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How to Set Your Overall Exposure

Now that your white balance is set, the next thing we adjust is our overall exposure. Your basic exposure is set with just two sliders—Exposure and Contrast—and I wish all my images could be fixed with just these two. I usually have to reach for a few more, but this is where we start, so we’d better learn ‘em up front.

Step One: Here’s our image opened in Lightroom’s Develop module. Seeing your image at a decent size is pretty important, so I recommend (at least at this point) that you close the left side Panels area because we’re not going to need those panels right now (maybe later, but not now). So, just press F7 on your keyboard, or just click on the little gray left-facing triangle (shown circled here in red) on the far left to collapse it and tuck it out of sight.

Step Two: Look how much more room you have to see your image now that you’ve closed the left side Panels area—definitely worth doing while you’re editing your photos. By the way, you can hide the top taskbar and get an even bigger image onscreen—just press F5 on your keyboard to hide it—though I’m leaving it visible here, since we’re just starting our work in the Develop module.

Step Three: To set your overall exposure, you’ll use the Tone section in the Basic panel (shown within a red rectangle here). The photo here looks pretty bright (overexposed), and it looks pretty flat contrast-wise, too. To make the overall photo darker, just click-and-drag the Exposure slider to the left (as shown here, where I dragged it down to –0.80). You can see by doing that it brought back some detail in the sky (you could hardly see the clouds in the original image; seen in Step Two). Keep this little tip in mind: to see more clouds, lower the Exposure (if it makes the image too dark, don’t worry, you’ll learn other techniques in this chapter to get it to look balanced again).

Step Four: This photo was already too bright from the start, but I thought I’d show you what dragging the Exposure slider to the right does—it brightens the overall image (as seen here, where it’s now way too bright). However, this really gives you an idea of how powerful this one slider is in choosing your overall exposure (this slider controls the midtones in your image, and part of the lower highlights, as well, so it’s pretty important). One thing to remember (that I mentioned earlier in my Editing Cheat Sheet): dragging any of these sliders here to the right makes that adjustment brighter (or increases the effect) and dragging to the left makes it darker (or decreases the effect). Okay, that’s what the Exposure slider does, and it’s the first slider I set every time.

Step Five: Now, let’s set our Exposure back to –0.80, so it looks better, but even though the exposure now looks better (well, to me anyway), it still looks kinda flat (see the image back in Step Three and you’ll see what I mean). So, let’s add in some contrast. As I also mentioned earlier in my Editing Cheat Sheet, I rarely (if ever) lower the Contrast amount, but I almost always raise it a bit (of course, how high I raise it depends on the image). In this case, I dragged the Contrast slider over to the right to +62 (by the way, I’m not doing any of this “by the numbers.” I do it based on how the image looks onscreen as I’m dragging a slider and, in this case, when I stopped dragging it was at +62).

Step Six: The Contrast slider makes the brightest parts of the image brighter and the darkest parts darker, which makes the image look more contrasty overall. In this case, once I cranked up the Contrast, I thought the image looked a tiny bit too dark (remember, contrast makes the darkest parts darker), so after you add Contrast, don’t be surprised if you have to go back to the Exposure slider and make a tiny adjustment to get things looking more balanced. Here, since the darks did get darker, I adjusted the Exposure slider so it wasn’t so dark, moving it to the right from –0.80 to –0.65.

Note: If you’re coming to Lightroom 5 from Lightroom version 3 or 2, you might be surprised to learn that the Contrast slider actually works now (we used to joke that the Contrast slider in those older versions wasn’t actually connected to anything).

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