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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.


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.

Salvaging Severely Underexposed Photos

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…

Salvaging Severely Underexposed Photos

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.

Salvaging Severely Underexposed Photos

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.

Salvaging Severely Underexposed Photos

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

Salvaging Severely Underexposed Photos

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

Salvaging Severely Underexposed Photos

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

Read more from our Post Production category

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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