How To Save An Underexposed Photo Using Lightroom

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Before we even get started I should make clear that this is to be used as a last resort effort to save a photograph that can’t possibly be retaken any time soon, not something we should make a habit out of. We all know that the best way to save an underexposed photograph is to simply pay attention to the histogram while taking photos and if it’s pushed all the way to the left adjust our settings and reshoot.

Of course with that said, there are cases where it’s impossible to reshoot, or we just forgot to check our settings and get home to realize everything is underexposed and in that case we can do one of two things – toss the photo in the trash or try and save it.

Today I’m going to show you…

after underexposed

I’d like to mention upfront that to be able to achieve these kinds of results you really must be photographing in the RAW format – no ifs, ands or buts about it! If you need a bit of clarification as to why RAW is important you can read all about the RAW format here.

Let’s Save An Underexposed Photo

Underexposed histogram

If you do get home and your histogram looks like the one to the right than you’ve got an underexposed photograph in serious need of some help. It probably looks very similar to the before image above with just peaks of light in the very brightest parts of the photograph.

Before you give up hope and assume that your shoot is a complete failure there are a few things you can do to try and salvage the underexposed photographs that you’ve taken.

I’m going to be presenting you with three techniques that you can use to get the most out of what you have. However it is important to note that every photograph is different and will present its own unique set of challenges. These three ideas will give you something to try in the event that you do get home and find your photographs have taken a turn for the dark side, but they might not be able to bring them back, sometimes they truly are too far gone.

For this tutorial I’m using a fairly serious example, in most cases I would hope that you won’t have nearly as bad a situation as I have for you today, so let’s get started!

#1 – Save what you can get rid of what you can’t

This might not be the best way to go about things, but it certainly is the easiest way to get something out of nothing.

By simply adjusting the basic settings a bit to expose for the sky in the photograph I create a simple silhouette of the trees and leave it at that. The final step was to clone out the little bits of the run down shack that were peaking out asking for attention, but not adding to the photograph.

Definitely not the best option for this photo, but it is an option worth considering when you are processing your own photos – sometimes you really don’t have to save everything – it might not be what you had intended the shot to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete loss.

Clone Screenshot

Expose for what you have clone out what you can’t save.

#2 – Use Graduated Filters and Adjustment Brushes Until You Can’t Use Them Anymore

For this second attempt at saving this image I did a lot of the same processing as I did on the first one to get the sky the way I wanted it. Once I got to that point instead of simply giving up and cloning out the run down shack I decided to add a graduated filter and some adjustment brushes to try and save the foreground.

As you can see with just a few modifications I was able to really bring out the hut and add some light to the grass as well as some much needed contrast to the road. This became the after image scene above.

Graduated filter screen shot

Use a graduated filter to bring light back into the foreground.

Adjustment Brush Overlay One

Add light to the grass and hut with one adjustment brush

Adjustment Brush Overlay Two

Darken the road to add contrast and remove some noise with a second adjustment brush.

#3 – Convert to Black and White

If we have a really bad case of underexposure, as I do in this photograph, noise will become a problem. As you recover data from the darkest of the shadows you will find that there just isn’t any data there to recover and you’ll end up with pixelated noise in those regions. This is especially true if you were already shooting at a higher ISO.

In cases like this sometimes the only solution left to do is convert to black and white. By converting the image to black and white you essentially are able to hide the color noise leaving only the luminance noise in the photograph. While it’s still not ideal, it can be a useable alternative if you have no other options.

Reduce noise by converting to black and white

Convert the image to black and white to minimize the effect of noise

For those who enjoy videos this photograph’s edit was part of a weekly series I run on YouTube called Let’s Edit you can watch the video of that episode below.

Read more from our Post Production category

John Davenport is the creator of PhoGro - Gro' Your Photography a community that aims to help you grow your photography through engagement with other photographers. John also offers a free email course 6 Weeks to Better Photos that covers the most important elements for getting started with photography.

  • Great stuff, John! I saw you process this photo as a part of your “Let’s Edit” series over on your site. While noise is definitely a concern as you mentioned with this type of processing, it may very well save a photo that otherwise might end up in the scrap bucket. This has forced me to be a bit more open minded in my initial review if I didn’t notice the under exposure in the field.

    Thanks for the reminder!

  • Barry E Warren

    Nice tips

  • Richard

    I thought an expert like you would never underexpose!… So I feel better now, I am not the only one… 🙂

  • Phogropathy

    Haha – we all make mistakes – the key is to learn as much as we can from them and continuously improve our skills!

  • craig

    I to, have watched all your videos on the “lets edit” program, and love them, and learned a lot. but I must have missed this one, very informative and helpful. as you know I have been restoring old family photos, although they are JPEG’s and scanned versions, Lightroom and Paint shop pro have been a great help if bringing these photos back to life. so just to let everyone know, these technique’s also work for JPEGs as well, maybe not a much if they were in a RAW format. but I have saved a lot of our family’s photos with Lightroom.

  • Lourika

    This is insane… wow – but if you had to print that picture on a canvas (decent size) will it look good? Would the quality of the picture of gone down dramatically, because of all the changes/editing you have done?????

  • Phogropathy

    That is a very good question and I would expect that printing the image would result in some noticeable noise/deterioration of the quality of the image.

    Remember at the start of this post I said that this kind of thing should only be done in a last resort situation where you want the memory of whatever you photographed, but have no chance of retaking the shot any time soon.

    It’s better than nothing, but certainly far from perfect.

  • Phogropathy

    Thanks Craig! You’re absolutely correct that editing a JPEG image can give some good results, you will notice more dramatic improvements are possible if you shoot in RAW, but that said you can get some improvements out of a JPEG image if that’s all you have – I’ll work on a post/video comparison of trying to do something similar with a JPEG vs RAW formats and see how they turn out.

  • I love your Let’s Edit series. I was wondering if you could do a Let’s Edit session on editing people or portraits. I would love to see your workflow with people as your subjects. Thank you Phogropathy.

  • Phogropathy

    Thanks for the comment Praverb – This is something I want to do on the series, but I don’t actually spend all that much time photographing people so it’s a tough one for me.

    I’ll see if I can dig up a shot from a model shoot I did a while back – it’s nothing special – but it’s about all I’ve got.

  • Thank you John…I am watching videos on the YouTube Channel now haha

  • Rudi

    Why not just boost the exposure level in PS?

  • Anonymous

    what i found amusing (to myself) was the part that says ‘darken the road’ in an article called ‘how to save the under-exposed’. …. just my 2 cents 🙂

  • Phogropathy

    Haha – yeah that’s very true. There might be another way to get around this – like using an adjustment brush to lighten just the yellow line, but I found it easier to apply a graduated filter and brighten the road and lower portion of the frame in one fell swoop so to speak and then go back over it with an adjustment brush to bring the road back down to black while retaining the light colors of the lines. As with everything there’s more than one way to achieve the same result. 🙂

    Either way though it is a funny little bit to say ‘darken the road’ given the nature of what we are doing here – nice catch!

  • Exrayeye

    Remember when underexposed meant an almost clear negative?

  • John McCosh

    I never seen stars in front of clouds before……

  • Phogropathy

    Do you see stars in front of the clouds in the images above? All I can see are stars that peak through the holes in the clouds.

  • Raven Photography

    Fantastic tutorial and always handy to have when that one shot goes wrong, but how do you stop it from being so damn noisy!
    http://www.ravenphotography.co.uk

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