This is for Photoshop, might work in Gimp and similar if there is a Curves tool that can be used as a adjustment layer.

First of all: I use this on B&W photos currently, yet to be tried on color photos.

It is useful on hard contrast images and allows to lessen contrast without artifacts. Might come in handy as a technique for other things too.

Behind the screnes; this is adjusitng the image with the inverted levels of itself.
Fill and opacity tells how much to apply. The form of the curve could be a straight line from upper left to lower right (inversion!), the example below has more effect applied – softly.

Howto:

  1. Add a curves layer
  2. Create the points as shown in the red and blue circles below
    32,180 is visble for blue, the red point is 76,224 – but these are just a start, meant for adjusting.
  3. Set “Fill” to 10%,
  4. Adjust amount of effect with Opacity – I had 66% set for the image I grabbed the screen from.
  5. Play with the settings and curve form to get the required effect

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