Lightroom: Embracing Brightness

Lightroom: Embracing Brightness


In an earlier blog post, I discussed a typical Lightroom workflow and I advocated using the Exposure slider to lighten an image. I also said that I preferred to skip using the Lightroom Brightness slider altogether.

I’ve recently changed my mind about the Brightness slider and I’d encourage you, if you haven’t already done so, to experiment with it on your images.

However, before we begin a word of warning about Brightness/Contrast in general. Brightness adjustments in some programs aren’t as good as in others. If you’re using Photoshop CS2 or earlier, for example, use Curves or Levels to lighten an image not Brightness. In Photoshop CS3 the Brightness/Contrast tool was re-engineered and instead of adjusting all pixels equally as it used to do with the result that highlight areas were routinely destroyed in the process, it now protects the lightest pixels as it lightens the image. Before trusting your image to a program’s Brightness and Contrast tool, check your histogram before and after using it and make sure you aren’t blowing out highlights in your quest for a lighter/brighter image.

Now, back to Lightroom.


Take a look at the image shown here. If I leave Brightness at the default value – which for my camera is +50 but which may be different for yours, and if I crank up the Exposure to the maximum value, a lot of the lighter pixels in the image get blown out.

Of course I would never adjust an image to this value but it’s a useful exercise to see how Exposure works.


When I do the same thing in reverse and leave Exposure at its default value of 0 and crank Brightness up to its highest value only a small number of pixels are blown out.

Using the Brightness slider lightens the image while at the same time protecting the lightest pixels in the image from being blown out as a consequence.

So what does this knowledge mean to you in a typical Lightroom workflow? Well, my new Lightroom workflow for lightening and brightening an image involves using the Exposure slider first of all to adjust the overall exposure of the image but I stop short of where too many highlights get blown out.

Next I test the Recovery tool on the image. Hold the Alt key as you drag on the Recovery slider to check to see if there are blown out highlights (they show as varying colors on the black background). Drag to the right to see if they can be recovered . If they can’t be recovered ease off on the Exposure and check again.

If I have shadow areas in the image that are still overly dark I’ll adjust these using the Fill Light slider. This tool helps recover detail hidden in shadows, but it’s not a tool I’d use for an overall brightening effect.

Finally, I use the Brightness slider to increase the overall image brightness. Somewhere between the Exposure slider and the Brightness slider is the sweet spot for lightening an image.

From there, the rest of my workflow is pretty much as I detailed it in the earlier post.

While we’re on the topic of the Brightness slider, check out the default value on an unedited image so you know where your starting point is. For most raw images, Lightroom defaults to a Brightness of +50 and Contrast of +25 as its starting point.


Also take care when working with images you had processed in Lightroom 2 with Lightroom 2 settings. When you upgrade to Lightroom 3, you’ll have a choice of Updating your images to the new Lightroom 2010 Process. My experience is that this can result in a significant lightening of images which were processed in Lightroom 2 so I apply this update on an image by image basis so I can reverse it or adjust for it as I go if necessary.

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Helen Bradley is a Lifestyle journalist who divides her time between the real and digital worlds, picking the best from both. She writes and produces video instruction for Photoshop and digital photography for magazines and online providers world wide. She has also written four books on photo crafts and blogs at

Some Older Comments

  • Phil Marion August 5, 2010 07:10 am

    I am astounded to read this article.
    I use BOTH the Brightness and Exposure sliders. It is similar to the sliders on the Levels adjustment on photoshop. The Exposure and the Black sliders are used to set the White and Black clipping points. And the Brightness slider is used to set the midtones.

  • chaim meiersdorf July 29, 2010 05:08 pm

    I discovered the brightness option a fews months ago and always try to use it first. If it works for you also first try brightness instead of exposure in the adjustments brush.

