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From Overexposed “Trash” to Pop-Art

This is one in a series of articles on methods of salvaging what would otherwise be “ruined” photos.

In a previous article, we looked at one way of salvaging an underexposed photo. (We may look at more ways in future articles.) Today let’s look at a method for salvaging an overexposed shot. As already noted, these techniques will never turn a truly bad photo into something great but they can make the difference between something that gets deleted and something that has at least a bit of artistic merit.

It pays to bear in mind that everyone takes at least some bad photos. It is impossible that every click of the shutter is going to yield a masterpiece. There are too many variables: the wind, your subject blinking, someone walking across your scene. You name it and it can probably ruin your shot.

Overexposure is usually the result of photographer error. You forgot to change your settings back after the last place you used your camera. You accidentally cranked exposure compensation way up. You have the camera on manual and simply set the settings wrong. It doesn’t really matter. The point is, now you have an overexposed photo and what do you do with it?

To be clear, we’re not talking about slight overexposure; something that might be corrected with a few tweaks in Photoshop. We’re talking about overexposure with blown highlights that would make a barroom brawler cry. High key so high that it’s actually off-key.

Deleting the offending photo may be the simplest thing. But what are some alternatives? Let’s look at one. Here we have a pasty-white photo of a woman holding a glass of wine. To make matters worse, she has horrific red-eye.

From Overexposed "Trash" to Pop-Art

In this case, I didn’t even try adjusting the exposure in Photoshop. Experience has taught me that this shot is too far gone. I could spend hours and still have no chance of producing a pleasing image. Time to go the artistic route. I started by creating a Posterization adjustment layer (Layer | New Adjustment Layer | Posterize…) in Photoshop. There’s no special reason behind my selection of a Posterization layer, that’s just what my creative muse whispered in my ear as I worked on this image.

From Overexposed "Trash" to Pop-Art

There is no science to using posterization. I simply adjusted the slider by eye. What I was looking for was to keep a degree of detail so my subject remained recognizable but for the posterization effect to be quite evident.

Next I added four separate Photo Filter layers (Layer | New Adjustment Layer | Photo Filter…) I renamed each layer to reflect the filter color used. Once again, there was no real science to this. I went with more or less the standard of blue, green, yellow and red. (Because my subject already had so much red, I had to make some accommodations with the red filter. More on that in a second.) For the blue, green and yellow filter layers I set the opacity to 100% and unchecked the Preserve Luminosity checkbox. This gave me a richly colored palette with only the darkest portions of the original image showing through.

From Overexposed "Trash" to Pop-Art

Also note that I did not keep these layers all visible at once. Clicking the little eyeball icon next to each layer on the layers palette will toggle that layer between visible and invisible. (You can see this on the right edge of the blue layer image shown above. Click on any image in this post to view a larger version.) I wanted to work with just one color at a time and not muddy them all up by mixing them together.

With the red layer, which I labeled as white, I kept the Preserve Luminosity checkbox checked. This is because the dark tones in my image were primarily red and they would not show through in a way that was visually satisfying. By preserving the luminosity, which was already pretty extreme given that I was working from an overexposed original, the effect was a white background with some punched-up reds in the few midtones and shadows I had. It also removed any non-red colors from the image.

From Overexposed "Trash" to Pop-Art

Next I made each of the color layers visible one at a time, merged the visible layers (Layer | Merge Visible) and saved the resulting file with a new name. Then I used Photoshop’s history feature to back up to the image’s pre-merge state so I could repeat the process with the other color layers. In the end, I had four separate files.

Next I made a new image (File | New…) with a canvas size twice as high and twice as wide as my original image. I was then able to copy-paste each of the four colored images into my new image (Photoshop automatically places them on their own layers) and use transform (Select | Transform Selection) to grab the pasted image and drag it around within the frame.

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

From Overexposed "Trash" to Pop-Art

and turn it into this.

From Overexposed "Trash" to Pop-Art

Great art? No. Pop art? Maybe. Imitation? Only if you’ve heard of Andy Warhol. At least it’s better than losing the image entirely. In future installments, we’ll look at more methods for salvaging bad shots.

Jeffrey Kontur is the author of two how-to books on photography, which he promotes via his web site www.MoreSatisfyingPhotos.com

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Jeffrey Kontur
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.

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