Update: I switched from a simple WordPress blog to a MODX powered portfolio page for my webdesign and photography work. My (few) old posts are still accessible from the previous URLs but I don't know if I will be posting any more English blog posts in the future as it is much easier for me to post in German. Just so you know if you reached this post via Google and are wondering about the website being German. Thanks for visiting my website and enjoy the read!
Everybody knows the feeling: You get home from a party, a concert or some other event and most of your images are just plain too dark or, even worse, just not sharp due to people moving too quickly. Or you chose to shoot with a flash and although the faces are pretty well-lit, there is no background to create any atmosphere in the photo and it just looks plain and artificial. Well here are some basic instructions for Lightroom to get the most out of your dark photos.
In the Future: Shoot RAW!
If you don’t know what a RAW-file is, it basically means that the camera stores the original data from the image sensor and does not compress the photo in any way. This will help you restoring areas of the photo which are to dark by brightening them up in post-production. It also helps to minimize the image noise, which occurs at higher ISO-settings.
The only downside to shooting in RAW is file size. Depending on your camera, the uncompressed files are between 20 and 40 Megabytes big which is huge in comparison to JPEG. Those are normally between 4 and 8 MB in file size. But believe me: It’s worth it!
If you shoot RAW, you can easily underexpose your photo a little bit in order to get everything sharp and correct the exposure later on in post production.
Use Lightroom to Recover Those Dark Areas
With Lightroom you have multiple ways to tackle the problem of images which happen to be too dark.
Exposure sets the overall brightness of your photo. This means, that if your whole image is just too dark, you can increase the exposure and the whole image will be brighter as as if you would have used a longer shutter speed.
Highlights enables you to keep bright spots from being too bright. For example if you increase the exposure and some part of your image is getting too bright and borders on being washed out, you can decrease the Highlights and get them back to a reasonably level. This adjustment is usually used in images which are too bright and not too dark.
Shadows is THE adjustment for images where only some areas are too dark and most of the picture is properly lit. In the shot below you can see a situation with difficult lighting. The sign in the upper left is well-lit, while almost everything else is close to being pitch black.
Those three adjustments are enough to correct most dark photos.
Here is a screenshot of the Lightroom 4 Develop Module and the adjustments I chose for the example picture:
- Exposure: +1.05 (Slightly adjusted for overall brighter image)
- Contrast: +25 (Increased contrast for better colors)
- Highlights: -31 (Decreased to keep the lights at a reasonable level)
- Shadows: +47 (Increased a lot to get more information out of the previously almost pitch black shadows)
- Clarity: +40 (I like the effect and it makes the image appear sharper as well)
- Vibrance: +20 (Warmer and stronger colors – but not too much!)
Lastly a Before & After of the photo above. I shot this photo in RAW, which enabled me to recover a lot of the really dark areas in the top and bottom of the image. It’s almost a night and day difference.
Reduce Image Noise
If you shot the image at a high ISO setting or used either an older DSLR or a compact camera, you may want to reduce the image noise, which becomes especially apparent if you increase the exposure or play with the shadows adjustment. You can decrease the noise with Lightroom and it normally does a pretty good job! Just don’t overuse it!
The setting is found in the Develop Module under “Detail”. I usually just increase the Luminance slider to 20-30 and if the image appears a little soft I apply some sharpening to the image. (Again, not too much!)
Go out and experiment!
Now you know everything you need to get more out of your dark images, but to really get the most out of them, you need to find your own style and workflow. Since every picture you take is different, there is no standard recipe which you can apply to every picture. So go and play around with those fancy sliders and get some light in your photos!