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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. Although there is an Exposure slider, it takes three sliders (and sometimes four) to set the overall exposure. Luckily, not only is this much easier than it sounds, Lightroom has all kinds of tools to help make your job easier.

Step One:

To set your overall exposure, you use the Tone section of the Basic panel (that section is shown within a red rectangle here). The photo shown here (taken outdoors with a close-up macro lens) looks underexposed, and if you look up in the Histogram panel at the top of the right side Panels area, you can see there’s virtually no data on the right side of the histogram (that’s where all the highlights should be). So if you were wondering, “Is it underexposed?” well, there’s your answer.

Step Two:

To make the overall photo brighter, just click-and-drag the Exposure slider to the right, as shown here (just like with the White Balance sliders, you get a visual cue of which way to drag by looking at the slider itself—white is on the right side of the slider, so dragging right [toward white] would make this adjustment lighter, and dragging left [toward black] would make things darker). Easy enough. However, there’s one critically important thing to watch out for: if you drag too far to the right, you run the risk of losing detail in your highlights (in other words, your highlights get so bright that they literally “blow out” and you lose all detail in those areas). This is called “clipping” your highlights, and luckily Lightroom not only warns you if this happens, but in most cases, you can also fix it.

Step Three:

If you look again at the Histogram panel at the top of the right side Panels area, you’ll see a triangle in the top-right corner. That is the highlight clipping warning triangle, and ideally, this triangle should always stay solid black. If it turns blue, it means you’re losing highlight detail, but just in the Blue channel (which isn’t great, but it’s not the worst thing in the world). If it’s red or green, you’re losing detail in that channel. However, the worst-case scenario is that it appears solid white (as shown here), which means all three channels have lost detail, and your highlights are totally clipped. But here’s the critical question: Are you clipping off highlights in an area of important detail? If not, you can ignore the warning (for example, if you have a shot where you can see the sun, that sun is going to clip, but there’s no detail there anyway, so we ignore it). To find out where you’re clipping, click on that white triangle, and the areas that are clipping will appear in solid red (as seen here, where we’re clipping highlights inside the two water droplets).

Step Four:

So, in our example here, the red areas are inside those two water droplets, and I think those areas should have detail. Now, if you lower the Exposure slider, the clipping will go away, but your exposure will be too dark again. If this happens to you (and believe me, it will. Daily), then grab the Recovery slider—one of the most brilliant features in all of Lightroom. As you click-and-drag the Recovery slider to the right, it pulls back only the very brightest highlights (those areas that were clipping), so it doesn’t trash your overall exposure—you just drag to the right until the red warnings on your photo go away, and your triangle is black (as shown here).

Step Five:

So when processing your photos, always start by adjusting the Exposure slider first, and then if you see a clipping warning, go to the Recovery slider and drag it to the right until your highlights come back into line. By the way, if you don’t like seeing the clipped areas appear in red (or if you’re working on a photo with a lot of red in it already, so you can’t easily see the red clipping warnings), you can use a second method instead: press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key as you click-and-drag the Exposure slider and any areas that are clipping will show up in white (as seen here). You can also hold these same keys as you click-and-drag the Recovery slider, and you just keep dragging until all the areas turn solid black again.

Step Six:

We’re going to jump over to a different photo for a just a moment, to tell you about another hidden benefit of using the Recovery slider: it works wonders in adding detail and drama to skies in landscape shots (especially ones with lots of clouds). Just click-and-drag the Recovery slider all the way over to the right (to 100), and watch what it does for your skies. Give it a try and see what you think.

Step Seven:

Okay, back to the macro shot. In adjusting our overall exposure, the next thing we use is the Blacks slider (we’re intentionally skipping over the Fill Light slider until Chapter 6, because this slider is for when you’re in trouble with a backlighting situation). The Blacks slider adjusts the darkest shadow areas in your photo, and dragging to the right increases the amount of black in the shadows—dragging to the left lightens up those shadow areas. I drag this slider to the right (as shown here) any time my photo looks washed out, because it can bring back color and depth to your shadow areas big time. Although, personally, I’m not nearly as concerned with losing shadow detail as I am highlight detail, if you’re a “shadow detail freak” (and you know who you are), you can use the histogram’s top-left corner triangle as your shadow clipping warning, or press J, and any shadow areas that are clipping will appear in blue on your photo. Just keep this in mind: which is more important, that you either keep detail in your shadow area, or that the overall photo looks good? ‘Nuf said.

Step Eight:

The Brightness slider (shown circled here in red) acts as a midtones slider (so if you’re familiar with Photoshop’s Levels control, think of this as the center midtones slider). To brighten up the midtones a bit, click-and-drag this slider to the right (to darken the midtones, of course, you’d drag to the left). This slider has a broad, coarse range, so be careful not to push it so far to the right that you start clipping highlights (keep an eye on your highlight clipping triangle). We’re going to ignore the pretty awful Contrast slider, because we add contrast with a much more powerful tool (the Tone Curve), which you’ll learn about shortly.

Step Nine:

The Histogram panel at the top of the right side Panels area is helpful because, by just looking at it, you can tell if your highlights are blown out. For example, if your histogram shows a bunch of pixels stacked up against the far right-side wall, it tells you right there that plenty of your highlights are clipped (ideally, you’d have a little gap at the right end of your graph, with nothing touching the right-side wall). But beyond just giving you a readout, it can help you figure out which slider adjusts which part of the histogram. Try this: move your cursor over part of the histogram and then look directly below the histogram itself, and you’ll see not only the name of the slider which affects that part of the histogram, it even highlights the number field of that slider down in the Tone section for you to make it easier to find (as seen here). Here, my cursor is over the far-right side, and you can see that the Recovery slider is what would affect that far-right side of the histogram. Pretty helpful—but there’s more.

Step 10:

You can actually click-and-drag anywhere right on the histogram itself, and as you drag left or right, it literally moves that part of the histogram (and the accompanying slider) as you drag. That’s right, you can do your corrections by just dragging the histogram itself. You gotta try this—just move your cursor up over the histogram, click, and start dragging. By the way, in all honesty, I don’t personally know anyone that actually corrects their photos by dragging the histogram like this, but it sure is fun just to give it a try.

Step 11:

One thing we haven’t talked about thus far is the Auto Tone button, which appears above the Exposure slider. Back in Lightroom 1, I wouldn’t touch it on a bet (I called it the “overexpose my photo” button), but in Lightroom 2, Adobe came up with a new algorithm that now does a pretty decent job with it. Take a look at the before/after photo shown here, and you can see that while it doesn’t do a totally kick-butt job, it doesn’t do a rotten job either (at least now it might move you in the right direction, so you might use it as a starting point). Sometimes it works great, other times...not so much, but at least now it’s usable.

Step 12:

If you want to see a before and after during your editing process (I find this really helpful), then you’ll want to know these shortcuts: To see the Before photo at any time, press the Backslash key on your keyboard, then press it again to see your After photo already in progress. Or, you might actually prefer seeing your before and after side by side (as shown here), in which case, you’d press the letter Y (or Shift-Y for a split-screen view). Also, if you click your cursor on the photo to zoom in, it zooms in both photos to the same magnification, which is very helpful. So, to recap this whole process: Start by adjusting the Exposure slider to get the overall brightness correct, and then use the Recovery slider, only if you have clipped highlights. Next, adjust your blacks, especially if the photo looks washed out, and lastly you’ll adjust your midtones using the Brightness slider.

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