It’s happened to every photographer…
You think you nailed the perfect shot, but then when you get home and load the images onto your computer, you realize that your perfect shot is actually overexposed.
Luckily, Lightroom is one of the best tools you have for this, especially if you shot your image in RAW.
To fix overexposed photos in Lightroom, you should use a combination of adjusting the exposure, highlights, and whites of the image and then use the other adjustments to compensate for any loss of contrast or dark areas of the image that result.
Keep An Eye On The Histogram
The first step towards fixing overexposed images is recognizing when an image is overexposed, where the overexposure is, and how bad it is.
To start with, hit the “J” keyboard shortcut to activate the Clipping Indicators. That will activate a feature in Lightroom that identifies areas of overexposure right on the image by overlaying those areas with red.
If the only areas of overexposure are small spots like a light bulb or a window, then maybe you don’t need to do anything. Sometimes, it’s ok to have small parts of an image overexposed so long as they aren’t distracting from the subject of the image.
You should also take a look at the histogram. That’s the graph that you’ll see in the upper right of your Lightroom Develop module.
This graph is a visual representation of how many pixels are in the photo at each level of luminosity. The brighter the pixel, the farther to the right of the graph it will be represented. The more pixels there are of a specific luminosity value, the higher the graph will be in that spot.
If the graph is higher on the right side, that means there are a lot of bright pixels in the image. If the graph is pressed flat against the right side, that is an indicator that a portion of your image is overexposed.
Remember that, even in Lightroom, the histogram is based on the software rendering a JPEG of the image, not on the actual RAW information captured by the camera. So even if you see a portion of the histogram pressed up against the right side of the histogram, you may still be able to recover a good amount of that if you shot in RAW.
Use A Combination Of The Luminosity Sliders
I like to start here because this will adjust the overall exposure of the image. If the entire image is overexposed, then simply moving this slider to the left can be all you need to fix the image.
The downside to using the exposure slider is that it will lower the brightness of the entire image so any dark areas of the image will just get darker.
But that can be corrected later on as you’ll see below.
Most modern cameras actually recover darker areas better than they recover overexposed areas, so going forward, you may want to err on the side of underexposing. But get to know your camera and see how it handles different situations.
The highlights slider affects only the bright areas of the image but not the brightest areas. I use this slider next to try and recover the overexposed parts of the image.
Move the slider to the left and you’ll see the brighter parts of the image becoming less bright. Even if your histogram shows pixels all the way to the right side, the highlights slider may be able to recover most of the overexposed pixels.
If that doesn’t work then try the next option.
The whites adjustment will affect only the brightest parts of the image. The reason I use this third is because lowering the whites will tend to decrease the contrast in the image even more than the highlights slider.
So you may be wondering why the Shadows adjustment has anything to do with fixing an overexposed image…
You can use the shadows slider to recover any areas that may have gotten too dark after you went through steps 1-3 (usually it’s step 1 that affects the shadows).
Finally, you may need to increase the contrast of the image after lowering the luminosity of the bright areas.
If you have gone through 1-4 above and your image looks dull and “flat,” then move the contrast slider to the right until the image regains it’s crispness.
Sometimes, you want to be more precise than the adjustments above will allow. The good news is that Lightroom will let you do more targeted adjustments.
Graduated Filter with Luminosity Targeting
One of the newer exciting additions to Lightroom has been the ability to use luminosity targeting (or range masking). This has been possible in Photoshop for years and just came to Lightroom more recently.
It allows you to choose which luminosity (or brightness) values will be targeted by whatever adjustments you make. The downside is that it’s only available in the targeted adjustment tools like the graduated filter, the radial filter, and the brush tool.
My favorite way to use this on the entire image is by pulling a graduated filter across the entire image. You can also be more specific with the graduated filter if you have a specific portion of the image you want to target, such as a sky that might be overexposed.
Then you choose “Luminance” at the bottom next to where it says “Range Mask.”
You’ll then be able to use the Range slider to choose which luminosity values you want to target. You’ll choose a high and a low (from a scale of 0-100, with 100 being the brightest).
Try limiting your adjustments to only the higher values and then make your changes.
How To Fix Overexposed Faces In Lightroom
Overexposed faces can be one of the trickier things to handle in Lightroom. It’s good to have the faces of your subjects be a little brighter than the rest of the frame to make sure the viewer is focused on them, but sometimes you might overdo it a little.
The best approach for fixing overexposed faces in Lightroom is to use an adjustment brush.
Make sure auto masking is turned on and that the feathering is set to at least 60 or above. I tend to leave the feathering at 100 unless I have a reason to change it.
Press the “O” button to show the red overlay of where you are applying the brush adjustment and then paint on the overexposed face, being careful to keep the little plus sign in the center of the brush within the boundaries of the face you are applying the changes to.
From there you can use the use the same process above with the Exposure, Highlights, Whites, Shadows, and Contrast sliders applied specifically to that area you brushed on.
How To Fix An Extremely Overexposed Photo
The last thing we’ll talk about is attempting to recover an extremely overexposed photo. That may or may not be possible.
Sometimes an image is just not salvageable and trying to do so will just result in a sub-par image. You may have to do this if it is a one time opportunity to get the photo, but keep in mind that there are limitations.
Let The Bright Areas Go Completely White
In these situations, sometimes the best option is to go with it. Just focus on your subject and let other areas of the image be completely blown out to white.
This can happen if you are photographing a person with bright backlighting. Trying to recover the background might just turn it an ugly gray, so concentrate on the important part of the image (the person in my example).
Pay Attention To The Histogram Next Time!
This probably isn’t what you want to hear, but you may just have to take it as a learning experience and remember to keep a close eye on the histogram in your camera next time!