Salvaging Severely Underexposed Photos - Digital Photography School
Close
Close

Salvaging Severely Underexposed Photos

This is one in a series of articles on methods of salvaging what would otherwise be “ruined” photos. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more.

underexposed-before-after.jpg

It has been said that the difference between an amateur photographer and a professional is that the professional never lets anyone see his bad shots.

There are several messages implied in that statement but, for our purposes, the most important is that everyone takes bad photos. No matter who you are, no matter what subjects you shoot, no matter what equipment you use, no matter how much experience you have, it’s unrealistic to expect that every click of the shutter is going to yield yet another masterpiece. A portrait photographer may take a dozen or more poses to get just one or two he can sell you. A wedding photographer may deliver a beautiful package of 200 or so shots from your big day, but those are simply the best of the 1,000 or more that she took. Even after he and a whole staff of assistants spend hours setting up and getting it all just right, a commercial photographer will probably only use one or two out of what may be dozens of shots taken.

There are myriad ways in which a shot may not make the cut. Today, let’s look at just one: underexposure. We’re not talking about slight underexposure that can be corrected with a few quick Photoshop tweaks. We’re talking about severe underexposure that utterly ruins what might otherwise have been a decent picture; a nearly black frame with only a few barely visible details.

You might very well want to simply delete the offending photo. But what if it was somehow special? What if it were a once-in-a-lifetime shot? What if you simply want to exercise some creative muscle to see if you can salvage the shot? Perhaps even make it into something artistic?

Let’s look at a couple of techniques for doing that. The shot below is a perfect example.

I started, obviously enough, by lightening the image to see how much detail could be salvaged. My preferred method for doing this is to create an Exposure adjustment layer in Photoshop. From the Layer menu, select New Adjustment Layer, then Exposure…

Notice that, although I was able to pull out a reasonable amount of detail, I had to increase exposure by more than 5 stops. (Click on any of the images to view them full size.) The recovery also came at the expense of noise and color fidelity. Both may be correctable, to a degree, but this will never be a “good” photo in the traditional sense no matter how much time I spend on it.

My best bet at this point is to keep going and try to turn this shot into something artistic. So next I add a Brightness and Contrast layer (Layer | New Adjustment Layer | Brightness/Contrest…) I don’t touch the brightness at all, but I increase the contrast to +100. This has the effect of darkening parts of the image all over again.

Next I add a Threshold layer (Layer | New Adjustment Layer | Threshold…) The threshold layer will strip all the color from your image and turn it into one of pure black and pure white.

The lone adjustment slider, at the base of the histogram, determines the brightness cutoff point at which a pixel is rendered as either black or white. This has the effect of controlling the degree of detail in the final image. I have found it easiest to make this adjustment by sight rather than by following any sort of guidance or formula.

So, with a little creative tinkering, I managed to salvage this original image

and turn it into this. Great art? Not really, but certainly better than losing the image entirely.

In future installments, we’ll look at more methods for salvaging bad shots, including different methods for dealing with underexposure.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like...

Read more from our Post Production category.

Jeffrey Kontur is the author of two books on photography. You can see more of his work at More Satisfying Photos where he also publishes and distributes his own email newsletter with free weekly photography tips.

  • Andre

    Might I add the suggestion of opening the JPG as a Camera Raw file first? This would give some up-front control over the exposure and other settings.

  • http://community.webshots.com/user/anyoflores Flores

    I just make a new layer and adjust it with ‘shadow/highlight,’ Then, ‘desaturate’ it, then play with curves to get a result like yours. GBU!

  • http://blog.dcclark.net/ dcclark

    It’s a great idea to mess around with “alternate exposures” even on otherwise fine photos. Sometimes I will take a slightly underexposed photo and turn it into a silhouette, just to try out the effect. This also lets you play around with colors in a wild way.

