Using Multiple Digital Tools to Enhance Dark Photos


One of the great things about digital scrapbooking is that you have the ability to change the look of your photos using a combination of Photoshop tools and digital elements. For this layout, I began with a photograph that was not quite a silhouette, but close to it. I knew that I could use the Photoshop command curves (or maybe levels) to modify the image, but I find that it often works better if I play around with curves, the shadows/highlight command, blend modes and clipping masks and/or fotoglows as well. In this layout, I used a little of all of these, playing around with the effects until I was happy with the result.  I felt that the original photo was too dark to really tell the story, so I set out to change the image to make it easier to see the various details within the photo.
Begin with a template.  This one is Anna’s Artsy Layered Template no. 152.

Artsy Layered Template No 152

1.  Prepare your photo.  Turn off all of the layers on the template except for the 3 frames and frame shadows. Add a vector mask to each shadow, and  removed the shadow portion on the inside of each frame (as the photo clipping masks will not be used, due to the photo extending beyond the frames). Insert a background paper of your choice in a soft neutral color.  Keep in mind that using many of the blend modes will cause the photo to mix with the background paper colors, so choose your paper color accordingly.  Insert, and position the photo under the frames.

JSchaefer_Seaweed - Discover_1a

Place the photo on blend mode ‘Color Burn’.  It will wash out the photo, blending with the color from the background paper to give it a soft neutral, golden cast.

JSchaefer_Seaweed - Discover_2e

Apply a vector mask to the photo holding down the ‘ALT’ key and clicking on the vector mask.  This will cause the photo to disappear.  Then, making sure the ‘layer mask thumbnail’ in clicked in the layer stack, paint back in the portion of the photo you wish to show, using a soft white brush, at an opacity of about 15%, slowly building up the image. Duplicate the photo, and place the photo highest on the layer stack back on the ‘Normal’ blend mode. This, of course will show the original (dark) photo. Use the shadow/highlight command on this photo, to show more detail from the shadowed areas of the photo, and then use curves, to lighten the photo.  Now begin gradually painting out areas of the photo using a soft black brush to allow more of the photo layer below to show through.

JSchaefer_Seaweed - Discover_3e

2.  Begin adding glows.  Add the various fotoglows, to deepen the color of the water, to enhance the beach and to create a sunset. Add a vector mask to the glows and paint out (erase) the area of color in the white of the waves, and the little girl, so that the color stays looking natural.

JSchaefer_Seaweed - Discover_4e

3.  Use Template layers.  Begin turning template layers back on, manipulating their color and blend modes.  Add various other brushwork and transfers from other kits if desired.

JSchaefer_Seaweed - Discover_5e

4.  Embellish.  Add elements along the edge of the frame.  Add the UrbanStitchez.

JSchaefer_Seaweed - Discover_6e

5. Finishing Touches.  Add the DISCOVER BigWord.  I was lucky that the O encircled the little girl, otherwise I probably would have shifted the photo a bit. It could have been consider finished at this point, but often times a pages which have a great deal of brushwork and texture can benefit by adding an edge overlay to frame the page. Two were added here, one in a deep aqua, and another in a golden yellow.

JSchaefer_Seaweed - Discover_final-e

Click on image for layout supplies

So, before you decide to bypass that “too dark” photo, which holds a special memory you wish you could scrap, try some of these techniques.  You may be pleasantly surprised to find that that special memory can be scrapped afterall.  Be sure to experiment with other blend modes as well.

Need a helping hand for some of these blending techniques, see AnnaBlendz 1, 2 and 3





I cherish each and every old family photograph I have. When I sit down to scrap one of these heritage photos, I hope to find the best way to showcase it, and really make it shine. Many of these old photographs are faded and discolored, and often have other flaws that make them a challenge. This original photograph was dull and had a huge shadow of the photographer in the bottom portion of it, so I knew I would want to blend the photograph on the layout to minimize this flaw, and use blend modes to maximize the details within.

Original scanned photograph

Original scanned photograph

To begin, I layer four background papers, playing around with different blend modes and opacities of each, until I achieve the soft, lightly patterned base.  To this I add two ArtsyKards in their PSD format, overlapping them, and adding a shadow to the base layer of each.

