Shooting in low light is hard. On the one hand, you must avoid blur that comes from a too-slow shutter speed; on the other hand, you must avoid noise that comes from a too-high ISO. And if you’re not careful, you’ll end up with unpleasantly dark shadows, unpleasantly bright highlights, or both.
Fortunately, experienced photographers have a simple trick up their sleeve, one that helps produce crisp, low-noise images:
It might sound unbelievable, but a bit of editing can take an unimpressive low-light photo and turn it into a beautiful masterpiece with just a few simple tweaks. And that’s what I aim to show you in this article: how to edit low-light photos for amazing results, no matter your level of experience.
By the way, while I give instructions using Adobe Lightroom Classic, you can achieve the same effects in programs such as Luminar AI, ON1 Photo RAW, and Capture One. While each editing program features a different interface, the core tools are very much the same.
Let’s get started.
Step 0: Do your best to get it right in camera
These days, you can do a lot with editing. For instance, you can:
- Get rid of unwanted noise to create a clean, smooth photo
- Sharpen subject edges to get rid of subtle blur
- Remove color casts caused by artificial light
- Adjust exposure to recover detail in too-dark shadows and too-bright highlights
However, there is a limit to your post-processing power. If you capture an image that’s full of blur, you can’t make it sharp again, no matter how hard you try. Nor can you take a drastically underexposed image and recover beautiful, noise-free details.
That’s why it’s essential that you maximize image quality while shooting.
What do I mean by this?
First, do everything you can to get the exposure right. It’s okay to slightly underexpose or overexpose your low-light photo, but don’t miss the proper exposure dramatically.
Second, keep your ISO as low as you can get away with. The higher the ISO goes, the more visible the noise becomes. And while you can remove noise in editing, the results are never perfect.
Third, nail your focus and use a fast-enough shutter speed to prevent camera shake and freeze the subject. If you’re shooting a stationary subject (e.g., a cityscape at night), then use a sturdy tripod.
Finally, when shooting in low-light conditions, it’s essential that you work in RAW. That way, you have as much leeway as possible when recovering details and making adjustments on your computer.
Bottom line: Editing can make a big difference, but if you first nail your photos in-camera, you’ll have a much easier time when you finally do open up the files in Lightroom.
Step 1: Evaluate your photo
Whenever you edit a new file, before you touch your adjustment tools, I recommend you simply observe the shot. Ask yourself: What do I like about this image? What don’t I like? What do I want to get rid of? What do I want to adjust?
If it helps, you can make a physical list, but it’s also okay to do this step in your head.
Here’s my example image, a street photo I snapped while out at night in Santa Monica, California:
Someone had dumped soap into a fountain, which had then churned into a frothing mess. The passerby in my shot stopped, grabbed a handful of suds, and blew them into the air.
Quickly observing my image, I like the story, the composition, and the man’s gesture. However, the shot is low contrast, has an odd color cast, has some noise (my ISO was 4000!), and is a little blurry in places (my shutter speed was only 1/60s). These are all common low-light photography problems, and I’m guessing they’ve affected some of your images, too.
Fortunately, I shot in RAW, which means that I have plenty of flexibility when adjusting the file, as you’ll soon see.
Step 2: Check for clipped highlights and shadows
Low-light photography is plagued by clipped (missing) details. Dark shadows turn pitch black, while artifical lighting creates bright-white lights.
So your next step is to identify any areas with clipping.
You can do this in two different ways:
- Hold the Alt/Opt key while clicking on the Highlights or Shadows slider
- Hover the mouse over the small triangles in the upper corners of the Lightroom histogram
Either option works fine and will clearly identify the areas of your photo that contain no information. If you use the Alt/Opt method, as soon as you click, you’ll get an overlay revealing any clipped areas:
And here is the same method applied to the Shadows slider:
If you use the histogram option, once you hover over (or click on) the triangles, you’ll see your clipped highlights indicated in red and your clipped shadows indicated in blue:
Now, clipped details are not always salvageable. But if you’ve shot in RAW, there’s a good chance you can at least recover some detail, as I explain in the next section:
Step 3: Adjust the exposure
At this point, you know whether your image contains clipped shadows or highlights. But you should also look at the image as a whole. Ask yourself: Does the shot seem well exposed? Is it too light? Too dark?
Here, the histogram can be a big help. If it’s skewed to the right, that’s an indication the shot is overexposed; if it’s skewed to the left, that’s an indication the shot is underexposed.
