Fixing Partly Underexposed Images in Photoshop

At times we have photographs that are not properly exposed throughout the image. Regardless how smart and sophisticated camera systems have become lately, there seem to always be a way for them to get tricked into metering incorrectly. Or it could just be a simple mistake by a photographer. Either way, there will be photographs that you do not want to discard because of this, especially if there are very simple ways to fix the problem. Today I am going to show you how to fix a partly underexposed image in Photoshop using the Gradient Tool.

Sample Image 1

NIKON D700 + 50mm f/1.4 @ 50mm, ISO 200, 1/6400, f/2.0

Take a look at the above image. The subject stood in a partly lit area and tree shadows caused half of the image to get underexposed. Normally, if you work in Lightroom or Camera RAW, fixing this kind of problem is rather simple – you just use the Neutral Density tool to fix the affected area, or you use the Adjustment Brush as I have shown in my Lightroom Dodging and Burning Tutorial to adjust the exposure of a specific part of the photo. But if you do not use Lightroom / Camera RAW and you have already taken the image into Photoshop for detailed processing, the below steps will give you quite a bit of control on bringing out those affected areas of the image. Obviously, there are many ways to skin the cat in Photoshop, so the below method is what I personally prefer to use when repairing exposure problems in images.

  1. Open the image in Photoshop and identify the problem area. As you can see from the above image, I identified the affected area for you to see. Start out by adding a Levels adjustment layer as shown below:
    1. Create a new Levels Ad. layer
  2. Change the blending mode of the layer to “Screen”:
    3. Screen

    Choosing this blending mode will overexpose parts of your image as shown below:
    2. Blending Mode Screen

    Don’t worry, this is normal and nothing is getting affected at the moment.

  3. The next step is to conceal the above step by Inverting the layer mask. Go to Image->Adjustments->Invert and the image will appear as if the blending mode is still normal (but you will notice the blending square turn black from white. A good sign that you are doing everything correctly):
    4. Invert the mask
  4. The next step is to select the Gradient Tool (G). Once you’ve done that, choose foreground as transparent gradient, as shown below. The last step will allow you to use multiple gradient actions on one layer mask:
    5. Choose Gradient
    6. Forground to Transperant gradient
  5. Start drawing the problem areas of the photograph with the gradient tool from the outer edge of the image to the middle where the problem area starts to fade. If you Alt+Click on the mask, you can see the areas the gradient is being applied. Alt+Click to return to the image you are working on:

    7. Draw with gradient

    8. Gradient layer look
  6. If it seems that you could use more opening up of the darker areas, you can simply duplicate the adjustment layer as many times as you want. For this particular image I duplicated the layer once. The gradient will be applied to the same area once more and will give you more desirable results. If it seems too much, just lower the opacity of the layer to that of your liking. I tuned it down to 85% and it worked wonders for me:
    9. Duplicate layer
    10. Change the opacity as needed
  7. Below is the final image after the above adjustments:
    Final Image

    NIKON D700 + 50mm f/1.4 @ 50mm, ISO 200, 1/6400, f/2.0

This method could be used for ample amount of other stuff. Play around with it and see how you like it.


  1. 1) Sivai
    May 28, 2012 at 2:03 am

    Good stuff.. I was always in need of a tutorial like this to overcome underexposed images..
    Love all your tutorials..

    Thanks so much..

  2. 2) tomas
    May 28, 2012 at 2:59 am

    Can I do the same things in Lightroom ? Nice tutorials, thanks!

  3. 3) Tomasz
    May 28, 2012 at 5:45 am

    I liked it very much. I hope you will write more tutorials in the future.

  4. May 28, 2012 at 6:23 am

    Lola, what a spot on tutorial. From your expience, is it better to use this in PS or LR? Thanks!

  5. 5) JPanda
    May 28, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Thank you for the useful tip :D

    Advantages of digital image processing ;)

  6. May 28, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    Using a gradient mask is often useful, but I would tend to use an exposure adjustment layer, invert as you suggest, and paint in the adjustment with the brush (changing brush hardness, opacity and flow on the fly) . This appears to give you much more control, and you only need one layer. You can still use the gradient tool as well as the brush of course.

    Is there a reason why you use a levels adjustment, and the gradient tool instead of a brush?


  7. 7) julius d. hunter
    May 28, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Hi Lola… In “Fixing Partly Underexposed Images in Photoshop”at paragraph 3 the blending square should turn black, but it doesn’t on mine since I use Adobe Photoshop Elements 10. Should I do something different ?

  8. 8) Homero
    May 29, 2012 at 3:15 am

    Hi Lola,
    Thanks for this so useful tip! Can you make some Capture NX 2 tutorials? Thanks in advance.

  9. 9) fig
    May 29, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    I just commented on another post and found this one and oh boy, awesome blog. Treasure trove of info. Yes!

  10. 10) julius d. hunter
    May 31, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Hi again- I’ve figured it out-using elements 10-on fixing partly underexposed images.

  11. May 31, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Hi Tomas, You can do the same thing in Lightroom – in fact it’s a lot easier. You just click on the gradient tool in “develop” mode (it looks like a graduated ND filter) and then drag a line in the direction of the gradient, then adjust the exposure (plus/minus) and viola – you’re done! You can have multiple gradients on a single image to cover different parts as well.

  12. 12) tomas
    June 1, 2012 at 12:18 am

    Joe, thnx, i’ll try this!

  13. 13) Murat Mutlu
    June 4, 2012 at 1:24 am

    Nice review!

    I have a question:
    What is the difference between using the ‘dodge’ tool carefully compare to above explained Mansour?

  14. 14) Robby Hermanto Tjahjono
    July 9, 2012 at 12:35 am

    Thank you so much for this quality post.
    Your post make me better with photoshop.
    Wish you always be on top of every photography lovers website.

  15. 15) Shahid
    December 2, 2013 at 9:14 pm

    Wonderful technique….

  16. 16) Sreeja Chakraborty
    January 5, 2014 at 4:04 am

    how do I fix a nasty looking light flare in photoshop? It’s a night scene, and a light glowing behind my friend has nearly erased his hair and part of his face.

  17. 17) Erik
    May 31, 2014 at 10:35 am

    I get an even better image from the sample by simply applying 62% “lighten shadows” in PSE8, no need for so many actions.

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