What’s the Difference Between Lightroom’s Exposure and Brightness Settings?

June 29th, 2011 by Bret Edge

Lightroom (and Adobe Camera Raw) are generally very user friendly and certainly don’t require as much time and effort to learn as Photoshop.  However, some of the controls have ambiguous names.  Today I will de-mystify the Exposure and Brightness controls.

I’m often asked by guided clients and workshop participants what is the difference between the Exposure and Brightness settings.  Here’s my take on it:

Moving the “Exposure” slider to the right increases the overall brightness of an image, impacting brighter tones the most.  Moving it to the left decreases the overall brightness while again impacting brighter tones first.

Adjusting the “Brightness” slider primarily effects mid-tones within an image.  Moving it left will darken the overall image, with most of the effect being visible in mid-tone areas.  Moving the “Brightness” slider to the right will lighten the overall image, with most of the effect visible in the mid-tones.

How do you know when to use “Exposure” vs. “Brightness”, or vice versa?  Here’s how I use them: Let’s pretend I’ve got a photo with a sky filled with those puffy white clouds we all love to see in our landscapes, not unlike the one above from the Windows section of Arches National Park.  Perhaps some of those clouds are awfully bright.  So bright that they’re even close to blowing out.  Increasing ”Exposure” in Lightroom will likely cause those really bright areas in the clouds to lose all detail, i.e. “blow out”.  However, increasing the “Brightness” setting will protect those highlights while primarily brightening the mid-tones.  There is a caveat to this, and that is that if you go too far with the ”Brightness” setting you will still blow out your highlights.  Subtle adjustments are best here so don’t be too heavy handed.

There you have it.  A simple, hopefully easy to understand explanation of the “Exposure” and “Brightness” settings.  For more detail on these settings you may be interested in geeking out on these links:

A Discussion of Exposure vs. Brightness on the Cambridge in Color forum

Lightroom – Exposure vs. Brightness on the Lightroom Killer Tips website

Lightroom: Exposure vs. Brightness at Fred Miranda

Learn more about Bret, view his images, scout his workshops and read his blog here.

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4 Responses to “What’s the Difference Between Lightroom’s Exposure and Brightness Settings?”

  1. Chuck says:

    Simple, just watch the histogram while playing with the slider(s) and see what areas are affected.

  2. JSturr says:

    Nice — thanks for this.

  3. Toni Aull says:

    Yes it is!!! Very good information, please continue to keep me informed

  4. Sharon says:

    Good advice. If you readers are ever in Moab and want a great photo guide, call Bret.

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