Photoshop Tutorial: Contrast Boosting

Use this quick technique to add a little pop to your photos.

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What you need

To follow through with this tutorial you need at least Photoshop CS. More recent versions of Photoshop may appear a little different (mostly the interface has added features) as this tutorial is originally from 2006, but the techniques here are sound and work quite well across all versions since its publish.

To follow along with this tutorial you will need to download this image: Contrast-Boost.jpg (right-click and choose: Save As).

What is Contrast Boost and when should you use it?

Contrast boosting is a great way to squeeze a little bit of extra contrast and vibrance out of the highlights in your image. It tends to fix dull images and makes them more vivid.

Contrast Boosting is a finishing tip best reserved for the end of your workflow. Process your image as usual, (fixing exposure, dust, color, crop, etc) and then save Contrast Boost for near last, before sharpening and output.

How to use Contrast Boost:

Open the image (Contrast-Boost.jpg) and make sure the Layers and Channels palettes are visible. Windows shortcut keys are used here. If you use a Mac, just replace the Ctrl key with the Command key.

  • Open the photo.

This photo of the Maid of the Mist boat at Niagara Falls has good color and sharpness but the image is a little dull and could use more “POP.” Let’s see if Contrast Boosting can help.

  • Name first layer “Original” (1)

This layer will stay as is and will contain your original image so you don’t destroy it and can return to it at any time. This is a good practice for all Photoshop workflows.

Contrast Boost original Your Layers Palette:
Rename the layer
  • Open your Channels Palette (2).

It is usually located in the same window as the Layers Palette. If you can’t find it, turn it on from the Window menu.

The channels palette shows all the different color channels that combine to create the image.

  • Hold down the Ctrl key and click the RGB channel (3).

Photoshop will now draw a fuzzy selection (marching ants) around every bright pixel in the image. I don’t know why Photoshop does this, but it’s a neat little trick we will take advantage of here.

Highlights selected Channels Palette:
Channels palette
We are now going to create a new layer with just these bright pixels.

  • Switch back to the Layers Palette  (4) and
  • press Ctrl-J on your keyboard (5).

This will create a new layer with what was selected: the bright pixels.

  • Name this layer “Contrast Boost(6).
Contrast Boost original Back to the Layers Palette:duplicate layer
  • With the Contrast Boost layer selected, set the Layer Blending Mode to Soft Light (6).

You will notice the highlights of the image get a slight boost adding more depth and character to the image.

With contrast boost added Soft light blend

Final Results

You can toggle the visibility of the new Contrast Boost layer by clicking the eye icon to the left of the layer on the Layers Palette. Turn it on and off a few times to see the difference. What you get with Contrast Boost is a subtle increase in contrast that pulls the highlights up away from the shadows. If this isn’t enough for you, you can duplicate the Contrast Boost layer (select it and press Ctrl-J) to multiply. Want a more dramatic effect? Try setting the blending mode to Overlay instead of Soft Light.

Contrast Boost original


With contrast boost added

With contrast boost added

Using Overlay blending instead

Using Overlay blending instead

What's Next

More Photoshop tutorials can be found in our Articles section.

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