How to Fix an Underexposed Photo

October 31, 2013

Martin Evening is a London-based advertising photographer and noted expert in both photography and digital imaging. As a successful photographer, Martin is well known in London for his fashion and beauty work, for which he has won several awards. In 2008, he was inducted into the NAPP Photoshop Hall of Fame.

In the old days, if you underexposed a film you had to do what was called ‘push processing’ at the developing stage in order to lighten a transparency enough for viewing, or to create a negative that could be printed reasonably well. With digital technology, the camera exposure is quite critical since you don’t always have the same degree of exposure latitude as you had with film emulsions. Even so, it is still possible to carry out quite amazing rescue work on incorrectly exposed images.

With the photograph you see here, I wanted to show how Process 2012 image processing in Adobe Camera Raw (as included with the latest versions of Photoshop and Photoshop Elements) can be used to lighten a dark original capture dramatically. I selected this photograph, which is part of a bracketed exposure sequence, to show just how much detail it is possible to recover from a severely underexposed image.

However, this applies only to raw images. If you have a badly underexposed JPEG, there is little you can do. Even in the case of raw files, how much you can successfully recover from an underexposed photo will depend on the quality of the sensor. In the past five years or so, sensor technology in DSLRs has seen a huge improvement in the handling of noise. With older cameras from, say, ten years ago, the signature noise in the sensor will be a problem.

How to Fix an Underexposed Photo – Step by Step

1. As you can see, the photo that I selected to work with is very underexposed. It may even appear almost completely black in print here, but you should just be able to make out some detail. For the following steps to work, it was essential that this photograph had been captured in raw mode.

2. The first step is to use the Exposure slider in Camera Raw to lighten the image. This photo required a really big Exposure adjustment of +3.8EV to achieve the lightened version seen here.

3. The image is certainly looking a lot brighter now, but it is lacking in contrast. I used the Contrast slider to boost the overall contrast slightly, setting it to +27.

4. Although I have now improved the contrast, the shadows have started to clog up more. To address this, I used the Shadows slider to apply a lightening adjustment to the shadow areas, and used the Whites and Blacks sliders to fine-tune the end points and help expand the tones more.

5. In this step I set the Clarity slider to +25, which helped add some more midtone contrast to the photo. Doing so emphasised the detail in the rocks in the distance, but without disturbing the delicate tonal contrast that I had set globally.

6. Having used the above Basic sliders to lighten the image, the downside is that it amplifies any noise present in the original. To combat this, I adjusted the Noise Reduction sliders as shown here to reduce both the luminance and colour noise.

7. With an image like this, where I have applied a heavy amount of noise reduction, it was inevitable that the noise removal would lead to a softening of the photograph. A trick I have learned here is to go to the Effects panel and add a small amount of grain by adjusting the Grain Amount slider and set the Size to a low amount.

8. After removing the noise and adding a small amount of grain, it was necessary to fine-tune the sharpening. In this step, I applied a relatively high Amount of sharpening with a high Detail setting, but also raised the Masking slider to help prevent the smooth areas of the image from becoming oversharpened, which might otherwise have made the noise artefacts more obvious.

9. The noise reduction that had been applied to the image globally wasn’t completely effective, as can be seen in the shadow areas at the bottom of the picture. What I did here was to select the Adjustment brush in Camera Raw, and with the Noise slider set to +100, painted over the shadow areas in order to apply additional localised noise reduction based on the settings used in Step 6.

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