  • Jodz July 23, 2010 12:19 am

    I rarely used brightness for exactly the reasons you talked about but I'm going out to experiment! However,
    I still have a question. Scott Kelby recommends using Photoshop's 'screen mode' at approx. 20% to alleviate the 'too dark picture' print. This works beautifully. What's the best method to acheive this in Lightroom?

  • Bruce July 19, 2010 10:52 am

    As always, another great post for the experienced professional photographers to learn from each other.
    I have never used brightness.

    Instead I adjust exposure first, occasionally clipping just a very minute number of highlights and bring them back with the recovery slider. Then I add fill light which is one of my absolute favorite tools for improving on the shadow details of my images. If I add a lot of fill, I'll add a little to the "black" to prevent the image from getting to flat.

    As is true in Photoshop is true in lightroom, there are several ways to accomplish results that only differ slightly, barely discernible for the untrained eye.

  • Stuart Meyer - Indianapolis Photographer July 14, 2010 11:25 am

    I rarely use Brightness and started experimenting with it recently in LR and found this to be true. For me, Brightness got a bad rep early on when I used to shoot jpg and edited in PS. There, brightness was only good within 1/3 to 1/2 stop. Once I shifted to shooting RAW, I dumped Brightness entirely for Exposure and it's had a slow comeback ever since.

  • mark July 9, 2010 10:44 pm

    awesome tip!

  • Michelle Armour July 9, 2010 06:35 pm

    Another good article thanks Helen

  • Jackie July 9, 2010 03:27 am

    i have ps elements 7 and use the screen function on a separate layer and then adjust the opacity. works great.

  • Jannik July 7, 2010 06:07 pm

    Matt Kloskowski of NAPP and Kelby Training fame wrote about brightness vs. exposure adjustments on his blog today:

    - as he says, whether you prefer one over the other is a matter of personal taste. But it's certainly good to know more about the differences :-)

  • Pat Bloomfield July 7, 2010 07:53 am

    Great article Helen.

    I recently did a calibration using a correctly exposed Gretag colour chart and was surprised how much the brightness, contrast and black levels were adjusted to produce the correct density for different shades of grey.

    So whilst this is a great way to recover from small exposure errors or boost contrast in a low contrast image, I think it should be emphasized that this isn't a good alternative to capturing the image correctly in camera in the first place. And by correct exposure I don't mean allowing the scent to be averaged to 18% grey as the camera's exposure meter will attempt to do.

    PatB Wedding Photography

  • darren_c July 5, 2010 01:00 am

    It's really amazing how different sliders can work together. It's usually a little trial and error to find out what works best. I'll admit, I don't use the Brightness slider at all. I'll have to go back and try the Brightness slider

    A great feature to use when tying different things is the Virtual Copy feature of LR. I'll make a few virtual copies and try a bunch a different things without mucking up the original.

  • Dawn Camp July 4, 2010 09:41 pm

    I saw a recent live class with Scott Kelby and he showed that decreasing brightness can liven up detail in a skyline, too. That was one that wouldn't have occurred to me.

  • Ian McKenzie July 4, 2010 08:47 pm

    I've never really paid much attention to the brightness slider but I just tried it out and it functions as promised. But ya I agree with Erik, its really the combination that works, not really one or the other.
    (Heres the picture I used it on )

  • Erik Unger July 4, 2010 08:56 am

    I don't use lightroom, but instead PS RAW and PS CS4. I used to just use the exposure slide and skip the brightness slider as well. I have found combination of both works very well. Just enough of both works far better in my experience than a lot of one or the other.

  • Louis Duke July 4, 2010 07:29 am

    thank you for writing this.

    your articles on lightroom help me a ton.

  • Björn Lindström July 4, 2010 05:48 am

    I use both the exposure and the brighness sliders regularly. I find that it works pretty well to choose which one to use by simply deciding whether the image is under-/overexposed and I'm correcting for that, or whether I would like to artificially brighten/darken the scene.

    Also, if you don't want to memorize what the default value for some slider is, just remember you can always double click the tab on the slider to make it jump there.