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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 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 (I call this the “Triangle of Death!”). 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 #21’s and #50’s white football jerseys have lots of clipped areas).
  • Step Four: In our example here, those jerseys definitely should have detail. 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), 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 only pulls back the very brightest highlights (those super-bright 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 again (as shown here). This is a double-win—you get the brighter exposure the photo needs, but you avoid the clipped highlights that it would normally bring.
  • Step Five: I always start by adjusting the Exposure slider first, and then if I see a clipping warning, I go to the Recovery slider and drag it to the right until my 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 the red clipping warnings get lost), instead, you can press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key as you click-and-drag the Exposure slider. The screen turns solid black, and any areas that are clipping will show up in white (as seen here). You can also hold this same key 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: I’m switching to a different photo for the next step in adjusting our overall exposure, where we’ll use the Blacks slider (we’re skipping over the Fill Light slider until Chapter 6, because it’s for when you have 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 them. I drag this slider to the right any time my photo looks washed out, because it can bring back color and depth to shadow areas (the original image is shown on top here, and in the bottom, I increased the Blacks and the Recovery amount to bring back detail in the sky). I’m not nearly as concerned with losing shadow detail as I am highlight detail, but if you’re a “shadow detail freak”, 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.
  • Step Eight: The Brightness slider (circled here) acts as a midtones slider (if you’re familiar with Photoshop’s Levels control, it’s like the center midtones slider). To brighten the midtones, click-and-drag to the right (to darken the them, drag to the left). I grab this slider anytime I have a washed-out sky—lowering the amount of brightness can make the sky look rich and blue again (in the before/after shown here, I lowered the Brightness amount to −20, but then it looked a little dark, so I increased the Exposure amount a little bit to brighten things back up). We ignore the Contrast slider here (dragging it to the right makes the bright areas brighter and the darker areas darker), because we add contrast with a 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 (shown circled here in red). This function has been getting better and better since Lightroom 1 (where clicking it was a huge mistake), and now in Lightroom 3, they’ve made it even better by adding in the ability to also adjust the Fill Light amount when it does an auto toning of your image. Anytime you’re stuck not knowing what to do with a photo, at least give Auto Tone a try. It’s now a lot better than you’d think.
  • Step 12: Here’s the image after clicking the Auto Tone button. You can see that while it doesn’t do a totally kick-butt job, it doesn’t do a rotten job either (so it’s at least usable as a starting point, if you’re stuck about where to start). Sometimes it works great, other times...not so much, but at least now it’s usable. One thing to watch out for: I can’t explain why, but sometimes when you use it, it will actually tweak the image, so it now has clipped highlights. I know—ideally it should know better, but sometimes it just doesn’t, so keep an eye out for that, and if it does clip your highlights, drag the Recovery slider to the right until they go away.

    Okay, that’s the basic three sliders you’ll use to adjust your exposure. I wind up using the Exposure slider the most, the Blacks second most, and the Brightness the least of the three. You’ll find that some images need just a tweak of the Exposure slider, and some need all three, but luckily now you know what they do.

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