Ever had an overexposed photo that was destined for the trash? Well, hold up! You may be able to save that thing and turn it into a masterpiece. So before you hit delete, read on for a detailed look at how to save overexposed photographs in Lightroom.
It's far too easy to discount good shots when importing them from your memory card simply because of some technical error. This will happen a lot when you first start image editing because you might not be aware of what the software is capable of. That's especially true of overexposed photos. More often than not it's possible to save a clipped image and turn it into something beautiful. But it all depends on a few things.
First off, you're better editing a raw image file than a JPEG. That's because a raw file contains much more data than a JPEG which is heavily compressed. Even if the camera is flashing up that a shot is overexposed, as long as you're shooting raw you should be able to recover the data through post-processing. If you are trying to save a JPEG then don't despair because there's still a lot you can do, you'll just be a little more limited. So let's take a look at how to save an overexposed photo in Adobe Lightroom Classic.
The Exposure Slider
The first and most obvious step to take is to reduce the exposure value of the entire image. This can be done in Lightroom Classic via the Exposure slider. Dragging it to the left introduces a negative exposure value, thereby making the entire photo uniformly darker. We can make the image darker by up to 5 stops but in this case we only need around -2 stops to make the overexposed shot dark enough to regain the detail in the sky and clouds.
Reduce the Highlights
After making adjustments to the exposure slider you may notice that there are specific sections of the frame that remain overexposed. Instead of lowering the exposure value more and risk underexposing other sections of the frame, you can specifically target these brighter bandwidths by reducing the highlights slider. As you can see above, when reducing the highlights slider affects the brightest section of this photo and helps to retain detail in this area, opening up the sky. The lighter clouds in this photo are now much more visible.
Make Selective Adjustments
If the highlights slider doesn't quite do the job at darkening the highlights then you might want to seek out a more accurate way of working with these areas. The best way to do this is by using the adjustment brush. With the adjustment brush selected reduce the exposure or highlights sliders before painting over the areas you wish you alter. If you're not sure where the brush is making changes simply tick the Show Selected Mask Overlay button at the bottom of the window, or use the keyboard shortcut O to toggle this on and off. By default, you should now see a red overlay mask depicting the affected area.
On some occasions, you'll want to darken one side of a photograph more than another. This is where we use the graduated neutral density filter. It's located at the top of the editing panel on the right, next to the adjustment brush, and its mask can too be toggled using the tick box or the shortcut O. Simply click and drag from one part of your photo to another. The length of the drag will determine the amount of fade between the filter and the unfiltered portion of the frame. Much like a real graduated neutral density filter you can determine the harshness or softness of the fade, but unlike a real-world filter, you can make many more adjustments such as exposure, contrast, texture, clarity, hue, saturation, and more. In our photo, we reduced the exposure slider and also dramatically lowered the highlights slider.
Save Blown Colors
There may be an issue with clipping or overexposure of certain colors in your photo as we can see in our image here. Simply adjusting the exposure values of the shot can sometimes make little difference to this issue because, as in the photo above, one color is less intense than another. So a level of control is required to carve out these colors and change their appearance. That's where the HSL/Color panel comes into play.
In the photo above we've reduced the orange and yellow sliders in the Saturation and Luminance sections in order to tame the bright orange sunset. Now we've done this, the lighter cirrus and stratus clouds can be seen more clearly, refining the otherwise featureless sky into something more dramatic.
Convert to Monochrome
If all else fails, it might be worth converting an image to black and white (or monochrome). This change forces the eye to focus more on light and shadow rather than the tonal fidelity of a color photo, and bright sections when combined with dark sections can look particularly striking. In our photo above we've converted the photo to black and white and boosted the whites slider while attenuating the blacks slider in order to create a wider dynamic range in the shot. The silhouette of the horizon and telegraph pole and lines above now cut through the image and the bright sunset is alluded to not with intense color, but with an extreme white-hot appearance instead.
If in Doubt, Crop It Out
Sometimes no matter how much editing work you do, or how many color conversions you make, there's just no saving an overexposed photograph. That might be because the original image is so overexposed that there's no detail to regain through careful processing, or it may look unreal when you follow the above steps. In this case, the best move to make is to try and crop out the overexposed areas. This will work better with some shots than others. For example, if dealing with an overexposed sky that features only in the top third of the frame, then it might be easy enough to crop this out and this removal of the sky might be something to consider when approaching this type of shot again, where a physical cropping during the photo-taking process would help retain a higher resolution result without the need for post-processing crops later. However, it won't solve the problem if most of your photo consists of the overexposure as in our image above.