A Quick and Effective Way to Enhance Contrast in Photoshop

A Quick and Effective Way to Enhance Contrast in Photoshop


In this tutorial one of our senior members from our forums Jeff Masamori over at Flickr) shares a simple photoshop technique for enhancing contrast.


This is probably the most useful little adjustment I’ve come across (in Photoshop) just playing around a few years ago. It has served me well, and I hope it will do the same for you all, as there is not a single photo I have ever taken that does not look better without it. NEVER.

Very very simple.

1. Image>Adjustments>Auto Levels
You could do the levels manually if you want to, but auto tends to do pretty much the same thing I would have done.

2. Duplicate your layer.
The shortcut is Command+J (control on a PC)

3. Image>Adjustments>Equalize
This function remaps your pixels to incorporate every range of brightness. So your brightest pixels will go white, and you darkest will go black. After this command, if you look at your histogram, it will almost be level all the way across. Your image will probably look like a really bad HDR-ish image, which is to be expected.

4. Set the equalized layer’s blending mode to Soft Light
You will notice that your image looks less bizarre and much more contrasty.

5. Drop the Soft Light layer’s opacity.
I always drop it down to between 30-35%, but you can try different opacities to fit your liking.

6. Merge the layers together, and you’re done!

Here’s an example of what it does.





So there you have it. Give it a try.

Like I said, I’ve never taken a shot that this didn’t do miracles for.

Makes a great action as well.

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Some Older Comments

  • Cory March 9, 2011 07:26 pm

    Or you could try taking a good picture in the first place. It's a new technique I learned in photo class, where you find interesting subject matter and shoot it during the right time of day from an angle that makes the light and color intriguing, or you light it yourself artificially. I am really tired of everybody "fixing it in post.." Photoshop is killing the art of photography.

  • David Hardwick Photography April 27, 2010 08:44 am

    Very useful photoshop tip for some people. Thanks for all your articles.

  • Cole April 19, 2010 05:15 am

    totally awesome, this works miracles just the essence of photography right here: digitally enhancing an image.

  • Stefan Petersen April 5, 2010 09:48 am

    Great write up! I'm always looking to further my 'poor' post processing techniques.

  • Tofom February 14, 2010 12:25 am

    Really geat tip. I've created a Photoshop action.
    Thank you

  • PO Cyborg September 6, 2009 05:16 am

    Great cleaner of the grey wash-everything-together haze! It gives the last extra after lightroom treatment.: Subtle and beneficiant. Will definitely use it. [B T W Ilan: the vignetting effect is due to optic flaws, not the action itself. ]

  • SteakHouse September 5, 2009 12:51 am

    Good post, thank you.

    Now to be silly and pedantic (I am definitely not taking this seriously, it just amused me as I tried to unravel it)

    I loved the highly confusing multiple-negative in the opening paragraph :)

    "...there is not a single photo I have ever taken that does not look better without it. NEVER."

    *head explodes*

    "There is not a single photo I have ever taken" i.e. "every photo I have taken"
    "...that does not look better" i.e. "looks better"
    "without it"... here is the confusion: this should be "with it"... even if you use the original double negative.
    "Never" an expertly chosen addendum to further confound the mind before the without/with issue has been figured out!


  • Dustin August 10, 2009 05:00 pm

    I just thought that I should finally comment on this. I read this tip wuite a while back on here, and started using it right away. It's Great! There is truly no image that I've found that this doesn't improve on some level. I've even made it into a little action. The only things I have learned to watch out for is images with a lot of dark areas and sunsets. In images with really subtle shadow detail, I usually run the equalize/soft light action, and then erase out the dark areas as it usually makes them too dark. As for sunsets, well it can wash them out a little. To remedy that I usually still use it, but then I'll duplicate the layer and play with the curves and/or saturation to get the sunset right, then use a mask or eraser to just show the part of the sunset that I want.

    Thanks for the tip!

  • Gbenga Loveeyes Images July 30, 2009 09:13 pm

    Photoshop.... Just when I think I am almost done, nw skills keep coming up. Thanks DPS

  • Landscape Photography July 18, 2009 12:34 pm

    Hmmm, I'll have to give it a try, I can't see why you wouldn't just use one curves adjustment layer though? .. what are the benefits of this method?

