Fixing underexposed photos in Lightroom

Header image underexposed

One common problem that may arise when shooting pics is the possibility of ending up with underexposed pictures. Either you were at a moment you had short time to take the shot, so you couldn’t adjust exposure values, or you are brand new to using DSLR cameras.

Fortunately, Lightroom offers us a solution for those inconveniences, via fixing the exposure value inside the Develop tab.

JPG vs RAW – Underexposure comparison

There goes the main issue… how did you shot your picture? If you went RAW, start smiling since there is no single problem for fixing the problem, even more, it is quite common that if you look at a RAW file it may look dull or underexposed.

But… if you went JPG then we have a problem. As JPG does file compression, the image is already processed. This means that If you went wrong through the shooting process, chances of getting similar results of fixing images like with RAW files are almost non-existent. Although you may be able to fix your shot, losing some quality, but after all you just want to be able to look properly at the shot you made, right?.

What the Histogram tells us

Now I am going to do perhaps something a little exaggerated. But how can you say your image is underexposed or overexposed? Look at our best friend in Lightroom: the Histogram.

Underexposed

If the values of the Histogram are tending to a curve going to the left side of it, then the image is underexposed. However, if the values are colliding into the opposite direction, the picture is overexposed.

overexposed

Of course by the looks of those values, you can tell the condition only by looking at the image. The point here is to learn what Histogram is telling us on the image we are processing; if you have some doubts about adjustments you made, look at the Histogram and ask yourself to which side the image tends to go. If the values are centered, then the image is good lit balanced and then you don’t need to keep applying exposure correction.

Lightroom workflow for fixing underexposed photos

Start by loading the photo in question to Lightroom interface. In this case, I am going to work with an old jpg file from the (old, really old) method one of my cameras had for creating HDRs.

As you can see the image is pretty underexposed. So I want to focus my attention on this panel.

Let’s explain how this sliders affect the photo by introducing changes to them

  • Exposure: sets the overall brightness value of your photo. This means, that if your whole image is just too dark, you can increase the exposure so the image will have the look as if you have shot with a longer shutter speed.
  • Highlights: enables you to keep bright spots from becoming too bright. This happens often when increasing the Exposure value, since the edges of your images will start looking washed out given too much light concentrated in those areas.
  • Shadows: is perhaps the most important adjustment for images where only some areas are too dark and most of the picture is properly lit. Keep in mind that you may have to adjust Shadows as well if the Exposure adjustment does not please you.

Adjusting exposure

As you can see, adjusting the overall exposure made the image lit up a bit, but some annoying highlights are starting to show up.
I also added some contrast, in my opinion, it helps JPG files with exposure issues.

Highlights

By reducing the highlights, the image now looks balanced, but it is still too dark. Now it’s the point where you want to switch to Shadows tool, since if you kept increasing the Exposure value, the image will lose plenty of detail, and now we want to increase the lighting conditions only at still dark areas.

Also, it is a wise idea to adjust the Clarity/Vibrance/Saturation sliders for better control of the lighting and colour conditions.

By adding some Clarity, the image will start enhancing its details, but keep it a short amount or you end up losing the realism of the shot you made.

Vibrance and Saturation are regarding to colour management conditions. Since increasing the Exposure values adjusts every pixel to a lighter value, then it also affects the overall colour of the image. Then is necessary to reapply some colour to the whole image. Your best bet is by adjusting Vibrance first, and if the image still looks dull, go for a tiny amount of saturation.

all adjustments

At this point, you can assume the image looks well enough. But if you are still not satisfied with the overall result, go to Tone Curves and start working with the sliders.
In my case, I applied a curve correction at Highlights, Darks, and Shadows, but mostly at Shadows since I felt it was my weak spot.

curves

Increasing Sharpness to your image will depend mostly on the kind of photo you shot. For a macro image is a must, at landscape photography you may not necessarily need to apply it. Noise removal is needed for almost every underexposed portrait you are fixing, as the Exposure slider on JPGs sometimes works as if you increased the ISO values of your camera.

So… you may say: ‘How can I avoid having underexposed photos?’ By learning photography techniques, you can avoid those mistakes, even though professionals also made them from time to time if they are shooting in a rush. As I mentioned before, RAW files had the advantage of preserving the original conditions of the image you shot, so if your camera is RAW-capable please switch as soon as possible to RAW. If you don’t have that possibility, then you have to train your eye to avoid making mistakes, the sooner the better. You can take a look at the procedure of working with RAW files here.

Lightroom can help you to fix this kind of stuff, but it’s not the point to shot over 50 scenes and then spend 2 hours fixing every single image lighting conditions. Practice makes you better, and through the journey of photography you will find the procedure that suits your needs.

Using shortcuts is a good way of speeding up the retouching process, here comes a list of useful Lightroom shortcut for developing your files.

For closing up, in case you are experiencing the opposite problem to this tutorial purpose, you may want to check the How To Fix Overexposed Photographs in Lightroom tutorial

Good luck and happy editing!

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