How to Save a Terribly Lit Portrait in Adobe Lightroom

We have all taken a shot where the flash didn't fire, we didn't have any lighting for a sudden moment, or we just made a mistake. If the image is particularly nice in other regards, it can be disappointing. So, here's how you can save portraits that aren't well lit using Adobe Lightroom.

There are some mistakes that are borderline unrecoverable from, even with today's exceptionally malleable raw files. For example, if you have blown out all the highlights there is little you can do to recover the detail. However, it's rare that an image is so far off of the right settings that there's nothing you can do with it, and that's more applicable today than ever before.

When I bought my first DSLR, I immediately shot in raw after I was told to by an experienced photographer, and I'm glad he took the time to make me. However, the amount of flex in older raw files is tantamount to what you can do with JPEGs in many ways. You were able to raise the shadows a little or the overall exposure, but any dramatic changes came at the price of noise and artefacts all over the image. Now, the raw files have so much information, that a modern camera can shoot 2 or 3 stops under the correct exposure — and in some cases even more than that — and recover it in post to the point where it's unnoticeable.

In this video, our friend, Pye Jirsa of SLR Lounge, teams up with Adorama to show how he made an underexposed, poorly lit portrait into something worth posting.

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5 Comments

Matthias Dengler's picture

The skin tones look like she's a tomato.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

How to set your white balance form a white shirt and not see how it messed everything.

Yan Pekar's picture

It could be that the photo was taken just for the purpose of the video. If not then it is not just a terribly lit portrait, but also a terribly chosen location - with overexposed pieces on the ground, too many things on the sides and on the background...in this case, yes, - it is possible to correct the lighting but it would not save the photo, as the lighting is not the only thing which is wrong on this photo.

Andrew Eaton's picture

Really not convinced of his method, depending on the camera you took the shot on, using capture one not Lightroom (hate Lightroom) use the High Dynamic Range Highlight tool to compress the highlights and take info from the raw files dynamic range, a bit of work on levels and a adjustment layer on the skin with a colour temp and tint. Very quick edit..

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

It's easy to be heavy handed with the Highlight slider. White should look white/bright, not dingy. It's good to try to save the highlights everywhere else, but, subject is priority.