How to Add Light to a Photo

The before and after of adding light and warmth to a photo

I previously shared one of my favorite ways to photograph my girls:  on sheet changing day!  But because there was a lot of light coming into the room and I was backlighting them (most of the light coming from behind), I needed to carefully expose for the light. Usually, I would meter and expose for their faces, but I didn’t want the window or the sheets blown out, so I underexposed their faces. Yes, I was risking introducing too much noise, but it was a balancing act and since my processing is in a more filmic style, I was ok with a little noise. But, that’s not the point.

So you want to know how to add light to a photo?

How to add light to a photo to brighten an underexposed subject:

The point is you may have underexposed your subjects enough and wanted to know how to add a little brightness. I know I did.  

To begin with, I used Lightroom, but you can use Adobe Camera Raw in exactly the same way, or if you don’t have either of those and don’t want to pay for them there are great free programs out there.  I used GIMP (found at when I started taking photos and it works very much like Photoshop. 

Second, I shoot in RAW, rather than jpg, which allows me to recover more detail and change-up the white balance easily.  

That said, here we go!

Immediately below is a video version but if you like the written play by play that is below the video so keep scrolling!

The first step in the basics panel

The first step I always try to take is to head down to lens calibration and click on the box for profile, then I go up to the crop box on the top left and straighten or crop. This is typical for me, and in this photo I cropped out the lamp and dragon in the top right. They distracted me, and I know the green in the dragon distracts most people while neither are important to the story.

2nd step

You can see I shot it at ISO 400 at 1/1000 s which could be down to ISO 200 or maybe even 100 to help cut noise, but I didn’t do it.  Also, you can see the red streaks are the highlight warning where I blew the highlights, which I was trying to avoid.  Tricky situation. So here we are ready to fix my underexposure and risk a little noise which I’ll also correct towards the end.

The first thing I do in a photo like this is create a flat edit where I pull down the highlights and whites to -100 and pull up the shadows and blacks to +100. I do this to see what detail I can recover in overexposure and underexposure. Because I do this so much I kind of knew where I was at so I took the highlights to around -70 and the whites around -65. I also moved the shadows to about +75 and the blacks up to about +75.  I really like pushing the blacks because it helps create a lot of transparency and light in the eyes. You can already see the difference in her eyes below.

3rd step

For these photos, my vision was to create a light-filled and airy session, and I noticed the entire photo was a little darker than I wanted.  So I bumped up the overall exposure slightly to +36. I also bumped up the contrast and started playing with the white balance a little.  On this step I also tend to move the clarity down to around -20 to give the photo a little softness.

4th step is exposure contrast clarity

After I’m through with the basics panel I move to the tone curve. For this, I only wanted to brighten her face a little more which the tone curve is perfect for.  I grabbed the tat tool (the tiny little dot in the top left) and dragged it up her forehead.  When I got the brightness I wanted I put the tool away, lightened the darks a little and to create a little matte softness brought the bottom left edge of the curve up slightly.

Step 5

Finally when I looked at the photo at 100% near her eyes I could see the noise generated.  So I went down to noise reduction and moved it up to about 30.  I really don’t like going above 30 because it made her look plasticy (is that a word?). If you’ve ever messed with noise you know the effect. I then bumped the sharpening up around 40 with a mask at 50 (I use the alt/opt key while dragging the mask slider to get where I want)

Step 6

You can still see a little noise but it isn’t too bad. Finally, I added a slight vignette around 10.  And here is the before:

The before

And the after:

The after

I really hope this helps a little or maybe enjoyed seeing my process!