Lightroom SOS – how to rescue badly exposed, noisy shots

With the best will in the world, there are times we can’t get it quite right in camera. Maybe the light is poor, or we haven’t bought along a fast enough/long enough lens, or we just aren’t very with it that day.

If you shoot in raw files and use Lightroom, however, it’s amazing what you can recover. Lightroom is also good for removing the most obvious manifestations of noise.

Again, sometimes you can’t avoid generating some noise at higher ISOs, particularly if you are shooting in negligible light without recourse to wide-aperture lenses or flash.

Lightroom does have its limits though, so before anybody writes in to accuse us of encouraging photographers to be lazy, this tutorial is not about using ‘post’ as a crutch.

A properly exposed image will always yield better results in Lightroom, Photoshop CS or whatever else you use.

How to rescue a bad exposure in Adobe Lightroom

1) Assess the histogram

As mentioned, you will get the best results if you shoot raw. An over or underexposed JPEG is going to much harder to work on, as you’re not getting the maximum resolution and some sharpening has already been applied.

For our example raw image, taken near a famous bridge in the gothic quarter of Barcelona, we can see from the histogram that it’s quite badly exposed, but not disastrously so. So the first job is to move the Exposure slider over to see what we can retrieve.

2) Check highlights and shadow

We don’t have to move the slider too far before the Histogram starts to look healthier, but turning on the Highlights warning indicates a pretty featureless sky. Moving the highlights slider back a bit helps.

Other essential jobs at this stage include gently boosting contrast, to help the image look a bit crisper. Clarity can also be nudged up, but don’t get too carried away. It’s a similar process for correcting overexposure, but it’s going to be hard to get much back at all from a totally blown out image.

3) Consider your colour options

Looking at the subject matter of this image, it works better in black and white – the noise generated by fixing some of that underexposure may help to give it a classically ‘grainy’ look too.

So, we convert to black and white using the tools under the Basic panel. Even though it’s a mono conversion, you will still need to adjust the colour sliders: the red slider can darken skies and make them less washed out, while the green slider lighten greens and blue tones and darkens red and orange.

Try adding a gentle S curve to the Tone Curve for stronger contrast, or use one of the many excellent film-emulation presets available for Lightroom – here we’ve applied Tri-X+2 from VSCO.com’s Film Pack 5.

4) Enhance shadows, reduce noise, sharpen

Even the best presets are only a starting point, so further work is needed to deepen the shadows and bolster the blacks. Fixing the underexposure in step 1 has generated obvious noise, which was already present as we shot at ISO 1600, so noise reduction is essential.

Knocking the Luminance back to about 30 removes some of the grain, while Detail and Contrast can be incrementally adjusted too.

Be realistic about what you can achieve when fixing a very underexposed image, however, and zoom in to 100% to check how it’s looking. When sharpening, again, do it incrementally and set the Masking slider relatively low so you aren’t sharpening low-detail areas.

5) Lens corrections and vignetting

The final jobs are to fix any horizontal or vertical lens distortions, so the perspective of the image looks as accurate as possible – this is often more of an issue if you use a zoom lens.

The Lens Correction Basic tab fixes the most obvious lens aberrations while converging verticals (where the edges of buildings appear to lean in) and other issues can be fine-tuned via the Manual tab.

Finally, we add some vignetting (corner darkening, or lightening) to increase the atmosphere.

There you have it – five minutes in Lightroom has turned a rather uninspiring and badly exposed shot into something that, while no masterpiece, is more usable and eye catching than the average tourist snap. Adding a split tone to this kind of moody image can work well too.