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How to Brighten and Darken Video the Advanced Way: With Composite Modes

One of the big pitfalls for any amateur videographer is lighting, or more specifically, the lack thereof. Sometimes you shoot something that’s too dark to see, or the sun’s too bright and everything’s a little blown out.
Obviously there’s no solution better than doing it right the first time. But when you have to fix something, you may be tempted to reach for the obvious solution: the Brightness/Contrast tool.

Don’t.

The Brightness slider in any non-linear editor has its limitations; it just brightens or darkens the entire image without bias, giving your subject’s eyes and mouth the same boost as the wallpaper in the background. Instead of a bad image, you get a slightly brighter or darker bad image. As such, the Brightness slider should only be used in moderation, perhaps a few points in either direction; it’s better for darkening than brightening, and if your goal is to brighten, it should only be used in conjunction with a boost of Contrast, so that your blacks do not wash out to gray.

Instead of the lazy man’s solution, a simple Brightness and Contrast pass, your non-linear editing software has something far more interesting; the same Screen, Multiply, Overlay, Soft Light, Hard Light, what-have-you tools you may be familiar with from Adobe Photoshop. They’re a little bit out of the way, but they can make brightening or darkening your video look a whole lot better.

Call them what you will-blending modes, composite modes, transfer modes, layer modes-but whatever name they go by, they can be a big help in solving a video problem. The trick is this: in Photoshop, you may have used these tools to help combine two different images. But for our video, we’re going to Screen (or Multiply, or whatever) a video clip onto itself!

Every piece of editing software handles differently, and you may wish to consult your manual to see how yours operates when you wish to blend two clips of video together. For example, if using Premiere or Final Cut Pro, you’ll need to make a separate layer containing your misbehaving clip and place your copy above the original, on a separate layer, then apply a transfer mode on the ‘top’ clip by control-clicking or right-clicking it and selecting a mode from the ensuing menu. If using iMovie, you will place the clip and its copy back-to-back and combine the two with the ss| Combine option in the Effects panel.

Whatever the case, once you’ve successfully gotten one clip to blend onto another-specifically, onto a copy of itself-the question is, which composite mode to use?

‘Screen’ is a best bet option for if you’ve shot something dark. ‘Multiply’ and ‘Overlay’ make for more striking images where there was once overexposed flare. Some of the tools simply aren’t appropriate for what we’re trying to achieve here-‘Difference’, ‘Hue’ and the like-but experiment with everything and see what works best for your video.

What makes Screen, Multiply et al so much better than the boring old Brightness and Contrast tools is that it’s using the original image to modify itself; rather than taking your underlit shot of Aunt Mildred and telling the whole thing to brighten up ten pixels, Screening it onto itself will make the bright parts stand out more brightly, the darks remaining dark. Instead of applying a destructive bite onto your footage, this effect preserves what’s good about it and tries to build on that.

Of course, it’s not a magic bullet. You may wish to adjust the opacity of your Screen or Multiply (or whatever) clip. Or maybe you will want to color-correct it (or desaturate it entirely!) to wipe away some color problems that weren’t so evident in the poorly-lit original.

If you’re finding that your composite mode work is making your image appear pixel-y and low-resolution, apply a slight blur to the ‘top’ layer for a painterly, filtered feel. Your correspondent likes to use a blur no larger than four pixels on regular digital video, eight pixels on high-definition. It will preserve your basic effect of letting the colors and tones build on themselves while not making each individual pixel stand out.

Advanced users may wish to modify things further by matting parts of their blending layer; for instance, to highlight a book on a table, simply Screen a copy of the clip of the table over the original clip and apply a matte to your Screen clip so only the book is visible, either using sharp rigid lines or a pleasing, blurry circular halo.

If all this sounds confusing, don’t worry-it’s just a matter of getting used to the tools. Fortunately, it’s easy to practice in Photoshop. Just paste any image into a new Photoshop window, duplicate the layer, select the top layer, and go to town with the modes in the Layers window-that little dropdown menu defaulting to ‘Normal’ has a wealth of treasures waiting for you. You’ll be able to see instant results with no render time, and before long, outlandish ideas like ‘Overlay’ and ‘Hard Light’ will be second nature.

With a little practice, you’ll be able to compensate for lighting problems and achieve a more palatable image in post-production. Just remember that the best possible image only comes from the best possible shooting conditions-conversely, garbage in, garbage out. So watch for lighting and keep everything looking good as you shoot, and you’ll find that mastering these tools will help you really perfect your shots. Happy shooting!

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