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How to Recover an Underexposed RAW Photo in Lightroom

Underexposed Image Example

A common issue in the basic workflow of both amateur and professional photographers is setting the camera to proper parameters in order to end up with the right exposure values. Sometimes, we may not have enough time to correct and re-shoot the picture we want to take and since natural lighting conditions cannot be controlled the way we do with artificial illumination, if the image is underexposed or overexposed the work is ‘ruined’. At least this is the case until we decide to partner with Lightroom – your best option for post-production software. To put it concisely, unless the picture is severely compromised by really bad exposure (way too burnt due to overexposure or overexposed to the point of details being unrecognizable) we can correct all of those issues by using Adobe Lightroom. It should be noted that underexposed pictures tend to have better chances of restoration than overexposed images, since the data is less damaged with the former than with the latter. Start by importing your RAW image into Lightroom and switching to the Develop Module.

Underexposed Image Example

You can correct the Exposure value quickly, simply by moving the Exposure slider

Underexposed Image Example

This, however, will not give you the same professional result you would get by manually adjusting all the elements that make up the histogram and then deciding if the exposure value is okay for the picture or if it needs any additional minor tweaks. Go backwards to the starting point and take a close look at your image. As you can see, the Whites and Highlights look dull and do not seem sufficient to light up the image; Shadows are very strong, although not as much as Blacks and Exposure values are really flat. You can check out all this information on the Histogram, if you don’t trust your senses just yet. Reduce the Blacks by moving the Blacks slider towards positive values.

Underexposed Image Example

Then do the same for Shadows

Underexposed Image Example

Increase Highlights, but not too much, otherwise any sun light will not look realistic enough

Underexposed Image Example

And do the same for Whites

Underexposed Image Example

Give the image a bit more Contrast, even if it darkens the image. The end result will be better because of this setting.

Underexposed Image Example

Then apply a considerable amount of Clarity to the picture, since this will bring in all the detail that was lost due to poor illumination of the sensor.

Underexposed Image Example

You can take that setting almost up to +65 – then it won’t be advisable to go further, since higher values are meant for HDR photography. As you may suspect, the image now requires an increase in Exposure, but first, let’s compare it with the original file. Underexposed Image Example

The illumination is still rather dim, although we did manage to recover a lot of detail. Now it is time to increase the Exposure slider, until we are pleased with the result.

Underexposed Image Example

Again, let’s compare with the original file

Underexposed Image Example

Pretty stunning isn’t it? Notice, though, that we didn’t have to use the strong exposure values, we used last time we applied this slider. As a final step, consider reducing the Highlights (and straightening the horizon!) and the image will be ready for use.

Underexposed Image Example

You can now do the following optional adjustments. With just a series of simple steps and a well-structured outline of the result you are aiming for, you no longer need to feel disappointed by the images that have poor illumination – All you need is Lightroom to save those files from the recycle bin. Good luck and keep editing!

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