Exposure vs. Brightness vs. Fill Light

Exposure vs. Brightness vs. Fill Light

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Do you know the difference between brightness, fill light and exposure? When editing your photos in Lightroom, Photoshop, ACR, etc. it can seem that playing with certain sliding bars all produces the same result: your photos get brighter. But what’s actually happening and how do you know which to choose?

Exposure – Shifting your exposure is like changing the in-camera settings in post-production. To be more technical, it scales the settings up and down by a constant multiplying factor. Moving this slider either increases or decreases all of the elements that go into obtaining the correct exposure at once.

Brightness – Brightness is commonly known as the slider that adjusts the midtones. And although many people think that this is all the brightness sliders do, there’s a little more to it. All of the settings still change when utilising the brightness slider, but it preserves the highlights better than simply dialing up the exposure. And it affects the midtones more nicely than pumping up the exposure.

Fill light – The fill light slider brightens the dark bits and pretty much leaves everything else alone unlike brightness and exposure which lighten everything at once. Adjusting fill light can be a good way to lighten a photo without clipping the highlights.

Knowing how different adjustments are affecting your work will give you more power to make informed decisions about how to treat your shots in post-production. Have fun!

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Elizabeth Halford is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

Some Older Comments

  • Gary May 30, 2013 10:22 am

    In Adobe Camera RAW, the combination of :
    1. If the image is overexposed, reduce Exposure first. If underexposed, increase Exposure first.
    2. Use Recovery to optimize highlights,
    3. Fill Light to bring more detail in the midtones and shadows, and
    4. Black to add back the contrast lost using Fill light.

    This may be all that is needed to make a high contrast image work without resorting to HDR.

  • Kerri December 4, 2012 08:50 am

    I should clarify that I do not have "recovery" or "fill light", thanks.

  • Kerri December 4, 2012 08:49 am

    I would like to know which LR program are these features available, because I don't seem to have them on LR4. Thanks so much.

  • mayank August 5, 2011 09:43 pm

    Excellent, never knew this finer details.

  • bryan August 2, 2011 01:31 am

    i agree image examples are helpful

  • Brian July 24, 2011 01:29 am

    @brian fuller. I wrote a similar but extended article, using a single image as an extended example just like you suggested. I was tired of that picture when I was done, but it definitely helped me learn a lot about the differences between the sliders.

    This is a good quick summary of the slider's. A bit more on the drawbacks, tho. The exposure slider tends to blow out highlights quickly/easily if you have some bright parts of your image. The downside to Fill Light is that with overuse it will kill the contrast in any picture.

  • tutness July 23, 2011 05:13 am

    You've made me reconsider using the brightness slider :)

    Really well explained! :) But I can't think about any of these sliders (exposure, brightness or fill light) without mentioning the recovery slider ...

  • ricardo July 23, 2011 01:00 am

    Excelent article. It realy help mi to understand much better the use of each one. Thak you.

  • PB July 22, 2011 12:46 am

    I second the first commenter - an article on the difference between saturation vs vibrance would be great

  • Antony Pratap July 20, 2011 10:21 pm

    I really loved this! I kind of knew how it works, but it's great to read it out as rules =)

  • Dawn July 20, 2011 07:35 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge, tips and tricks. It's SO helpful and much, much appreciated.

  • Niki Jones July 20, 2011 12:10 am

    Thanks. I was trying to explain these to someone the other day and failing completely.

  • Brian Fuller July 19, 2011 02:44 am

    Although this article is helpful, a major help in explaining sliders thought similar would be to add pictures of before / after for each (showing what benefit the best slider makes). And if a common picture could be used for all three - showing the differences each of the 3 would make for the same photo. That would be extremely helpful.

  • Mike Spivey July 18, 2011 10:58 pm

    The way I understand it is to compare it with the Levels dialog box. Exposure is like moving the right top slider. Blacks is like moving the left slider. Brightness is like moving the middle slider. Recovery and Fill light are like moving the bottom sliders. This isn't exact of course. Usually moving the bottom sliders makes the picture ugly, so they have refined it somehow. And the top sliders can only move toward the center while the LR versions move both ways. But it is the closest I've found.

  • hkb11001 July 18, 2011 09:56 pm

    Thank-you!

  • Geoff July 18, 2011 01:12 am

    I have Lightroom and this was very helpful. Thanks.

  • ArianaMurphy July 17, 2011 10:56 pm

    Great article! Very clearly explained the differences between these controls. Thanks! It was very helpful!

  • Rhys July 17, 2011 09:49 pm

    Nice article - a good explanation of sliders that seem pretty basic, but most people could never actually explain in words what they do!

  • Erik Kerstenbeck July 17, 2011 12:24 pm

    Hi

    Super Lightroom Tips! I like to use selective adjustments. Lightroom adopted NIK Software's Control Point concept. You can selectivly adjust Brightness, Contrast, Saturation, RGB etc at any point! Here I darkened or Burned the corners to accentuate the rusty car.

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/texas-blues/

  • Madison Raine July 17, 2011 09:40 am

    This was helpful.
    Well sorta, I currently don't have Photoshop on my computer but have used it before and will be using it again in a few months.

    Thanks for the info.

  • Kevin Lloyd July 17, 2011 08:56 am

    Fill light is particularly effective for backlit subjects when you need to bring out areas of shadow. It's the single most inportant slider for me when I've been shooting with the main lightsource behind my subject. Shooting RAW makes it much more effective too, though the noise shows up if you dial it up too far. Start with this but use in moderation and conjunction with the other sliders.

  • Ashkan July 17, 2011 08:14 am

    Thank you. Could you write an article about the difference of vibration and saturation? I always confuse these two.