Using Photoshop to Brighten your Sunsets

We recently took a day trip to Balboa Island here in southern California. It was near the end of the Christmas Boat Parade that I caught this sunset image of the harbor. It was too dark, but I steadied my camera on the walkway railing and managed to keep it pretty sharp. The worst part was the underexposure and darkness of the shot that did not do justice to the beautiful sunset that I witnessed!

In Photoshop I handled it to my satisfaction, giving the sunset back its brilliant colors and making the scene more like I remembered it.

First open the image in Photoshop. Here is the original image:


The next step is to go to the menu bar and click on “Layer”. In the pulldown box there is an option called “Duplicate Layer”. Click on that to add a layer to your image. Now that you have the layer to work on you will want to lighten up the exposure. So go up to the menu bar again and click on “Image” then click on “Adjustments” and in that pull-down menu click on “Exposure”. Slide the bar to the right a little making the image lighter. Don’t go too far or it will wash out the lighter parts of the image giving them a “blown out” appearance.  Now click OK.


Now click on “Image” and “Adjustments” again and click on the “Hue/Saturation” button. Use these sliders to brighten and saturate your colors to a more realistically lit sunset. Don’t overdo it or it looks weird and cartoonish, just work the sliders back and forth until you get the perfect colors and saturation. Now go back up to the menu bar and click on “Layers” again and scroll down to the very bottom of the menu where it says “Flatten Image” and click on it. That will flatten the image to get it ready for the next and final steps.


Make another new layer by going to the menu and clicking on “Layer” and then “Duplicate Layer” again. Now you are going to go to the menu bar and click on “Filters” and the “Blur” and then “Gaussian Blur” This step is to make sure the color noise and graininess of the image are minimized. (You often get color noise and extreme grain when taking in low light conditions) When you have the Gaussian blur option open, use the slider to take it up to about 20-25% and click ok. Don’t worry that the image now looks completely blurry!


Next go over to your layers pallette on the right side of the page and at the bottom of the pallette there is a small square icon with a round white circle in it. It is called a mask. Click on it. Adding this mask makes it possible to subtract out some of the areas that you don’t want blurred on your image.


Next is the fun part: Select your “paintbrush” tool from your tools bar on the left. Make sure the color swatches are black as foreground and white as background. (Black subtracts from the mask and white adds it back) Using the paintbrush tool and making sure the foreground color on the swatch is black, go into the image and paint BACK IN the parts of the image that you want to be sharp again. In my image I wanted the boats and harbors to have the sharp pinpoint lights and I put back as much detail with the brush as I needed to balance  and smooth out the image. Remember to click on the “Layer” tab on the top menu and scroll to the bottom to “Flatten Layers” and click on it. Then “save as” under a new name to leave unaltered your original version.

Below is my final version:


There is ONE way to brighten your sunsets! There are many others, but I wanted to give you a simple method for making ho hum into wow!

Let me know if you used it and if this helped you.

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