Lightroom 2 Raw Development: Exposure

Last time in my ongoing ramblings on Lightroom 2 raw workflow, I focused on white balance. Today we move along a bit further with some elements of exposure.

A note about workflow seems pertinent: Lightroom’s preset abilities are pretty extensive, but I don’t make a whole lot of use of them, particularly for raw development (Though I do have lots of metadata presets that I apply at import to apply information about location). The develop presets make the most sense to me for repeated, reliable situations: Shooting in a studio, for example, where you know combinations of lens and light and in which case the effort to tune and save those presets will be rewarded. That’s my experience so far, so I’ve neglected to spend much time working with develop presets.

So let’s talk about exposure. Lightroom provides an exposure histogram in the upper right pane. The histogram quantifies the amount of light found between black, at the left end, and white, at the right side of the plot. A histogram with nothing but a steep peak at the right end will likely appear washed out or overexposed; likewise, a plot with nothing but a peak at the far left will be dark, lacking highlights.

Lightroom 2 histogram screenshot

Here’s what this particular histogram is telling us:

  • In its histogram display, Lightroom provides some basic image information: ISO, focal length, aperture, and shutter speed.
  • We have light basically all throughout the plot’s range, with a particular peak close to the bright end.
  • Overall, the exposure of this image isn’t bad. We can adjust exposure either with the exposure slider or by grabbing and dragging the center portion of the histogram left or right to obtain the kind of effect we want to get. I tend to boost exposure a bit when working up my photos —- but be careful when sliding exposure rightward: too much will add speckly noise to the image.
  • The filled triangles at the upper left and right corners are clipping indicators; since they’re filled, it means that this image has some amount of both cut off highlights (right end of histogram: “blown highlights”) and clipped darks (left end of histogram). That is, some detail is lost in the brightest and darkest areas of the photos. The more clipping, the brighter the fill of the triangles. You can see the clipping in the histogram as the blue peak pressed up against the left edge, and the grey/red smooshed into the right end. To see just what’s lost, hit J. The blue and red superimposed over the image represent lost darks and lights, respectively.

Here’s a sample image. On the right is an illustration of the highlight clipping revealed by hitting J in the develop module:

Lightroom 2 sample image Lightroom 2 sample image

To bring a bit more detail back into this image, especially some of the texture in that yukon gold, you use the “recover” slider in the develop pane, or simply drag the rightmost edge of the histogram back toward the left side: hover the mouse along different parts of the histogram to identify the various draggable regions. As you increase the “recovery” value or drag that right end leftward, you’ll see the red blown highlights indications start to fade, as in the image below where the recovery slider has been pegged all the way rightward:

Lightroom 2 sample image Lightroom 2 sample image

Adjust per taste. See how much more gray the background of this image has become by pegging the recovery? Lightroom can often recover a ton of detail in highlights, but at the extreme end the cost will be a dimming of the overall image.

The same goes for darks: You can bring detail back out of a black swatch of image by reducing the “blacks” slider or by dragging the leftmost end of the histogram back to the right a bit. I often find it works nicely to drag that histogram until the leftmost slope of the dark end of the plot rests just at the edge of the display — that is, where you’ve just barely recovered all the clipped dark areas.

While measurements of light and dark can be quantified in the histogram, appreciation of light and dark are subjective. Leaving blown highlights (or intentionally blowing them by increasing the exposure — grab the middle of that histogram and pull it rightwards until you see something you like) and lost black regions of an image may help convey exactly what you want an image to do.

One more exposure-related tip: Fill light. Use this slider (or, as always, slide the histogram itself — the fill light region is just shy of the leftmost “darks” region of the plot) to bring up the light in the image’s shadowy regions without boosting the overall exposure. This can do wonders for errant shadows across a face.

Be watchful for new noise when you add fill light, and it’s a good idea to bump up the “clarity“ slider in conjunction with fill light, since fill light tends to take a bit of the punch out of the image.