  • Rick Noelle July 7, 2009 05:56 am

    This is a really great tip, thanks. I have duplicated these steps with GIMP using the following steps:

    1) Colors -> Levels. On the pop-up, click the "Auto" button to the left of the three dropper icons.
    2) Duplicate layer with "Layer->Duplicate Layer" or CTRL+SHIFT+D.
    3) In the layer toolbox, make sure the layer copy is highlighted (top one) and change the Mode drop-down to "Soft Light". Use the Opacity slider to adjust it down to 30-35% or whatever looks best to you.
    4) Merge layers with "Image->Merge Visible Layers" or CTRL+M.
    5) Save and you are done.

  • Jason June 27, 2009 08:27 am

    That was a great tip! I also used it to just brighten my image evenly and it worked great. I just stopped at step 3, and then set the opacity of the duplicated image to 50% and it gave it a great look.


  • latoso May 31, 2009 11:14 pm

    love it. absolutely awesome

  • BellaAz May 27, 2009 05:49 am

    how do you get the yellow tone off the face??? I have followed this step but the kids face has yellow tone highlights now?


  • Bailey May 21, 2009 01:19 am

    Thank you soooo much. I just read this and created an action immediately. This is going to save so much wasted time. Again, thank you.

  • Rhed May 20, 2009 02:56 am

    How would you use this trick in Elements? Can you get the same results?

  • mrsrobinson May 16, 2009 01:30 pm

    This is great!!!! I agree about the level layer masks, but you can make it into an action and either merge it or not at the end. Plus then you can always turn off the last step of the action if you want. I tried the boost from Pioneer, too, but I found this gave truer colour, at least on the couple I tried. Good stuff!

  • motor9 May 16, 2009 01:55 am

    another quick and dirty "defog" method is Unsharp Mask 20, 60, 0. you'll see the pop. [m9]

  • Mark H May 15, 2009 01:09 pm

    Can a similar process be achieved in Photshop Elements?? Just clicking on Enhance > Adjust Color > Adjust Color Curves > Increase Contrast seems a bit coarse and overdoes it at times.

  • Janet May 15, 2009 06:03 am

    What a great tip. I just recently joined this forum and have learned so much.
    thank you,

  • Christofer May 15, 2009 05:52 am

    Great tips, like it :D!

  • TC May 15, 2009 02:34 am

    Great tip. I tried it on a recent picture I took (Sony DSC H1) of an apple blossom and it really improved the quality of the shot. I have a question about Step 6 "Merge the layers together, and you’re done!" I'm using Adobe Photo Shop CS2. When I click "Layer," I see two merge options: "Merge Down," and "Merge Visible." I used "Merge Down" and saved the file. What is the difference between these two options? I see the "Merge Layer" option when I don't have a file open, but after I open a file, do the steps you suggested, and then click "Layer," the "Merge Layer" option is no longer there.

  • hansning May 15, 2009 01:11 am

    @ Chris: Sorry, I guess it's important enough to explain: Using levels directly will affect the image in a permanent-like fashion. If you keep making adjustments to your image, and later want to undo the levels, you'd have to start over everything from the beginning. Also, once you make an adjustment directly, and then use levels again, you don't see the changes you made prior.

    However, if you use Levels (or curves, or saturation, or just about anything) as a Layer adjustment, you essentially make it a Effect Layer. This allows you to turn it on or off (visible/invisible), and the best part of it is that you can double click it and re-edit your level/curve from the place you last left off, and can tweak it as you wish. From there on you can even do more to this Effect Layer, such as play with the opacity, and change it's property to other things such as 'soft light' etc...
    Most importantly however, is that since the effect is a Layer, you can apply a mask to it. Thus you're able to selectively apply the layer with ease.

    If these aren't reasons enough for you to never hit apple+L, I really don't know what else will...

  • Eric May 15, 2009 12:45 am

    I don't see what the point of doing the equalize is. Just by duplicating the layer and auto-levels, then setting the layer to soft light renders an almost exact duplicate of this method. The histograms are nearly identical as well. Is there a benefit to this step?

  • Danferno May 15, 2009 12:21 am

    In your layers palette there is a dropdown menu. It is usually on "normal". It's next to opacity I believe.

