Correcting Exposure Problems in Lightroom

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Bachman's Sparrow
ISO 320 | 1/800sec | f/6.3
When I took the above photograph, I was pretty sure I was going to toss it out.  The sun was in front of me and to my right, and the bird was facing in a direction such that most of its face was cast in shadow.  This is a real exposure problem.  Without exposure compensation, the bird's face would be very dark.  But if I add exposure compensation to properly expose the bird's head, I would likely blow out the highlights of the photograph, including the sunlit portions of the bird.  You can use a flash in a situation like this, but I don't--I sometimes see birds flinch and/or fly away when using a flash, and I don't want to disturb the bird.  Using Aperture Priority mode and matrix (evaluative) metering, I decided to increase my exposure by +2/3 stop and hope for the best.  It turns out that when I loaded the photo in my computer the histogram showed that I had detail in the shadows and the highlights. So, not expecting much, I decided to see if I could make something out of this photo.  The photo below is the way the photo looked straight out of the camera.

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Original Image
Step 1 - Exposure
First, in Lightroom 5.0, I decided to see how the image would look if I played with the exposure values in the "Basic" panel.  Here are the settings I chose to get the image below. I also cropped the image to a better composition.
  • Exposure: +0.24
  • Highlights: - 100
  • Shadows: +60
  • Blacks: -19
  • Vibrance: +38
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Exposure Corrected Image
Of these settings, the one that hurt the most was raising the shadows so high. I don't like to raise this slider at all, and when I do, not more than +40 if I can avoid it.  Increasing this slider a lot can increase graininess in the shadows, but it had to be done in this instance.

Step 2 - Background Correction
Second, I decided to see what I could do with the background.  Lightroom has a spot removal tool which functions basically like a simple clone tool.  In 5.0 they allow you to click and drag the "spot" around the frame, so I selected the pine needles in the background. Unfortunately, Lightroom doesn't allow any feathering, which is kind of a downer for what I wanted to do. After I dragged the "spot" over the pine needles, Lightroom chose where in the frame to replace the section I chose.  It doesn't always choose the best spot, but I can manually move it to an area that has all blue in the frame, effectively erasing the pine needles from the image.  Lightroom doesn't always make this easy, but with practice and trial and error, it can work.  Now I also wanted the background sky to look a little bluer, so I went to the "Color" panel and selected the blue channel.  I increased its saturation by +18 and decreased its luminance by -18.

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Background Correction
Step 3- Catch light, Noise and Sharpness
Third, since the bird's eye was not in sunlight, there was very little "catch light" in the eye.  You can add it, but it will not look very natural, since it's obvious that the bird's eye is shaded.  But I decided to add just a little bit.  I zoomed in on the eye to about 4:1 and chose the Adjustment Brush. I set the size of the brush to about 2.5 and then simply highlighted the brighter portions of the eye.  I then raised the exposure of that portion of the eye by about 2 stops. This gave a little more contrast in the eye that I thought still looked natural.  Since I shot this image at ISO 320, it wasn't terribly noisy, but the shadows slider can add noise, so in the "Detail" panel I added luminance noise reduction at +18.  The bill looked a little fuzzy, so I went back to the Adjustment Brush, selected the bill, and added sharpening there at +75. As almost an afterthought, I also noticed some bright portions on the foreground branch, so using the Adjustment Brush I selected that section and lowered the exposure until it looked right.

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Bachman's Sparrow
Finished Image (same as top image)
I don't normally do this much work on my images, but this is a Juvenile Bachman's Sparrow, and I'd been trying to confirm breeding at this site for over a month.  I don't know how often people get to see a juvenile out in the open like this, but I liked its pose, and I decided it was worth the effort.  Most of this editing would have been unnecessary if I could have walked to the other side of the bird so that the sun was behind me. Straight out of the camera, I probably would have had a better image than this one, even after all the work I put into it.  But the sparrow flew away when I tried to move, so this is what I had to work with.


  1. Congrats on seeing this beautiful, young Bachman's! Great job with your editing too!

  2. Wonderful editing! It's nice to learn about your editing process. I was not aware of the click and drag spot removal tool. Awesome!

  3. Thanks so much, Julie! Yea, the click and drag addition to the spot removal tool is really nice! Let's hope they add feathering to it in a future release.


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