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Adobe Photoshop CS5 : The Essential Adjustments : Exposure

8/28/2012 6:28:30 PM
The next thing I fix (after adjusting the white balance) is the photo’s exposure. Now, some might argue that this is the most essential adjustment of them all, but if your photo looks way too blue, nobody will notice if the photo’s underexposed by a third of a stop, so I fix the white balance first, then I worry about exposure. In general, I think of exposure as three things: highlights, shadows, and midtones. So in this tutorial, I’ll address those three, which in Camera Raw are the exposure (highlights), blacks (shadows), and brightness (midtones).

Step One.
The Exposure slider affects the overall exposure of the photo (dragging to the right makes your overall exposure lighter; dragging to the left makes it darker). But don’t just start dragging the Exposure slider yet, because there’s something we need to really watch out for, and that’s clipping the highlights (where areas of the photo get so bright that they lose all detail). Luckily, Camera Raw has builtin clipping warnings, so you don’t lose highlight detail. First, look at this photo’s histogram at the top right of the window. See the solid white triangle in the top-right corner? That’s warning you that some parts of this photo are already clipping.

Step Two.
If you want to see exactly which areas are clipping (so you can see if they are even areas we need to worry about), just move your cursor over that highlight warning triangle, click on it, and any areas that are clipping will show up in red (as shown here). That see-your-clipping-areas-in-red warning will now stay on while you’re making your adjustments. Click on the little highlight triangle again (or press the letter O on your keyboard) to toggle this feature off/on.

Step Three.
If you don’t like the red clipping warning, or if you have a photo with a lot of red in it, and the red warnings aren’t easily seen, there is another warning you can use. Just press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key and then click-and-hold the Exposure slider. This turns your preview area black, and any clipped areas will appear in their color, as seen here (so if the Blue channel is clipping, you’ll see blue; if parts of the Green channel are clipping, you’ll see areas of green; but of course, the worst is to see areas in solid white, which means all the colors are clipping). By the way, this warning will stay on as you drag the Exposure slider, as long as you have the Option key held down. Also, some things will always clip, like a photo with the sun visible in it, or a specular highlight on the chrome bumper of a car, but that’s okay—they don’t have any detail. We’re only concerned about recovering areas that actually have important detail.

Step Four.
So, now that we know how to find out when we have a clipping problem, how do we make the problem go away? Well, since this problem happens when things get too bright, you could always drag the Exposure slider to the left until the clipping warnings go away. For example, here I lowered the exposure (by dragging the Exposure slider to the left) until the clipping warning finally went away, but that’s a really bad tradeoff. We fixed one problem (clipped highlights), but now we have another problem that may be worse (a really underexposed photo). Luckily, there’s something simple we can do that lets us keep the overall exposure where we need it, and avoid clipping the highlights at the same time.

Step Five.
Start by dragging the Exposure slider until the exposure looks right to you (here the exposure looked good to me, but some of the important highlight areas were clipping, as shown in Step Three). Now, drag the Recovery slider (located right below the Exposure slider) to the right, and as you do, just the very brightest highlights are pulled back (recovered) from clipping. Keep dragging until the white highlight clipping warning turns solid black (like the one shown here), and you’re done! By the way, you can use that same press-and-hold-the-Option (PC: Alt)-key trick while you’re dragging the Recovery slider, and the screen will turn black, revealing just the clipped areas. As you drag to the right, you’ll actually see the clipped areas go away. Now you’ve got your overall exposure where you want it, and you have detail in all your highlights at the same time. How sweet is that?

Step Six.
Next, I adjust the shadow areas using the Blacks slider. Dragging to the right increases the amount of black in the darkest shadow areas of your photo. Dragging to the left opens up (lightens) the shadow areas. I switched photos here to show you a better example of how the Blacks slider works.

Step Seven.
Increasing the blacks will usually saturate the colors in your photo, as well, so if you have a really washed out photo (as shown in the previous step), just drag the Blacks slider to the right until the color and depth come back (as they have here). Compare this with the original shown in the previous step, and you can see what a dramatic difference increasing the blacks can make for a washed out photo. Okay, let’s switch back to the baseball photo, and pick up there.

Step Eight.
While my biggest concern is clipping the highlights, there’s also a shadow clipping warning to let you know when areas have gotten so dark that they lose all shadow detail. That warning is the triangle on the top left of the histogram. If you move your cursor over it and click, any areas that are solid black will appear in bright blue (as seen here). If there’s shadow clipping, the only fix is to drag the Blacks slider to the left to reduce the amount of blacks in the shadows, but I generally don’t do that, because to me that usually makes a photo look flat and too low-contrast. So, I avoid lowering the Blacks amount below the default setting of 5 unless absolutely necessary (here the clipped areas are just shadows, not important detail, so I ignore them). But hey, that’s just me. You can also use the press-and-hold-the-Option (PC: Alt)-key trick with the Blacks slider. As you might expect, this works in the opposite way the highlight warning works; instead, the preview area turns solid white, and any areas that are solid black have lost detail and actually have turned to solid black.

Step Nine.
The next slider down is Brightness. Since you’ve already adjusted the highlights (Exposure slider) and the shadows (Blacks slider), the Brightness slider adjusts everything else (I relate this slider to the mid tones slider in Photoshop’s Levels adjustment, so that might help in understanding how this slider differs from the Exposure or Blacks sliders). Of the three main adjustments (Exposure, Blacks, and Brightness), this one I personally use the least—if I do use it, I usually just drag it a very short amount to the right to open up some of the midtone detail. But in this case, I dragged it a little to the left to keep the photo from looking too bright. There are no warnings for midtones, but if you push it far enough to the right, you could see some highlight clipping.

Step 10.
If you don’t feel comfortable making these adjustments yourself, you can always give Camera Raw a crack at it by clicking the Auto button (it’s the underlined word Auto, shown circled here in red). When you click on Auto, your photo will either look better, or not. If it’s not, just press Command-Z (PC: Ctrl-Z) to Undo the Auto adjustment, and then try the correction yourself using the Exposure, Blacks, and Brightness sliders. Here, I clicked the Default button (to the right of the Auto button) to reset Camera Raw to its defaults, and then I clicked the Auto button. In this case, it looks kinda bright to me, and that’s why it’s important to learn to be able to make these corrections yourself.

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