  • Jason May 15, 2009 12:20 am

    Awesome tip - I do something similar with most of mine, I use a free Photoshop action available from the Pioneer Woman website called Boost. Works wonders almost every time.

  • Michelle Minch, Moving Mountains Design May 14, 2009 11:40 pm

    I've been using Photoshop for years, but haven't ever learned to use it fully. Mostly just picking up a tip here and there. I've learned just enough to get me through the tasks and adjustments I need to use to tweak my photos for my portfolio of interiors. Since I've become a subscriber, I've learned so much. This tip is a keeper. Thank you for another useful tool to add to my bag of tricks.

  • richard hull May 14, 2009 11:34 pm

    "there is not a single photo I have ever taken that does not look better without it."

    So you're saying that this technique actually makes all of your photos look worse? Interesting...

  • Paul Warren May 14, 2009 11:05 pm

    I'm sure you can do it in PSE 7. I just did in PSE 6. The options are just in different menus than in photoshop, but they exist and with the same name/effect.

  • Mark May 14, 2009 10:23 pm

    That's a neat little effect.
    I'll definitely have to try that next time I dump the photos from my camera.

  • Jmontague May 14, 2009 08:34 pm

    As with a lot of things photoshop there are multiple ways to skin the cat. this seems rather long-winded. I use a curves adjustment layer. once you learn about curves and how to use them correctly its much quicker.

  • Raldo Bermejo May 14, 2009 05:04 pm

    I found this very useful, and simple with the easy steps,!


  • Demetermaid May 14, 2009 04:54 pm

    I've always simply duped the layer and changed the blending mode to Soft Light. Then again, I'm not particularly fond of images that are blown out in the lighter areas. I'll go through a great deal of trouble to recover data from areas that are blown out. Gray is good. Well, in my book, anyway. :c)

  • Chris May 14, 2009 01:47 pm

    Very well written tutorial, but an extremely long and drawn out process. One can achieve this much quicker (in one step, actually) by using Levels adjustment (CTRL-L). I took the picture of the road and manually moved the black Levels slider to just where the black curve begins on the left-hand side.

    You say one should "never, ever use levels" and that one should "always use layer levels". It would really help those who don't know if you could explain your reasoning.

    You know where your Layers/Channels/Paths is (typically on the lower, right-hand side of your PS window)? See that little window that, most likely, reads "Normal" (right next to the "Opacity" window)? Click the down arrow and a drop-down menu will appear -- Soft Light will appear there.

  • LisaNewton May 14, 2009 12:40 pm

    Living in LA, I have a problem with contrast because the air is often smoggy, so this will come in very handy.

    Ok, I'm trying this as we "speak" and so far, I love the results, but I've encountered a problem. I'm very new to Photoshop and not sure of all the stuff it does or how everything works.

    I've followed and done the technique up to step 4, but where do I find the control to equalized layer’s blending mode to Soft Light?

  • Chris Sutton May 14, 2009 11:20 am

    Is there any way of doing this in Elements (v7)?

  • hansning May 14, 2009 10:37 am

    oh, and never ever use levels. always, and i mean always, use layer levels.

  • Scott May 14, 2009 10:28 am

    I do this with a totall different method and curves. I will have to compare the two results, and perhaps write an article on the method I use, as I think it is a lot less destructive.

  • hansning May 14, 2009 09:40 am

    I'm a bit confused... why would you use this over a curves layer?

  • Anna May 14, 2009 09:01 am

    Great tip, thank you so much, I just tried it on an image and it was quick and effective. Thanks.

  • Alex May 14, 2009 08:49 am

    Clarification of my previous question (accidentally hit the 'Tab' key before hitting enter)

    I'm always looking for a way to increase contrast, but not to the point where the scene/subject looks much more contrasty than what my eyes were seeing.

  • Alex May 14, 2009 08:32 am

    How much like the original scene does the edited version look?

  • Rick May 14, 2009 08:24 am

    Good Idea. I will try this on some photos taken over the weekend.

  • Ilan May 14, 2009 07:34 am

    I tried something very similar (I "played" with the black and white conversion after adding the contrast") on this photo -


    By the way, I love it that in your photo, the "contrast" also added some vignetting effect.