What's the difference between adjusting a photo's exposure versus its brightness?

I created a virtual copy of a photo. The original's exposure was increased 1 stop. The other got an increase in brightness from 50 to 100.

Flipping back and forth between the photos, the photos appear to be almost identical and their histograms are almost the same. The colors are the same, except for a very small difference in brighter blues on the photo that saw increased exposure. Side by side, you probably wouldn't be able to find differences, but very small differences are noticeable when you quickly flip the images back and forth.

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ Note: In Lightroom 4 (PV2012), the Brightness control will go away, and the effect of the Exposure control will change substantially from earlier versions. This question and these answers will no longer apply to Lightroom 4. \$\endgroup\$
    – coneslayer
    Commented Feb 16, 2012 at 1:29

3 Answers 3


Exposure has a stronger effect on the highlights. Brightness has a stronger effect on the midtones.

To quote from the Lightroom user manual:

Exposure Sets the overall image brightness, with a greater effect in the high values.
Brightness Adjusts image brightness, mainly affecting midtones.
Set the overall tonal scale by setting Exposure, Recovery, and Blacks. Then set the overall image brightness. Large brightness adjustments can affect shadow or highlight clipping, so you may want to readjust the Exposure, Recovery or Blacks slider after adjusting brightness.

[See "Adjust image tonal scale" - Page 75]

  • \$\begingroup\$ it's always nice when someone includes the reference. thanks. +1 \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Finch
    Commented Jul 19, 2010 at 9:07

Increasing the Brightness tries to preserve the highlights while increasing Exposure will scale everything.

This image demonstrates it nicely:

alt text

source: http://lightroomkillertips.com/2010/lightroom-exposure-vs-brightness/

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I am just wondering if Matt Kloskowski is ok with coping the image from his blog. I think it is ok as you added the source and he is pretty generous with sharing his stuff (presets, tutorials etc), but I think it would be worth asking Matt what is acceptable as I am pretty sure his work will be used on this site quite a few times. Perhaps it is something to be discussed on meta. \$\endgroup\$
    – kristof
    Commented Jul 19, 2010 at 9:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @kristof: Good point! I sent Matt a message about this just now. \$\endgroup\$
    – Marc
    Commented Jul 19, 2010 at 20:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ See meta: meta.photo.stackexchange.com/questions/100/… \$\endgroup\$
    – Marc
    Commented Jul 19, 2010 at 20:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ thanks Mark, I will have a look at meta, I believe there should have a FAQ on that subject \$\endgroup\$
    – kristof
    Commented Jul 23, 2010 at 14:17

The exposure control stretches the histogram in a linear way, so it will affect the brightest colors the most.

The brightness control affects the middle range more, so that you can make an image brighter without affecting the brightest colors too much.

In the image where you increased the exposure, you see that the light blue color is brighter. In the image where you increates the brightness, the light blue was not affected as much.


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