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How to Recover an Underexposed (dark) Photo

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

We have all done it so many times, like don't worry. Underexposing a photo happens to everyone. When that photo is important and you really want to bring it back to life, well you have come to the right place. I'm going to show you a few really easy methods to get that picture back! The software I am using is Lightroom, but the same techniques can be used in other softwares using the same sliders.

That's the picture I'm going to be taking you through. This is one of those moments where I saw the bird last min flying to where I wanted to be. Scrambled to get my shutter speed fast enough to capture it, and didn't manage to change any of my other settings. End result being the bird was sharp (thank god, not really got much of a chance of recovering a blurred bird) but the photo was underexposed.

Taking the photo in raw instead of jpeg will help a lot. You can however use this same exact method on a jpeg. But please, for future reference, always shoot in raw! Even if that means taking a raw and jpeg for each shot (most cameras can do this just google your model and how to set it up).

First step is to get your exposure slider at the top and slide it over to the right.

That's already looking miles better right? There are a few problems that will crop up when using this slider, first being sharpness and noise.

When you zoom into the photo, one of the side effects of increasing the exposure like this is an increase in noise like you can see below.

All that grain is not cool, I mean unless that's the look you are going for. In which case ignore this part. If you want your photo to look crisp and silky smooth then come on down to the detail panel.

Try something like this- Sharpening up to 70 (this will initially make the photo more noisy but you don't want to lose details when you apply noise reduction). Radius down to 0.5, detail on full (wack it up!!). Then you are ready to pull the noise reduction up. I'd start with about 30 and move it around according to how much noise you have in the image and how sharp you want it to be. These settings are a great starting point though. If you don't understand this panel then I go into a lot more detail (excuse the pun!) here!

Looking miles less noisy now right? Keep in mind that this part of my photo is intentionally out of focus, so if yours is supposed to be in focus then make sure this is sharp!

So you've got your photo nicely exposed and sharp (without noise) now what?

I applied my preset, which I may one day make available to the public but not yet decided on that. For now you can apply your own preset or just have a play around with the other sliders. Then I play with the exposure just a little more using radial and graduated filters.

Let's grab the graduated filter as shown above, then click and drag the wider apart the lines the more feathered (gradual) the effect is. Then (yes I know this is somewhat counterintuitive for a blog about recovering underexposed photos) lets reduce the exposure of the sky, as shown above. You can see the red is showing where the effect is going to take place and then you can see I have taken the exposure down 0.56. This is usually the case with landscape shots, the sky is more than likely brighter than the foreground so we can get them to match up nicer.

Then we are going to use radial filters to brighten certain parts of the photo and darken others, just to refine it a little more.

Same as graduated filters but more of an oval shape, you click and drag over the area using the icon I've circled at the top there. It's always nice to add a little more exposure to the area of the photo you want the viewers eye to go to first. So you can see I've circled around the bird and cliffs then added 0.42 exposure to that.

Then just a little more honed in on the bird a 0.15 increase, again this is really cool to do on your subject.

Then finally, just one more over the foreground to darken it a little and draw attention more towards the subject area. Using a combination of radial and graduated filters after recovery can help to really refine your image. Leaving you with an awesome final result like this.

There you go, an underexposed photo brought back to light. You can use these methods on any kind of image, and on any kind of software that supports these sliders and filters. If you have any questions don't hesitate to get in contact through my facebook group here!


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