    Here’s an example: dusky tree, which was… uninteresting to say the least in the original. Messing around until I got a silhouette, then going wild with the colors, made this look much more like a sunset silhouette than just a poorly lit late-afternoon shot.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/nevermas Xiao

    andre, can you actually do that? a raw file is very different from a jpeg file, would opening it up differently affect the ability to edit the jpeg file as you would a raw file?

  • http://www.lightstalking.com Light Stalking

    What a great idea. Usually I just bin photos like this…

  • Andre

    @Xiao – yes, in the File Open dialog, click once on the filename, then the Format: dropdown appears. Select Camera Raw, and the file will be opened in the RAW screen just as if it was a Raw file.

  • http://www.designerprint.co.uk canvas prints

    Good article. I’ve also just started using raw when shooting so that my camera records a jpg and raw file, which has been useful and saved a few photos so far.

  • http://senseisage.deviantart.com Shadow Explorer

    from bad shot to bad shot is hardly a success to be blogged about. I enjoy some of the articles on this blog and use them for reference, but I do believe 75-80% of them are for the sake of getting Ad money. the fact that other sites run by the same founder are on tips on how to make your blog and twitter popular, testifies for that

  • Nathan

    @Andre – yes, as Xiao has said, this is possible, and I use this often as well. However, a jpeg doesn’t have the same luminosity/exposure data that a raw file does. For minor tweaks, etc., this usually isn’t a showstopper. For a technique as intensive as this, though, the extra “light data” contained in the raw file would, ostensibly, be interpreted better than simply using a jpeg…. but then again, i shoot exclusively in raw and convert after. In a case like this, i would have the raw file available.

  • http://www.MoreSatisfyingPhotos.com Jeffrey Kontur

    What you guys are missing is that, even with RAW files, if the light simply never passed through the lens and was never captured, you still have an underexposed image. For example, if proper exposure would have been 1/20th second and you had your camera set for 1/200th, the shutter wasn’t open long enough to let light pass through. Even a RAW file has its limitations.

    As I said in the article, this will never take a bad photo and make it a good one. It is strictly a technique for making a photo just good enough to not throw away.

  • http://www.gtvone.com Sime

    Hey, Shadow Explorer… Do you have any idea what it costs to run a blog of this size? If this blog wasn’t popular, you wouldn’t be here…

    Hardly a success in your opinion, sure, but sometimes it may be the only photo a person has and if they can retrieve it, even to this standard, a success… Did you consider it from that perspective?

    Sime

  • http://riseupforthenewday.net Shadow Explorer

    Yes Sime,

    i do know what it costs. I am a web developer and I run a blog as well. It costs close to nothing.

    You do have valid points though. I guess all the filler posts got to me.

  • http://www.gtvone.com Sime

    Sure, I see what you mean with fillers – sadly advertising is a part of life I guess. Running a blog costs nothing – I agree, I have a personal one, but I don’t employ people to write and stuff, so you have to take that into account I guess… You’re a web dev – what technologies are you into? Drop me a mail… (checked out your photos too, nice work)

    Sime

  • daveymars

    Whilst I don’t have Photoshop, I do have Lightroom2 and Elements 7 and what I’ve been able to do with a couple of exposures very similar to that is create some very interesting graphic/poster art effects that use all that grain and grit and with some colorization and various effects here and there taken a truly crap photo and turned it into artwork I’ve framed and put in my office–that gets really good compliments. The technique demonstrated here is wonderful for getting the photo to the point that one could play with it further–my problem is that when I do these things (because I’m a total amateur) I can’t list back for you the steps I used to make them happen–they just do. (Not because I’m talented–but because I get doggedly determined to create SOMETHING!) LOL.. It’s fun and, Jeff, this posting really is helpful for me– Good work!!! Thanks!

  • Jim

    Hi All
    I am fairly new to photography and have only just found this site.
    I found this and some of the other tips/lessions/ideas to be really enlightening.
    Being new to the art, I take heaps of “bad” shots but photos are a memory, a reminder of what you saw, of the event and are a chance to share it or these with others.
    The knowledge that I can, at the very least, rescue these “bad” shots to be able to keep this memory is something very grand.
    I love the site (ads and all) and hope to be able to contribute to it in the future.

