Recover detail in underexposed shots

Create perfect single-shot HDR images full of detail in Lightroom, even if you get it wrong in-camera.

Shooting in RAW is often the best way to work. Not only does it provide us with a huge amount of control during post-processing, it also allows us to fix exposure issues.

We’ve all taken an amazing landscape image in a rush, only to find that the exposure isn’t quite what we hoped for. Balancing the difference in exposure for the sky and foreground is one of the biggest challenges facing every landscape photographer.  

When shooting into the light, or where the sky is much brighter than the foreground, underexposure is a common problem because the camera is fooled by the brighter areas of the frame. But we can use this to our advantage.

Underexposed images are full of hidden detail. And when you shoot in RAW this can be easily recovered. Overexposed images unfortunately contain no recoverable detail in blown highlights, so it’s always best to avoid this if possible. Let’s take a look at how we can turn what you thought was a lost image, into a shot you can be proud of.


1. Increase Exposure and Contrast
Select the underexposed image you’d like to recover and select the Develop module in Lightroom. Now drag the Exposure slider to the right until a small amount of detail becomes visible in the shadow areas. At this point, don’t worry about making the exposure of the foreground look perfect. Next increase Contrast to the desired amount. We set Exposure to 1.20 and Contrast to +50.

2. Use Shadows and Highlights
Next drag the Shadow and Highlights sliders to +100 and -100 respectively. Look at high contrast subject edges and make sure there are no halos. If there are, reduce both sliders until the halos disappear. The images will look quite washed out, so you need to use the Whites and Blacks sliders. Increase the Whites slider, and decrease the Blacks slider to add contrast.

3. Apply Luminance Noise Reduction
When recovering detail from underexposed areas and shadows, a problem is that noise can become visible in these areas. Zoom into the image and assess whether you need to use Noise Reduction. If you do scroll down the panel of controls until you see Noise Reduction. You can leave Color at the default 25, or set it to 0 if it’s not needed. Set Luminance to 20 to reduce grain.

4. Correct lens distortions
Next scroll to areas where there are subject edges sitting next to bright areas - this is where chromatic aberration will appear. If it is visible, scroll down to Lens Corrections and check the Remove Chromatic Aberration check box. Zoom out again and then check the Enable Profile Corrections box to remove lens distortions. Now add a slight vignette in the Effects area if you wish.

5. Remove sensor dust
The processing stage is now complete, so output the image to JPEG and open it in Photoshop or Elements. Hold down Ctrl+Shift+N to create an empty New Layer. Zoom into the image and look for sensor dust. Hold down J and select the Healing Brush Tool. Next hold down Alt to sample close to the dust spot, release Alt and left mouse click again over the dust spot to remove it.

Now watch the tutorial video...

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of Practical Photography magazine - download back issues here.