How to Rescue an Underexposed Image in Lightroom 3


The other day, while on a coffee break with two co-workers, I decided to bring along my Canon 5D Mk II and snap photos along the way. The photo on the left was snapped after I rushed in front of the two women seen in the image. However, it was actually terribly underexposed. Here's how I fixed it in Lightroom 3 to look more balanced, and give it a gorgeous look with muted tones.

The Original

The photo above is the original image. When I shot it, I chimped the back of my camera and thought to myself, "Wow, that's a dark image, but I'll be able to save it in Lightroom, I'm sure."

Sure enough, it was actually quite simple to do. My co-workers already provided me with great subject matter, but there is a third character in this image that makes it even better—New York City. There is something about images of New York that always make you feel as if you're there, and this is one of them.

And now, on to the editing.

In the Lightroom

After importing the image into Lightroom 3, one can immediately see that the histogram on the top right corner is skewed to the left. This means that the image is very dark (underexposed) and needs to be adjusted.

Adjusting the exposure slider bar accordingly brings out lots of detail in their faces and other darker areas of the image. In this case, the exposure was raised +2.20 stops. In effect, the histogram is also more spread out along the left and right portions.

After that, I clicked on the top right- and left-hand areas of the histogram to show me the highlight clipping, and to see just how much of the image was underexposed. Note that the highlights are in the red and the darks are in the blue.

To get rid of the overexposed areas, I used the Recovery slider, and raised it up quite a bit. Now we can see the details in the sky again. Granted, the light on the building is still quite bright, but it isn't quite worrisome. Therefore I left it alone.

To adjust the dark areas accordingly, I played with the Fill Light slider. I only raised this a small amount, because I really don't care to see whatever was hiding underneath the car. However, that is just an opinion. You could very well want to see the kitties that hide in the darkness in NYC.

At this point, the image is actually starting to look really nice. It has a very vintage and film-like look to it. However, I wanted a bit more warmth to the image. To do this, I raised the color temperature.

After raising the color temperature I felt that the tint was a bit too purple, so I tinkered with it to set the levels according to the way I liked it.

Once again, this is all just adjusting the image to my taste.

After tinkering with the tint levels, I went back to the color temperature and began to play with it a bit more. Please note that the amount of tweaking that I'm doing at this point is really just for minor touch up.

Continuing with the touch ups, I added a bit of contrast to the image, to make the already muted colors pop a bit more, though stay muted.

The contrast took away from the muted look of the image. Instead of lowering it, I kept it and lowered the vibrance of the colors.

To make the colors in the photo stay muted but look a bit more wet, I raised the saturation. This added some extra warmth to the image.

Now that the image was mostly finished, I decided to check my composition. Because the image was shot at the full 21MP output of the 5D Mk II, I can crop almost as liberally as I want to. However, I felt that cropping the image would make it lose its feel. As you can see, according to the rule of thirds the composition is very good as it is.

To make the image pop even more, I applied a bit of sharpening.

To make the sharpness adjustment take even more effect, I raised the radius level. Now the image pops quite a bit more than it did.

Since I raised the sharpness levels and the exposure levels, I needed to get rid of the extra image noise. First, I lowered the Luminance noise a bit until I saw the girl's face become a bit smoother, but without losing significant details.

And after this, the image was finished and ready for exporting.

If you have questions or comments on how we edited the image, or why we did it this way, please share them in the comments below. And here they are side by side:

If you want to learn more, take a look at our postings on Minor Retouching in Photoshop and Salvaging Discolored Concert Photos.