layer's opacity to perfect the shadows. Go to the Layer Palette, select the top layer, and drag the opacity slider until you like the finished product.

Bonus Tip: Dodging Your Shadows

If masking your photo with layers sounds like too much work, you can also use the Dodge Tool, a modern take on an old darkroom technique. To try this in Photoshop Elements, choose the Dodge Tool (second from the bottom of the toolbar) and set the size of the brush in the Tool Options palette at the top of the screen. You'll want to make the brush small enough to comfortably paint inside the shadow region. Every time you dab the area with the brush, it'll get a little lighter.