In the first year or so of learning how to edit images, photographers are completely bombarded by information regarding the dos and don’ts for what makes a good photo. This is one area of post-processing that continues to be misinterpreted.
In this article I want to talk about blown highlights. Contrary to what you might think, if your image has blown highlights, you didn’t necessarily “blow it.” In editing, beginner photographers sometimes trust what they hear over what they see. This can be very evident in how clipped windows or skies are handled in post-processing, bringing them from white down to a gray.
I got rid of that clipping warning, boss.
The Cause of Misunderstanding
There’s no blame or shame here. I’ve done it, and most people reading this have probably done it before too. There’s just so much to learn with photo editing that no one can be expected to get it right straight away.
What I think happens is that photographers fairly quickly learn about the clipping mask in their editor. The first thing they are told about the clipping mask is that when it shows up that means their photo needs work and the best way to do this is boosting the shadows or dropping the highlights.
There is a caveat to this, however. When the camera’s sensor doesn’t have any data recorded for areas that exceeded its dynamic range, dropping the highlights doesn’t bring any detail back and instead the editor will begin to turn the pure whites into pure gray.
This creates a conflict, because a beginner is trusting the software and their teachers over what they can plainly see in the resulting image; Gray open windows in an interior photograph, a gray sun in a landscape, or gray specular highlights shining off a car.
Managing Blown Highlights in Post-Processing
For open windows, probably the best way to manage this after a shoot is to let it be. Windows that are pure white do not look unnatural in a photograph, despite the fact that our eyes have the dynamic range capability to see both inside and out in real life. You’ve probably seen thousands of images that you liked that didn’t have any detail through the windows. However, now that your are scrutinizing your own image, suddenly it might look wrong. But don’t fret, blowing out the outside detail in windows is a great way to simplify an image which makes for a stronger connection to what was important that you were photographing inside.
For landscapes, a common mistake is to bring back highlights for everything including the sun. Unfortunately, most sensors can not capture the dynamic range of everything in a landscape scene plus the sun in frame for one photo. There are a couple options here, one being to return the highlights as far as it will go but don’t enter into the gross gray area. This will leave you with some pure whites, but like the windows, nothing looks unnatural in a photograph when the middle of the sun in pure white; the same can not be said when the sun is gray. Another method I will sometimes use involves split toning. In essence, using split toning on the highlights and filling the sun in just a touch with a creamy yellow will get it looking a little healthier. When I say a touch, I do mean just a small 1 percent difference between being pure white; do not overdo it or we’re no better off than the sun being a gray blob.
If the sky itself is completely gone to white, there’s the option to perform a sky replacement in certain cases. Check out this tutorial for further details on how to do it in Photoshop.
Lastly, one other area that commonly gets reduced to gray are specular highlights. These are the bright, flashy, sparkly reflections that come off reflective surfaces. This one is easy, because if you see these in an image, you know to always leave them as pure white. Even in person, these bright reflections are blinding to look at and are hot white.
Do you have a favorite way of dealing with blown highlights? Leave your tips and tricks in the comments below.