• Matthew Brooks

The Many Ways to Add Contrast in Photoshop


The latest addition to the 'many ways' series takes a look at adding contrast to a picture in Photoshop. Again another simple thing, which can be done in a simple obvious way and also in some ways you just have to learn and are more complex. If this is the first 'many ways' blog of mine you are checking out and you like it, check out The Many Ways To Colour Tone In Photoshop and The Many Ways To Make A Photo Black & White In Photoshop.

So before moving into the different ways what does contrast actually do?

Typically basic contrast will make the dark areas of an image darker, the light areas of an image lighter but also makes colours seem more saturated as well. One way to get around the saturation issue is to change the blend mode of the layer, keep this in mind and i'll explain all, you will see this in the first few examples.

FYI: keep in mind I will be over doing the effects in all examples here as the actual levels I would use were hard to see the first time I uploaded the images, as they are slightly lower quality for purpose of this blog. So don't necessarily go to these levels. Remember, subtlety is key when editing.

image by @chrisjoelcampbell on unsplash

This is the image that I will be using for all examples. There are good shadows, water droplets and wet, shiny hair which will provide good example for contrast. I downloaded it from Unsplash.com a great place to legitimately get free images.

Brightness/Contrast Layer

So as always start with the most obvious way to do this. The contrast layer....adds contrast. Shocked.

Click on Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Brightness/Contrast

You will see what I was talking about above with the darks, lights and saturation. The image on the left is an extreme edit to show exactly what I mean. The lights are lighter, darks darker and more saturated particularly in the reds. So here I have pushed the contrast slider up to 80, which realistically you wouldn't do for an actual image.

So you want the added contrast but not the saturation right? Well, the trick to using this comes from changing the blend mode from normal to luminosity (shown below how it's done). Luminosity just adjusts the luminance level of the photo and leaves the saturation and colours alone. The image on the right is actually the same extreme edit (as the left image) but all I have done is changed the blend mode to luminosity. As you can see the horrible redness is gone but still has TOO much contrast. Either just don't put the contrast slider up to 80 just to a level that gives you your desired effect plus you can always change the opacity of layer to make the effect more subtle (also shown below where to change).

original, extreme edit, extreme on luminosity blend mode

Where to change blend mode and adjust opacity

Curves Layer

You can do so much with curves. In fact I reckon you can do a whole simple edit of a photo just using Curves in various forms. However adding contrast is probably the thing that is mainly associated with a curves layer.

Click on Layer> New adjustment Layer>Curves.

On a curves graph the darks are on the left and lights on the right. Each time you click on the diagonal line it creates an anchor point which you can drag up to lighten or drag down to darken.

To add contrast using curves you create what is called an S curve. Which lowers the dark and raising the lights, creating contrast. Make two anchor points along the diagonal line. One near bottom left, for darks, and drag down a bit. One near top right, for lights, and drag up a bit (see below). The reason that people like curves is that it is very controllable. You can add as many points to make the curve as you want.

Below you can see the normal S curve and one with many points. Or use the preset drop down and pick a ready made option.

Using that first curves diagram and also changing the blend mode to luminosity gets you this result below. Does it look similar to the one adjusting the contrast slider, yes, yes it does. But the point is with curves you can do micro adjustments to the curve. Maybe just make the darks darker, or clip the white point as well plenty of things you can do in curves you can't do in the contrast slider.

S curve contrast

Black & White Adjustment Layer

So this is one of the methods of adding contrast that you just have to know about as it isn't obvious at all. How can a black & white adjustment layer add contrast? Well again it is by changing the blend mode of the layer. Just like we changed the blend mode of the first two options to make them more usable there is a blend mode that make a black & white layer useful for more than what it suggests.

To add the B&W layer click on Layer>New adjustment layer> Black&White.

This just gives a standard black and white photo. The blend mode you need to use for this trick is Overlay. So in the first example you saw where to change the blend mode of a layer.

Overlay will give you an incredibly contrasty image at 100% so knock that opacity down until you reach the effect that you desire for you particular image.

What I do like about this, is that again it doesn't mess around with saturation or any colours. Because it a black and white layer and deals simply with converting those colours to luminance levels. Also, just like when it is in it's normal blend mode you can also still adjust the colour luminance sliders of the layer which also can change the contrast slightly. Check The Many Ways To Make A Black & White Photo In Photoshop for more on how the black & white layer normally works.

Photo below shows each step of this process.


Yes sharpening. This method is utilising a sharpening tool in photoshop in a way that normally you wouldn't. It is more of a small scale contrast as this affects finer details of the image rather than bigger blocks of colour. Also if you push this method too far it won't benefit the image.

All sharpening is, is adding contrast to anywhere there is an edge in the image. Normally the contrast enhancement will affect maybe 1 pixel or less either side of an edge. Below is an image of the edges found around the eye of the model. Sharpening makes the definition between the lighter pixels of the edges and the darker pixels more obvious by reducing the gradient between the lighter and darker pixels

With this method the sharpening tool we will be using is the Unsharp Filter. This is a bit more complex than others.

The first thing you want to do is make a stamp visible layer. The keyboard shortcut for this is Shift+Ctrl+Alt, E. This merges all your layers together on it's own separate layer. Then make that layer into a Smart Object. Click on Filter>Convert for Smart Filters. This now means that when you add the Unsharp filter it won't be "destructive" and you can greaten or lessen the effect after if you don't like it.

If doing normal sharpening the amount below might look like AMOUNT:125%, RADIUS:0.7PIXELS.

For this however you want the RADIUS to be high and the AMOUNT to be low. For this particular image I found an AMOUNT between 10-20% good and a RADIUS of between 30-50 pixels worked. I wouldn't go above these as the effect starts to have an adverse effect then. Hopefully the difference is visible here as is even subtle on my screen.

My Own Made Up Method

This is a method you won't find anywhere else (not that I know of). Mainly because I made it up while writing this and playing around with Photoshop and also it is too overly complicated. I probably wouldn't use it myself but i'm chucking it in anyway just because i'm rather pleased that I made it up.

This uses Solid Colour layers. You want two Solid Colour Fill layers, one filled with black and the other filled with white.

The white layer, change the blend mode to Colour Dodge. Instead of changing the Opacity of the layer change the Fill of the layer (found directly under opacity) to 15%.

The black layer, change the blend mode to Soft Light. Change the Opacity to 55%. Then right click on the black layer and select blending options. This will bring up the Layer Styles box. In the Blend If Section on underlying layer slider hold ALT and drag the white tab left all the way. It splits the tab in two (see images below). I said it was overly complex but is a fairly good result.

There are plenty of other ways to add contrast to a picture in Photoshop theres Layers which is similar to curves. You could do a High Pass Filter instead of the Unsharp mask method. You do Colour Fills and using Apply Image on a layer mask applied to the layer. And more.

Anyway I hope you learnt something new from this blog. Thanks for reading and see you again soon.

#Adobe #ManyWays #Photoshop #Editing #Style #photography

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