Ready to add the photograph

Ready to add the photograph

Although I edited the original photo prior to placing it in the layout, quite a bit of additional editing is done after importing it into the layout. In bringing in the photograph I first have to decide where I want it to be placed on the page.  I reduce the photos opacity, allowing me to see where the different design elements of the ArtsyKards are, which will enter into my photo placement decision. Keeping in mind that the ArtsyKards are in PSD format, and that the different layers of the Kards can be manipulated, I position and scale the photo. Now, duplicating this layer, and I bring this new layers opacity up to 100%.  I prefer painting the image in, rather than removing the parts I don’t want, so with the new 100% opacity photo layer highlighted in the layer stack, I hold down the ALT, and click the ADD VECTOR MASK button, located at the bottom of the layer stack.  This masks out the entire photo.  Then clicking the LAYER MASK THUMBNAIL,  of this layer, (making the mask active),  I begin to paint the photo back in, using a soft white paint brush.  If a mistake is made, I change the brush color to black, and paint out the mistake.   I usually start with a brush opacity of about 60%, but vary it as need be while painting in the photo.  By keeping the original, reduced opacity photo there as a guide, it makes it easier to paint the photo in.  For areas like the little boy’s suit, the opacity will be lower, however, for the face areas, I have the opacity at 100%, to best show the detail.  I purposely keep most of the area of the photo with the shadow, blended out, showing just a hint of this area.

Blending 1_600

Beginning the painting process

I now look at ArtsyKards to decide if there are any portions that I want to either turn off, move or even modify by changing their colors and/or blend modes.  For the Kard on the left,  I opted to change the dark vertical line to a soft brown,  plus I moved it, along with the bit of blended floral lace to the left edge of the kard.   Because of the dark shadow of the photographer being masked out, I took the words “embrace LIFE” on the right ArtsyKard, and moved them to that area, almost like I chose to mask out that portion of the photo to make the WordArt visible.   I can now delete the reduced opacity photo layer that was used as a guide.

Editing portions of the ArtsyKards

Editing portions of the ArtsyKards

The photo is still not quite finished.  I want to brighten it up a bit.  I apply the blend mode of DARKEN to the photo. This allowed some of the color and textures and WordArt from the Kards and the background paper to show through.  I duplicate this photo layer, and making certain that the top photo layer is my active layer, change the blend mode  to LINEAR LIGHT.  This brightens the image too much, so I bring the opacity of this layer down to about 40%.  You can see that it really brightened up the photo.

Keep in mind, with the two photos layers, it is fun to play around with the different areas, painting some areas in on one layer, and painting it out of the other.  In addition, experimenting with the various blend modes will give you different results, so with those photos, that you feel are just to dull and flawed, experiment with these techniques to figure out how to best emphasize what you want to emphasize within your photo, and you may surprise yourself with just how great the photo can be.   It is not uncommon for me to end up with 4 or 5 layers of one photo, each emphasizing a special area to create a better photo in the end.

I purposely allow some of the color and textures to show through, keeping much of the lower portion of the photo semi-transparent, but I keep the top portion the least transparent, so that the details of their faces shine through.  My last step to the photo is to check to be certain there are no textures showing through in areas that could distract from the photo, such as the chevron pattern showing through in their faces.  To eliminate that, I create a new blank layer, just under the two photo layers, and then with a light, neutral color, picked from the photograph, using a soft, reduced opacity brush, I paint on this layer to cover any of these unwanted patterns.  I don’t mind the chevron showing through much of the photo, but I like to keep the faces clean.  It is a personal preference for me.  In addition the area where the edge of the card and the card shadows left a visible line, I soften with a few brush strokes as well.

Second photo layer added, and blend modes applied

Second photo layer added, and blend modes applied

Now the layout is ready for additional design elements.


I want to slightly darken the area around the ArtsyKards.  I add two FotoBlendz, changing their color, blend mode and opacity.  An additional ArtsyKard is inserted behind the two already placed.  I is enlarged to covered most of the lower right of the page. The background (base) layer of this ArtsyKard is turned off, and some of the remaining kard elements are moved around and manipulated by re-coloring, and/or blending.


A text page overlay is added, changing its color and blend mode, I mask out all but the bottom third of this overlay.  I add the Hipster Plumes in the area above the ArtsyKardz, changing their color, blend mode and opacity, so that there is just a hint of them showing.


Elements and WordArt are added.  The versatility of the ArtsyKardz PSD files gave me the ability to take the doily element from the ArtsyKard, and enlarged it until it reaches the right edge of the paper.  Names and the date are added to the corner of the ArtsyKard on the right.


The layout is basically done, but to add a bit more interest, I add the SkinnyLined Overlay, and the Tree brush, which mimics the tree in the photograph.  My final element is the FotoGlow, which is added directly under the Hipster Plumes, manipulating its color and opacity to best enhance the Plumes.


For product credits, click on image.

If you have yet to play around with masking and blend modes, I do hope this tutorial gets you started.  It is so fun to play around with Photoshop, and amazing what it can do for a layout.