  • http://oldhousetours.com John W

    why not use shadow/highlight as Flores says? It always is a quick fix for me. I think this “fix” in the following link using the shadow/highlight (which was about 2 clicks and no layers) is superior in the results:

    http://www.oldhousetours.com/historic-property-images/shadowhigh.jpg

    Thanks for putting the source image on your post so I could test/compare.

  • Seenu Subbu

    Jeffrey, you redeemed my hopes as a photographer :-) Not with the tip but the first few lines of your article.
    I badly screwed up one or two defining photos of a recent birthday party shoot. I was left cursing myself over the severe underexposure and noise, but did try what you just mentioned. Trying to move from “enthusiastic hobbyist” to a pro and goof ups such as these would shatter one’s morale. It’s good to know even pros make such mistakes :-)

  • scruffyone

    Its a good article in essence, although I think it could have been done better. The finished result looks a bit spooky for me! When I got into photography all of 3 months ago (lol) I started using RAW files for this exact reason. Thankfully I havent taken meny that require such drastic treatment, although one of my ‘mistakes is here http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3265/3206300471_23f93a4973.jpg, and it has had the best feedback of any of my pics (not sure what that says about my skills as a photographer)

  • Alvin Van Treese

    I have more of those underexposed images than I care to admit to, so i found this article very informative. Mahalo and keep up the good work.

  • Evan

    …or not.

  • Clarence Zimmerman

    I find it funny how you got more positive response here to this article than the overexposed one.

    A photographer has a choice. Throw it out or take it one step farther. This day and age with digital some times, unless its a once in a life time trip halfway around the world or something, you can easily re-shoot. Or you can tweak your photograph. NOW! imho if a photograph can not be tweaked to the point it is a valid photograph by the “standards” of what a photograph is then you can take it to the next step and turn it into a pice of art. Many people do not want to go there because htye are photographers not artists and thats ok, but for those with the talent that wish to dwell there teqniques like this one can be great to move beyond the photograph and rescue a bad outcome.

    Today photograph and traditional art are merging with this new digital era, this is just one sample of just how. And you don’t even need the best photo in the world to cross over, you just need a vision to see what it could become.

  • scruffyone

    To be honest, I couldnt see a use for this pic unless you were doing something for a horror film. I wouldnt call it art, so much as someone overdoing effects and calling it ‘art’. There must have been a point in the process where the result was not as extreme. sometimes less is more.

  • http://www.monomoda.com Kwame Busia

    I am sometimes of the opinion that when an image is toast, it’s toast. Yes, it’s possible to salvage it with curves, level etc, but sometimes an image is D.O.A – it’s best to just let it flatline!

Some older comments

  • Kwame Busia

    March 30, 2009 09:13 pm

    I am sometimes of the opinion that when an image is toast, it's toast. Yes, it's possible to salvage it with curves, level etc, but sometimes an image is D.O.A - it's best to just let it flatline!

  • scruffyone

    March 25, 2009 05:59 pm

    To be honest, I couldnt see a use for this pic unless you were doing something for a horror film. I wouldnt call it art, so much as someone overdoing effects and calling it 'art'. There must have been a point in the process where the result was not as extreme. sometimes less is more.

  • Clarence Zimmerman

    March 25, 2009 02:27 am

    I find it funny how you got more positive response here to this article than the overexposed one.

    A photographer has a choice. Throw it out or take it one step farther. This day and age with digital some times, unless its a once in a life time trip halfway around the world or something, you can easily re-shoot. Or you can tweak your photograph. NOW! imho if a photograph can not be tweaked to the point it is a valid photograph by the "standards" of what a photograph is then you can take it to the next step and turn it into a pice of art. Many people do not want to go there because htye are photographers not artists and thats ok, but for those with the talent that wish to dwell there teqniques like this one can be great to move beyond the photograph and rescue a bad outcome.

