To master photography, you have to master one critical element of nature – light. Of course, there’s the usual stuff of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. But all three move around the pivot of light or exposure. There may be the good golden hour for taking the best shots, but in my opinion there is no bad time to take a photograph. In fact, a photographer has to make do with whatever light is available and construct the best shot out of it. Light after all, not only varies during the day, it also varies throughout the year.
If you are a photographer and have a good sense of light (with or without a light meter), this tutorial is not for you. You probably know how to fix overexposed or underexposed photos. The target audience here is the wannabe photographer who is just starting to come to grips with shutter speeds, aperture, and ISO, and still coming up short with photos that have just taken in too much sunlight.
So, let’s see how we can fix an overexposed photo with the tool of choice – Photoshop (here, I am using Adobe Photoshop CS5).
Understanding the problem – Overexposure
In simple terms, an overexposed photo means it is too bright. A photo gets overexposed when too much of light enters through the lens. It happens easily enough when you take a photo in direct sunlight or the light source is too strong for the subject. Photographers use the term “washed out” for such photos. It is easy to recognize an overexposed photo as whites will appear too white and colors will be too bright and saturated beyond their normal tones. For instance, the photo below is too bright and you can see the loss in detail wherever there are lighter tones.
Many digital cameras have automatic bracketing or auto-bracketing which is also called Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB). AEB helps to reduce the overexposure to a certain extent provided your other settings are set right. You should also get into the habit of checking the Histogram at the back of your camera after every shot and correlating it with the scene. If you get the exposure right, the first time around, you will have less to fix later.
But just as photography is about capturing the unexpected, so too are the results sometimes. In many cases, you have to bring the photo into a graphics editor like Photoshop to optimize all the variables of a scene and fix overexposed photos.
Taming the problem – Fixing Overexposure in Photoshop
Photoshop gives you quite a few ways to fix overexposed photos. You can take your pick and try out to see for yourself which one works best with your specific case of overexposure. Here are the easy three…
The Easiest Way – Choose Shadow/Highlight
If you are looking to adjust the exposure quickly, Photoshop (all CS versions) gives you a couple of sliders that make it a cinch to adjust the ‘lightness’ in your photos.
1. Go to Image – Adjustments – Shadows / Highlights. The feature automatically applies the default settings to your image and you can see it if you have Preview enabled in the dialog box. The defaults usually won’t be right for your photo, and you have to achieve the best results by dragging the Amount sliders under Highlights and also under Shadows if need be.
Remember – the higher the percentage, the lighter the shadows and the darker the highlights.
2. You can adjust the Tonal Width also. When the slide is set at a low percentage, the dark parts of the shadow or only the lightest parts of the highlight are corrected. A higher percentage effects a greater range of tones across the image.
Using Shadow /Highlights is quick but destructive as you are working on the image layer itself, and all changes are committed to the image once Okayed.
Being non-destructive – Using the Adjustment Layer
With Photoshop CS4 Extended, you got the Exposure Adjustment Layer. Adjustment layers (Note: these are different from the ones under the Image menu) are powerful because they allow you to apply all sorts of image corrections without permanently changing the pixels in the original image or layer.
1. Open the Exposure Adjustment layer by clicking on the icon on the Adjustments Panel. A new layer appears on the top in the Layers Palette.
2. It is simple to use: use the three sliders – Exposure, Offset and Gamma – to adjust the exposure levels.
Exposure adjusts the highlights of the image without changing the dark shadows. Offset maintains the midtones and Gamma adjusts the dark tones without modifying the highlights.
3. Experiment with the sliders, and if the result is satisfactory save the image as a PSD file. With a PSD file, you can adjust the values later, or use the same adjustment layer in another photo by dragging it to its layer palette.
The Pre-CS Way – Layer, Multiply, Repeat
If you happen to use one of the older pre-CS versions of Photoshop, you can take the help of layers and blending modes. A blend mode or blend color is the color that is applied to the original color of the image to produce an interesting third color from this blend. There are different types of blend modes available…we will use Multiply which basically multiplies the base color (i.e. the color of the photo) by the blend color. The result color is always a darker color here.
1. Create a copy of the Background Layer by duplicating the layer (Right click – Duplicate Layer).
2. Change the Blend Mode of the new layer from Normal to Multiply. This will darken the whole photo. If it becomes too dark, reduce and adjust the Opacity using the slider.
3. To get the perfect result, you can keep duplicating the photo layer and adding the Blend mode to the new layer, till you fix the overexposure.
4. When you think that the photo is fixed, flatten the image.
Remember – play around with the Opacity slider to get the optimized photo.
Using Camera RAW
Newbies generally don’t shoot in RAW but shooting in the RAW format is advocated because it gives you a lot of flexibility with post-processing. Anyhow, post-processing is compulsory when it comes to RAW. Higher-end good quality cameras (these days some compacts too) give you multiple format support like RAW, JPEG, and TIFF. The RAW image format is uncompressed (i.e. an 18 megapixel camera will produce an 18 MB RAW file), and totally lossless (i.e. the complete data as captured by the sensor). So, you get all the data to work with and you can choose to snip away in post-processing to create the perfect shot.
Adobe Photoshop has the Adobe Camera Raw feature that handles RAW formats from different cameras and allows you to post-process a photo to fix over-exposed areas.
1. Open Photoshop and click on the little icon on top-left that says Launch Mini Bridge.
2. Browse to the image folder using Mini Bridge and right-click on the image and select Open in Camera Raw. You can also drag ‘n drop a RAW file into
3. The Histogram is our first destination. Click on the Highlight Clipping Warning symbol. Over-exposed areas in your photo are now indicated in red.
4. To adjust the exposure, we have to use the sliders and carefully calibrate them. Moving the Exposure slider to the left reduces exposure, and the red in the photo gradually starts to reduce. Don’t slide the slider too much to the left because you want to retain your colors too.
5. Moving the Recovery slider just below the Exposure control to the right helps you recover some of the details you’ve lost in the blown-out highlights and further reduce the red from the image.
6. You can also calibrate the other sliders like Fill Light which can recover some parts from your darker areas without lightening them too much.
7. You can check and uncheck the Preview to see if the before and after changes appear more pleasing now. Save the image.
There is no fixed rule here about calibrating the sliders as each photo is different and you will have to combine them effectively. The best tool for the job is the one you already have – your eyes. Let them be your visual guide as you go about fixing overexposed photos.
Tell us about your travails with overexposed photos. Do you correct them or just dump them and click again? Try out the steps here and save some of the gems that might be headed for the can. Come back here for more Photoshop tips and tricks.
Don’t forget to download:
- What’s New in Photoshop CS6, Your Ultimate Overview
- An Idiot’s Guide to Photoshop – Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4