Underexposed images are a big problem because few levels are available to manipulate, particularly in the shadows. You can use the Basic panel controls in Lightroom to brighten an image and lift out the shadow detail—but it’s important that you work through the Basic image adjustments in the correct order.
When adjusting the tones in an underexposed photograph, the Blacks adjustment can be very sensitive. A small shift of the Blacks slider can make a huge difference. In the following example, I could have opened the shadows more by setting the Blacks slider to 1 or 2. But by choosing 4, I was able to preserve more of the overall contrast.
Corrections for underexposed images like the one in Figure 1 should be done mainly by adjusting the Exposure slider first to set the highlight clipping. This should be followed by an adjustment to the Blacks, and then an adjustment to the Brightness and Contrast.
To improve this image, I followed these steps:
- Dragging the Exposure slider to the right enabled me to preserve all the information in the highlights.
- I adjusted the Blacks so that the shadows were just clipped.
- I used the Fill Light adjustment to lighten the dark shadow areas radically.
- I used the Brightness and Contrast sliders to lighten the midtones further and add more contrast depth.
Figure 2 shows the result. For best results when correcting an overexposure, always approach the Basic controls in the order I’ve just described.