How to Fix Dull Lifeless Pictures | Photoshop Curves & Blending Modes

antique wagon wheel lying beside stone stairsDid you ever take a picture that would be perfect except for it’s dull, lifeless look? There is more than one easy way to fix this with Photoshop and the video shows how to put life and sizzle into your photos. We’ll work with the photo of the wagon wheel. In the previous post, Non-Destructive Dodging and Burning, we did some selective lightening and darkening to get to the image at right. It is improved over the original, but is rather dull and lifeless because of its limited tonal range (the light areas are too dark and the dark areas are too light). Now we’ll look at at a video tutorial showing two ways to edit pictures to expand tonal range.

The first method uses Photoshop’s overlay blending mode that is available in both the the full, professional program and the consumer-oriented Photoshop Elements. A Photoshop layer that is in the normal blending mode is 100% opaque and does not interact with layers below it. A layer in overlay mode interacts with the layer immediately below it. Colors are not changed, but brightness values are. Any areas in the top layer that are brighter than 50% gray will interact to produce a lightening effect, while those darker than 50% gray will produce a darkening effect. This means that you can expand the range of tonal contrast by duplicating a layer and changing its blend mode to overlay. If the effect is stronger than desired simply reduce the opacity of the overlay layer until the result pleases your eye.

The second approach uses Photoshop curves to get higher dynamic range in a more controlled manner, and once again, fine tuning the opacity of the curves layer gives even more control over the dynamic range. In other words, if you go too far, reduce the opacity to get what you want.


The version at left has the 68% opacity layer in overlay blending mode; the one on the left has the curves layer. You might disagree, but I prefer the one created with the curves layer because the light areas are a little lighter and there is more detail in the foliage to the right of the stairs and behind the wheel.  You need the “full” version of Photoshop to have the curves adjustment capability, but the overlay blending mode is available Photoshop Elements.  Reducing the opacity of the overlay further would help recover detail in the dark areas but would darken the light areas. A better approach might be another round of  non-destructive dodging and burning to get a result very similar that obtained using the curve adjustment layer.

antique wagon wheel lying beside stone stairsantique wagon wheel lying beside stone stairs

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