How to Lighten and Brighten Dark Photos

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As a blogger, I’d have to say that low light is the bane of my existence. I currently live in an apartment whose windows face another building, and I don’t own an actual DSLR camera. Those two things together put me in the eye of the perfect photography storm: Just about EVERY photo I take turns out dark :(

So why do I put up with this? Well first of all, DSLR cameras and lenses are expensive. I’ll almost certainly invest in a new camera one day, but in the meantime my bridge camera takes pretty great photos (even if they do tend to be a little bit dark) for less than half of what a new DSLR and lens would cost. And second of all, sometimes photos don’t turn out perfect straight-from-the-camera regardless of the quality of the camera or lens you’re using. So if I’m going to probably need to do post-production editing of my photos anyway, it doesn’t really matter if the original photo comes out a bit dark–because it’s a super easy fix!

How to Lighten & Brighten Dark Photos | | A super easy tutorial that will help make your photos stunning!

If you find yourself struggling with low-light photos, then today’s post is for you! I’m going to show you how to lighten and brighten your photos in just 2-3 super easy steps using both Photoshop Elements and a FREE online photo editing software called PicMonkey.

Today I’m going to be editing a photo I took for a guest post on Living Well Spending Less a while back, so head on over there if you’re interested in seeing how to make an easy DIY Coffee Bean Soap!

First, the free option!


PicMonkey is a great free online photo editing program to use, especially if you don’t take pictures often enough to justify purchasing photo editing software like Photoshop Elements or Lightroom. It’s easy to make edits and the user interface is not at all intimidating.

Step 1. Go to and click “Edit” towards the top of the screen. You will be prompted to upload the photo you would like to edit. When your photo is uploaded, click the Exposure tab on the left hand side of the screen and a menu will drop down.

How to Lighten & Brighten Dark Photos |

Step 2. From here, all that’s left to do is adjust the brightness by sliding the circle markers.

As you can see above, adjusting the brightness alone here will give your photo a white film–not exactly what we’re going for. However, adjusting the highlights, shadows and contrast will go a long way to making your picture more bright and less white. See what I mean?

How to Lighten & Brighten Dark Photos |

PicMonkey does a pretty good job brightening photos and has a lot of other photo editing options you can play with. However, it isn’t my photo editing program of choice for a couple reasons.

First, to be able to access all of its photo editing tools (its “Royale” features), you have to pay for a subscription priced at $4.99 a month or $33 a year (which admittedly isn’t horrible, but still). Second, some of the edits I make on my photos require more advanced/fine-tuned editing options than PicMonkey–including their paid version–provides. Lastly, PicMonkey messes with the color of my photos, and that’s a pet peeve of mine. Below on the right is the photo edited with PicMonkey next to a photo edited with Photoshop Elements on the left. Both photos have been brightened, but neither of these photos have had their coloring edited. See the difference?

How to Lighten & Brighten Dark Photos |
Left: Photoshop edited photo | Right: PicMonkey edited photo

There is a way to go in and fix this coloring in PicMonkey, but that’s just an extra step, and you risk over correcting the color so that it doesn’t look natural.

Short story: If you don’t need to make advanced/fine-tuned photo edits or you don’t edit photos all the time, PicMonkey is a great option! If you’re serious about learning how to edit photos, then Photoshop Elements is the way to go–there is no ongoing subscription, it has different modes for beginner, intermediate and advanced users, and you can do so much with it!


There are two main ways (possibly more, but these are the two I use) to lighten your dark photos in Photoshop Elements: Adjusting levels and adjusting brightness/contrast. The method I use the most is the former, so we’ll start with that one first. The screenshots below might look a little scary, but it’s easy—I promise! :)

Step 1. First, open up Photoshop Elements (I’m using Photoshop Elements 11, but newer versions of the software will have the same tools). Make sure you’re in “Expert” mode (you can change the mode at the top – where it says Quick, Guided, Expert). Go to File > Open, and load the photo you would like to edit.

How to Lighten & Brighten Dark Photos |

Step 2. Go to the Layer Tab. Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels. Using an adjustment layer allows you to go back and make edits to the brightness of your photo at any time during the editing process. It also edits the photo in a non-destructive way, but I digress. It’s just generally a good idea to use an adjustment layer when making these kinds of edits, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t :) Once you click on “Levels,” a dialogue box will pop up asking you to name your new adjustment layer if you want—you can just click Ok to skip this.

How to Lighten & Brighten Dark Photos |

Step 3. After you click Ok, a new dialogue box will appear with a histogram on it. On the far right of the histogram (see above)  you will see a small white triangle marker. Dragging this marker to the left with brighten your photo—it’s as easy as that! Play with the placement of the white marker until your photo is sufficiently bright, but not so bright that parts of the photo become “blown out” or overexposed. You can play with the other two triangle markers to make changes to the look of your photo, but I’ve found that sliding the white marker to the left a bit is all that is necessary to make my photo look better.

How to Lighten & Brighten Dark Photos |

It’s as simple as that!

The second way to brighten your photo is by adjusting Brightness/Contrast. To do this, first make sure you are in “Expert” mode. Go to File > Open and upload the photo you would like to edit.

How to Lighten & Brighten Dark Photos |

Step 1. Just like before, go to the Layer Tab. Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Brightness/Contrast. Once again, a dialogue box will appear asking you to name your layer if you want—click Ok to skip this. A new dialogue box will appear showing a Brightness and Contrast scale.

How to Lighten & Brighten Dark Photos |

Step 2. Simply drag the triangle marker over on the Brightness scale to adjust the brightness of your photo! You can also play with the contrast of the photo as well; sometimes contrast adjustments can affect how bright the overall photo looks.

I don’t usually use this second method to adjust the brightness of my photos, but depending on your photo it may yield a nicer result. Sometimes you will need to use a combination of these two methods to get a sufficiently bright photo, so play with it and see what you like best. Keep in mind, some photos might just be too dark to save!

If you want to toggle between how your photo used to look pre-edit and post-edit, simply click on the little eyeball (circled above). Click the little eyeball again to see your edits reapplied. It can make a huge difference!

Here is what my photo looked like before and after I edited it in Photoshop Elements. What do you think? Better, yes?

How to Lighten & Brighten Dark Photos | | This quick tutorial shows you how to lighten and brighten dark photos using Photoshop Elements and the free online photo editing program PicMonkey.
Before and After

That’s all for today, friends! I hope you found this photo editing tutorial helpful! Do feel free to leave a comment if you have questions–I just might be able to help :)



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