    Today photograph and traditional art are merging with this new digital era, this is just one sample of just how. And you don't even need the best photo in the world to cross over, you just need a vision to see what it could become.

  • Evan

    March 24, 2009 04:37 am

    ...or not.

  • Alvin Van Treese

    March 20, 2009 07:04 am

    I have more of those underexposed images than I care to admit to, so i found this article very informative. Mahalo and keep up the good work.

  • scruffyone

    March 20, 2009 05:24 am

    Its a good article in essence, although I think it could have been done better. The finished result looks a bit spooky for me! When I got into photography all of 3 months ago (lol) I started using RAW files for this exact reason. Thankfully I havent taken meny that require such drastic treatment, although one of my 'mistakes is here http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3265/3206300471_23f93a4973.jpg, and it has had the best feedback of any of my pics (not sure what that says about my skills as a photographer)

  • Seenu Subbu

    March 20, 2009 04:03 am

    Jeffrey, you redeemed my hopes as a photographer :-) Not with the tip but the first few lines of your article.
    I badly screwed up one or two defining photos of a recent birthday party shoot. I was left cursing myself over the severe underexposure and noise, but did try what you just mentioned. Trying to move from "enthusiastic hobbyist" to a pro and goof ups such as these would shatter one's morale. It's good to know even pros make such mistakes :-)

  • John W

    March 20, 2009 03:10 am

    why not use shadow/highlight as Flores says? It always is a quick fix for me. I think this "fix" in the following link using the shadow/highlight (which was about 2 clicks and no layers) is superior in the results:

    http://www.oldhousetours.com/historic-property-images/shadowhigh.jpg

    Thanks for putting the source image on your post so I could test/compare.

  • Jim

    March 19, 2009 09:47 pm

    Hi All
    I am fairly new to photography and have only just found this site.
    I found this and some of the other tips/lessions/ideas to be really enlightening.
    Being new to the art, I take heaps of "bad" shots but photos are a memory, a reminder of what you saw, of the event and are a chance to share it or these with others.
    The knowledge that I can, at the very least, rescue these "bad" shots to be able to keep this memory is something very grand.
    I love the site (ads and all) and hope to be able to contribute to it in the future.

  • daveymars

    March 19, 2009 09:20 am

    Whilst I don't have Photoshop, I do have Lightroom2 and Elements 7 and what I've been able to do with a couple of exposures very similar to that is create some very interesting graphic/poster art effects that use all that grain and grit and with some colorization and various effects here and there taken a truly crap photo and turned it into artwork I've framed and put in my office--that gets really good compliments. The technique demonstrated here is wonderful for getting the photo to the point that one could play with it further--my problem is that when I do these things (because I'm a total amateur) I can't list back for you the steps I used to make them happen--they just do. (Not because I'm talented--but because I get doggedly determined to create SOMETHING!) LOL.. It's fun and, Jeff, this posting really is helpful for me-- Good work!!! Thanks!

  • Sime

    March 17, 2009 09:09 am

    Sure, I see what you mean with fillers - sadly advertising is a part of life I guess. Running a blog costs nothing - I agree, I have a personal one, but I don't employ people to write and stuff, so you have to take that into account I guess... You're a web dev - what technologies are you into? Drop me a mail... (checked out your photos too, nice work)

    Sime

  • Shadow Explorer

    March 17, 2009 09:06 am

    Yes Sime,

    i do know what it costs. I am a web developer and I run a blog as well. It costs close to nothing.

    You do have valid points though. I guess all the filler posts got to me.

  • Sime

    March 17, 2009 08:30 am

    Hey, Shadow Explorer... Do you have any idea what it costs to run a blog of this size? If this blog wasn't popular, you wouldn't be here...

    Hardly a success in your opinion, sure, but sometimes it may be the only photo a person has and if they can retrieve it, even to this standard, a success... Did you consider it from that perspective?

