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Lightroom – Recover Highlights, Overexposure, and Colors from RAW

Adobe Lightroom Workflow for RAW Recovery

One key benefit of shooting RAW is the ability to manipulate all of the data available in an image file. Unlike JPEG, you have a lot more leeway in terms of exposure and dynamic range adjustments.

Oftentimes, we don’t have the luxury of using grad filters or bracketing, such as portrait sessions or just casual snaps. There’s an incredible amount of RAW data available even if your camera tells you you’ve clipped (overexposed) your highlights when you shoot RAW.

We’re going to use Adobe Lightroom’s [check best price] Develop panel for this exercise, but essentially, it’s identical to Adobe Camera RAW’s control panel in Bridge and Photoshop. Other 3rd-party RAW converters may very well have similar, but differently named tools as well.

First we take a look at our original image. I took this around 930AM here in Singapore in a bright, clear, sunny day. It’s rather rare for Singapore to have blue skies as it’s cloudy most of the time. Unfortunately, dynamic range limitation of a single exposure made the photo look like it was taken on a bright but overcast, cloudy day (which it wasn’t). You can’t see the blue sky and fluffy clouds in this photograph.

1_original

As you can see, the sky is rather over-exposed and white, with just a hint of blue/cyan peeking near the left edge. If I turn on the highlight clipping indicator, bulk of the sky has no data. The histogram tells a similar story.

2-5_blinkies

2_original_histogram

That is deceiving, however, as the RAW file contains a lot more data that the image shows. By using the right RAW conversion tools, we can recover a lot of ‘lost’ information in our photographs (within reason) that we could never obtain if we shot in JPEG or other compressed format.

We will be using the HUE / SATURATION / LUMINANCE (HSL) panel mainly for this exercise, you’ll see how easy it is to recover lost details and colors from a seemingly wasted image.

The HSL panel shows a set of 8 color sliders under each sub-panel. You can adjust the same 8 color sliders independently for hue (color shade), saturation (color intensity), and luminance (color brightness).

3_hsl_panel

We need to darken the sky mainly, which we know is primarily blue and cyan in color. However, Lightroom lets you use the target adjustment tool. That’s the little circle at the left corner of the panel. Click the circle and upper and lower arrows appear around the circle (arrows not shown in the screen cap below).

4_hsl_panel_zoom

Since the photo’s problem is that the sky is too bright, we will be adjusting the settings under the LUMINANCE panel.

Using the Target Adjustment tool, move the Target Adjustment circle to an area near the faint blue sky and drag the cursor downwards (reduce value). You’ll see that a lot of the white areas start to reveal more blue values, separating the white clouds from the blue sky.

5_adjust_luminance

To recover more areas around the clouds, we move back up to the exposure/global adjustment sub-panel and play with the RECOVERY slider. Move the slider to the right until you obtain your preferred amount of sky details, in this case, I dragged the slider to about +20.

6_adjust_recovery

Just like that, a world of difference in terms of sky detail. If I go further, the image will look a bit un-natural (subjective observation), I’m OK with this. Compare this sky with the original image and you can see how much more data a RAW file preserves even if the JPEG thumbnail preview indicates otherwise.

Now you might be asking “why not just use the RECOVERY slider up front?”

No reason, you’ll get the same result, but only if you adjust the luminance of the blue/cyan sky as well. Otherwise, you’ll end up having a pretty flat and grey sky like this (-100 Recovery from the original file)

6_5_recovery_only

Going back to our adjusted image. I tweaked the SATURATION and LUMINANCE settings for the trees a little using the Targeted Adjustment tool. Remember that these are arbitrary adjustments, purely based on how it looks on screen, so use the Targeted Adjustment tool and play around until things look right.

7_adjust_greens

Here’s our final image.

8_final

The whole process took less than 2 minutes to complete from opening to final output and it also represented how the real weather was when I took this snapshot. If you have a set of images shot at similar settings, just reapply the same HSL and Recovery adjustment settings and you’re good to go. Another great reason for shooting RAW.

Simple but powerful stuff.

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