So raise or lower the Exposure slider until you get a nice overall result.
In my image, the subject looked a little dark, so I boosted the Exposure slider by +0.9:
Next, you’ll want to recover detail from clipped areas. While you can tweak the overall exposure to recover detail, I’d also recommend dropping the Highlights to recover detail in bright areas and boosting the Shadows to recover detail in dark areas.
Once you’ve finished, you might even double-check for clipping just to be sure you’ve dealt with all problem areas.
Step 4: Increase contrast
If you’ve shot in RAW – and I hope you have! – then your file, by design, will be pretty flat (i.e., low contrast). And in the previous step, you’ll have made it even flatter by (likely) reducing the highlights and boosting the shadows.
So at this point in the low-light editing process, you’ll want to carefully add contrast back into the shot. You may even deliberately clip some shadows, and that’s okay (sometimes, a bit of shadow clipping can add a moodier, edgier look to a photo).
My example photo includes several dark patches that don’t really contain any interesting details (the sky and the subject’s jacket). So I don’t mind boosting the contrast, even if it’s at the expense of detail.
How do you add contrast into your shot? The simplest way is by lifting the Contrast slider, though you can also drop the Blacks slider and increase the Whites slider if you want a more precise result.
If you’re after greater flexibility, you might even use the Tone Curve panel, which allows you to carefully adjust brightness values across the entire image:
For my photo, I decreased the Blacks slider by -70; this added contrast back into the shot while clipping only areas featuring unimportant details.
Step 5: Fix the white balance
White balancing neutralizes color casts in your photos (which can be a major problem when working with artificial lights).
Fortunately, applying a good white balance in Lightroom is pretty easy.
- Adjust the Temp and Tint sliders until you get a result that looks natural
- Use the Eyedropper tool, which lets Lightroom automatically dial in a nice white balance
The Eyedropper tool is much faster, but you’ll need to make sure to select the Eyedropper icon, then click on a neutral (i.e., gray, black, or white) part of your image:
In my experience, the Eyedropper gives you a decent starting point, but it rarely gives accurate results right away (so you’ll need to supplement it with Temp and Tint slider adjustments).
My image was far too warm thanks to the yellowish street lights, so I’ve decreased the Temperature for a colder effect.
Step 6: Add Clarity and/or sharpening
At this point, you’ll want to improve the finer details in your image. You have two easy options here: You can boost the Clarity slider, which increases contrast in photo midtones, or you can boost the Sharpening slider, which adds contrast along object edges. You can also make both adjustments.
So find the Clarity slider, then subtly move it upward. Going too far will create an unpleasant, crunchy look, but proper application of Clarity will help define the edges of objects, increase image depth, and even add a bit of pop.
Next, head down to the Sharpening slider. Here, you should also be subtle. Increase the Sharpening Amount until you get a nice result, then feel free to play with the sliders below it. Boosting the Masking slider, for instance, will prevent the sharpening from affecting smoother areas of the shot.
Step 7: Reduce noise
Noise reduction should be the final step of your low-light editing workflow. Many low-light images do include some noise, and boosting the exposure – as I have done in my image – will make the noise more visible.
Note that noise tends to be most noticeable in the dark areas of an image, but it can also wreak havoc on skin tones. Luckily, noise is easy to fix in post-processing (and while noise reduction will decrease image quality, the effect is rarely noticeable when done carefully).
You can find the Noise Reduction sliders in the Detail panel underneath the Sharpening sliders. Simply increase the Luminance slider until the noise reaches a satisfactory level, then head down and increase the Color slider. (The Luminance and Color sliders deal with two different types of noise, so it’s a good idea to boost them both.)
My image doesn’t feature too much noise, but it’s still present, especially in the shadows. So I increased the Luminance slider to +30 and the Color slider to +15.
Here, you can see the Before image (on the right) and the After image (on the left). Notice how the speckles of noise in the original were subtly reduced:
Don’t be too heavy handed with your noise reduction! The more you boost the sliders, the more you lose detail, so go as far as necessary, then stop.
How to edit low-light photos in Lightroom: final words
As you hopefully realize, editing low-light shots in Lightroom doesn’t have to be complex. While I’ve only made basic changes, you can see a clear difference between the original image:
And the final image:
And although you can certainly take your edits further, this workflow is a great starting point for low-light files.
Now over to you:
Do you plan to use this workflow to adjust your own low-light photos? Share your thoughts in the comments below!