So, there’s a quick take on adjusting exposure with Lightroom 2. Between white balance and exposure, you have the core set of adjustments to your raw images covered, but there’s more to come: Further tuning involves sharpening, noise reduction, and crops, as well as other adjustments we might make to color. Some discussion of those are coming up in my next installment of Lightroom for the Rest of Us (or whatever it is I’ll be calling this series by then).

From Raw to Rawwwr: Lightroom 2 Raw Development for the Rest of Us

I have a casual obsession with Lightroom 2 and have had a load of fun tinkering with the Lightroom catalog database to extract information about my photographs. More recently, I’ve been writing over the past handful of weeks about my workflow in Lightroom 2 from the perspective of an enthusiastic but non-professional user. I’ve previously covered organization and keywords. This time around, the topic is using LR2 to work up raw photos.

Why would one shoot in raw? Raw is an image format meant to preserve as much original image data as possible; that information can be manipulated much more flexibly and effectively than the comparably limited range of image data contained in a JPG or TIFF image. A raw image with bad exposure or white balance can be salvaged, while a JPG — lacking the image information of raw — offers far less latitude for recovery. Meanwhile, JPGs produced by most digital cameras have some amount of sharpening, exposure, and contrast adjustment applied in-camera, while raw images are essentially straight representations of what the camera “saw” when taking the photo. This means that raw images will almost always need a bit of color tweaking and sharpening. Hence the eternal quest for a reliable, easy-to-apply workflow for “developing” raw images to best effect, and the subject that brings me to the MacBook today.

After importing and doing preliminary tagging, flagging and deleting of images, I start in on working up the raw images.

White Balance

White Balance is the first thing to tackle. The point of correcting white balance is to give the right color tone to the “neutral” (white or grey) colors in your image. In other words, you want white to look white. If the WB is off, your photos will have an unnaturally cool or warm cast.

In Lightroom 2, you can adjust white balance in both develop and library modules using presets for different light types, and in the develop module via the temperature sliders. (There are a couple of quick-develop buttons for temperature, but I generally avoid using them.)

The most common white balance adjustment I make starts with selecting the “tungsten” preset. This immediately removes the too-hot feel of photos taken in incandescent light — ie, most sources of indoor, non-flash light.

LR2 screenshot

After using the Tungsten preset, it’s usually necessary to make a few adjustments: This is when I use the Tint and Temperature sliders in the develop module for subtle shifts, often to add just a bit more warmth to the light by nudging the Temp control a tiny bit back to the right. It’s a good idea to swing the Temp control around a bit just to see what kind of difference it makes to give a bit more warmth or coolness to an image.

Mixed light provides a dilemma for white balance. Light from an overhead lamp plus natural sunlight through a window, for example, can be tricky to adjust. I find that setting the Tungsten preset will cool off the overall color cast, but will also amplify the parts of the image that are already a bit cooler — the natural sunlight — giving them a sharp blue tone, especially around highlights. My solution to this is to desaturate the blues a bit, which takes the edge off that coolness. In Lightroom 2, you have even more ability to make that correction by using the adjustment brush to spot-desaturate the highlights that are made too cold by adjusting to Tungsten. The below shot illustrates an image that’s been tweaked by first presetting WB to Tungsten, and then backing off the blue saturation just a few points.

LR2 screenshot

But wait, there’s more! While the Tungsten preset is good, it’s not always quite right. As alternative, use the White Balance Dropper — that’s the dropper button next to the WB selector in the develop module. Click it, then click a spot in your image that should be nice and neutral, a white or grey spot. Presto! Instant white balance. When I can’t quite decide on the right balance, I often use this tool on various spots of the image to quickly try out a range of white balances. The shortcut for the WB dropper is W, which you can use in both grid and develop modes.

Once you’re happy with the white balance of a given image, you can quickly apply those settings to the remainder of similar images with the “sync settings” command: Swap over to grid mode, select the corrected image first, and then click-select the others with similar light, and finally sync ( shift-cmd-S).

There’s much more to the raw workflow: Exposure, sharpening, and so on, and I’ll tackle some of those next time.

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