Editing, Photoshop, Tutorial

What is the difference between Exposure vs Brightness?

When you edit your images in Photoshop or Lightroom, you may have already come across two similar yet confusing options – Exposure and Brightness.

Overall, they seem to have similar results in “brightening” up the image. However, they work differently. Brightness overall “brightens” the image while Exposure “primarily” affects the highlights of the image. Though adjusting Brightness is comparatively less harsh than Exposure but both have their respective advantages.

Let us edit (post process) the same RAW image to see the differences in Exposure and Brightness. Since we will be altering just 1 parameter at a time the resultant image will not be aesthetically pleasing. Also, for this comparison I have chosen an image that has a significant amount of highlights and shadows so as to see the effects of change in Brightness and Exposure on the highlights and shadows.

In the first example we will alter the Brightness of the image:

Image 1 – This is an unedited image without any alterations applied.

Next, we increase the Brightness level to 50 in Image 1 and the resultant image is as follows:

Image 2 – Here we can see the image has brighten up a bit especially on the darker foreground.

Next let us increase the Brightness level to 100:

Image 3 – After increasing the Brightness to 100 we see there is a significant recovery on in the foreground shadows but highlights are blown out.

Finally let us increase the Brightness to the maximum level of 150.

Image 4 – The final increase of 150 level in the brightness it has significantly recovered the foreground shadows but the highlights are completely blown out.

Now let us move onto the effects of correcting the Exposure:

Image 5 – This is an unedited image with no alterations applied.

In the first step let us increase the Exposure to just 0.5 and the resultant image is as follows:

Image 6 – The resultant image is very similar to Image 2 (after increasing the Brightness level to 50)

Next let us increase the Exposure to +1.

Image 7 – The output is very similar to Image 3. But here you will notice the Exposure has affected the Highlights better (in the top sky) as compared to the sky in Image 3 (after increasing Brightness level to 100).

Now let us increase the Exposure to +2:

Image 8 – Here too the output is very similar to Image 4. But if you notice carefully even after increasing the Exposure to +2 (In a general scenario we never push up the Exposure this high) it has retained the details in highlights as compared to Image 4 (pushing up the Brightness level to 150).

In Photoshop and Lightroom you can increase the Exposure up to 5 stops which is incredible. But normally we would never go that far. Though it will increase the “brightness” of the image it would significantly loose details in highlights.

Just for reference here are some adjustment in Exposure from +3 to +5.

Both Exposure and Brightness have their own advantages. And it would depend on the image being edited whether to use Exposure or Brightness correction. In general, if your images have a significant amount of highlights (where the details are to be retained) it is better to use Exposure correction. This is because if we apply Brightness to the same image, what it would do is will equally apply the brightening both to highlights and shadows. But if an image has lesser highlights and more emphasis on shadows the Brightness could be a better alternative. Please note when you edit an image you do not just use one single adjustment, rather it is a culmination of other adjustments (e.g. Highlights and Shadow correction or Burn or Dodge) which helps to generate an aesthetically pleasing output.

I sincerely hope this article helped you in clearing the difference between Brightness and Exposure correction.

If you have any questions please feel free to connect with me at [email protected]