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Lightroom Tutorial: How to Easily Correct Blown Out Highlights

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While traveling, we don’t always have the luxury to pick the best time of day for photography or to come back to the location when the light is what we are looking for. We take the photos when we can, the best we can. Then we go home and this is when post-processing comes into play: it may either save an image or enhance it for more impact. In this short tutorial, we'll start with an image that has some blown-out highlight issues and look at ways to correct them in Lightroom 5 with minimal loss of image quality.

Speaking of quality, if you are serious with your photography and are thinking of printing some of your images in large format or if you participate in photo competitions, it is advisable to shoot in RAW format rather than JPEG. Yes, the photos will take up more space on your memory card and hard drive. However, RAW gives you more flexibility in post-processing and minimises the loss of quality in your image at the same time.

So here is the original photo of the Tuileries gardens, taken on a partly cloudy day with some sun and blue skies still peeking through the fluffy clouds. The ISO on my camera was a little too high and it resulted in a slightly overexposed image: certain parts of the clouds seem too bright, as well as the overall scene, and the trees and grass are clearly lacking contrast. 

Highlights Example 1

After importing the image into Lightroom 5, I select it and press D; this brings me to the Develop module where I can start working on my image. First of all, I have a look at the histogram: it is shifted to the right and has spikes along the side of the graph in the highlights area, which confirms there are clearly some overexposed areas in the image. 

To preview the clipping of highlights and shadows in the image, I simply press the letter J on the keyboard. It shows the precise areas of the image that are too bright (highlighted in red) or too dark (highlighted in blue). Since this image is overexposed, no details are lost in the shadows, however, we can clearly identify the blown-out highlights that need to be corrected.

Highlights Example 2

Starting from Lightroom 4, Adobe has introduced a new technology to deal with highlights and shadows, and it is called Process Version 2012. It brought in a new set of Basic tone controls that override the limitations of previous versions, such as highlights and visible halos in high-contrast areas, thus resulting in a much higher image quality.

Coming back to our image, the next step is to make sure we use the benefits of this technology: at the very bottom of the adjustment panel on the right side, you'll find a Camera Calibration tab. Make sure that Process 2012 (and not 2010) is selected. This simple action will bring immediate change to your image, as you can see on the histogram below: there are no more blown out highlights!

Highlights Example 3

At this point, the histogram looks right and there is no clipping. However, the image still lacks some colour and contrast. To enhance it, I go back to the Basic adjustment panel on the top right, underneath the histogram, and toggle a few sliders. I slightly decrease the overall exposure to -0.36, add some contrast to +5, reduce the highlights to -5, add more whites to +19 and darken the blacks to -14 (remember, we were lacking contrast in the original image). While toggling the sliders, I always keep an eye on the histogram and make sure it is nicely stretched between the two edges without overdoing it. Finally, I add some Clarity (+17) and Vibrance (+17) for overall enhancement of the image. In the below image you can see all the adjustments I’ve made, as well as before and after versions.

Highlights Example 4

It took me only a few minutes, and the result is a correctly exposed and more appealing image without any clipping or loss of information. By understanding how Lightroom works, you can easily enhance your images while preserving their maximum quality.

Finally, here is the end result:

Highlights Example 5

Let us know if this works for you and share your results with us!

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About the Author

Nadia Gric

Nadia Gric

Nadia is passionate about the visual aspect of life and the personalities she meets along the way. Living in the heart of Paris, Nadia never stops exploring the City of Light through her camera and readily shares her knowledge and love for photography. Learn more...