    Sime

  • Jeffrey Kontur

    March 17, 2009 05:17 am

    What you guys are missing is that, even with RAW files, if the light simply never passed through the lens and was never captured, you still have an underexposed image. For example, if proper exposure would have been 1/20th second and you had your camera set for 1/200th, the shutter wasn't open long enough to let light pass through. Even a RAW file has its limitations.

    As I said in the article, this will never take a bad photo and make it a good one. It is strictly a technique for making a photo just good enough to not throw away.

  • Nathan

    March 17, 2009 04:57 am

    @Andre - yes, as Xiao has said, this is possible, and I use this often as well. However, a jpeg doesn't have the same luminosity/exposure data that a raw file does. For minor tweaks, etc., this usually isn't a showstopper. For a technique as intensive as this, though, the extra "light data" contained in the raw file would, ostensibly, be interpreted better than simply using a jpeg.... but then again, i shoot exclusively in raw and convert after. In a case like this, i would have the raw file available.

  • Shadow Explorer

    March 17, 2009 01:46 am

    from bad shot to bad shot is hardly a success to be blogged about. I enjoy some of the articles on this blog and use them for reference, but I do believe 75-80% of them are for the sake of getting Ad money. the fact that other sites run by the same founder are on tips on how to make your blog and twitter popular, testifies for that

  • canvas prints

    March 16, 2009 11:10 pm

    Good article. I've also just started using raw when shooting so that my camera records a jpg and raw file, which has been useful and saved a few photos so far.

  • Andre

    March 16, 2009 11:08 am

    @Xiao - yes, in the File Open dialog, click once on the filename, then the Format: dropdown appears. Select Camera Raw, and the file will be opened in the RAW screen just as if it was a Raw file.

  • Light Stalking

    March 16, 2009 08:30 am

    What a great idea. Usually I just bin photos like this...

  • Xiao

    March 16, 2009 05:17 am

    andre, can you actually do that? a raw file is very different from a jpeg file, would opening it up differently affect the ability to edit the jpeg file as you would a raw file?

  • dcclark

    March 16, 2009 03:38 am

    It's a great idea to mess around with "alternate exposures" even on otherwise fine photos. Sometimes I will take a slightly underexposed photo and turn it into a silhouette, just to try out the effect. This also lets you play around with colors in a wild way.

    Here's an example: dusky tree, which was... uninteresting to say the least in the original. Messing around until I got a silhouette, then going wild with the colors, made this look much more like a sunset silhouette than just a poorly lit late-afternoon shot.

  • Flores

    March 16, 2009 02:07 am

    I just make a new layer and adjust it with 'shadow/highlight,' Then, 'desaturate' it, then play with curves to get a result like yours. GBU!

  • Andre

    March 16, 2009 12:42 am

    Might I add the suggestion of opening the JPG as a Camera Raw file first? This would give some up-front control over the exposure and other settings.

Receive a FREE SAMPLE of our Portrait Photography Ebook

  • Guaranteed for 2 full months
  • Pay by PayPal or CreditCard
  • Instant Digital Download

Receive a FREE SAMPLE of our Portrait Photography Ebook

  • Guaranteed for 2 full months
  • Pay by PayPal or CreditCard
  • Instant Digital Download

Receive a FREE SAMPLE of our Portrait Photography Ebook

  • Guaranteed for 2 full months
  • Pay by PayPal or CreditCard
  • Instant Digital Download

Sign up to the free DPS PHOTOGRAPHY COURSE

  • Guaranteed for 2 full months
  • Pay by PayPal or CreditCard
  • Instant Digital Download

GET DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS Feed

Sign up to the free

DPS PHOTOGRAPHY COURSE

  • Guaranteed for 2 full months
  • Pay by PayPal or CreditCard
  • Instant Digital Download

GET DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS Feed

Sign up to the free

DPS PHOTOGRAPHY COURSE

  • Guaranteed for 2 full months
  • Pay by PayPal or CreditCard
  • Instant Digital Download
DPS NEWSLETTER
DPS NEWSLETTER
DPS NEWSLETTER

DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Email:
 
 
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed