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Lightroom Tutorial: Identify Blown Out Highlights in Your Photo

by Erin Peloquin on May 16, 2013 · 3 comments

Lightroom users, this tutorial will show you how to find and (hopefully) repair blown out areas of your photos.

Blown out areas, as you know, are parts of the image that are so overexposed that there is little to no pixel information available in them.  They show up as pure white areas in a photo.

It’s often impossible to avoid blowing out certain areas of our photo.  Take a photo like this one – my baby’s face is in the shade, but there is a large area of bright sun behind her.  In order to get decent exposure on her face, I had to blow the background.

Blown out areas are also common if you have bright skies or the sun in your photos, or if you have chrome from a car.  Depending on the size of the highlight, it’s often ok to leave small areas in the photo blown out. However, you want to make sure that they don’t appear in important areas of your image, like on skin or the eyes.

(You can learn about identifying blown out areas on camera as you shoot here.  It’s best to, of course, to identify exposure issues before you finish shooting.  Today’s post, on the other hand, talks about finding and repairing blown areas in LR if your on camera exposure is as good as it’s gonna get.)

So first things first.  Toning down blown out areas is going to work much better on Raw photos than on JPGs.  Compare the Raw (on the left) to the JPG in the photo below.  You can click on this photo to zoom in, by the way.

These two photos have the same processing applied to them.  Note the additional detail on the back of her shirt and her arm, especially.  The inset on the right side shows you everything Lightroom measures to be blown out with a red overlay (there is no red overlay on the Raw file).  The colors at the top right corner are also more vivid and better recovered in the Raw photo.  This is one of the reasons I shoot Raw.

Even on Raw photos, however, you can’t repair all overexposed areas.

Next, look for the Histogram in Lightroom.  It should be at the top right corner of your Develop Module.  Once you find it, click on the white triangale at the top right corner of this histogram to activate the highlight clipping warning.  This enables a red overlay to show up wherever you have blown highlights.  Like this:

I keep this overlay on for most, if not all, of my editing process.  Some edits, like contrast additions or color tweaks, might make the blown areas worse.  If you want to turn them off, however, just click on the same arrow again.  You can also hover your cursor over that arrow for a brief view of the overlay.  Curious about what the triangle at the top LEFT of the histogram does?  It puts a blue overlay over your blocked shadows (areas so underexposed that the pixels are pure black).  Type the letter J to display (or hide) both the clipped highlights and the clipped shadows.

Now to repair these blown out highlights.  My approach is going to be multi-pronged for this photo.

  1. First, I reduced the exposure to -.80.  This brings out some of the green in the bushes in the background.  Reducing the exposure further did nothing to improve the overexposed background, so I stopped there.  Reducing the exposure isn’t always necessary on photos with blown highlights.
  2. Decreased Highlights in (Lightroom 4) to -75.  If you have a prior version of Lightroom, you will increase the Recovery slider here.  This took almost all of the red overlay away.  Decreasing highlights is something I do in just about every edit that has bright highlights and it usually does a great job removing all of the red overlay.
  3. Decreased Whites to -52, until the remainder of the red overlay disappeared and the photo looked better.  For most photos, when the exposure is pretty good, I don’t use this slider – Highlights usually does everything I need.  However, this photo needed some extra work.
  4. The first three steps took care of the bright areas of the photo.  Now, I want to lighten the darker areas.  I increased Shadows to 18.  (This slider is called Fill Light in prior versions of LR.)  It opens up the shadows on her face and hair.
  5. Next, I grabbed the Local Adjustment Brush and increased exposure by 1 stop.  I painted this over her face and the shadowed areas of her hair and shirt.
  6. I reduced Blacks to -38 to add contrast without brightening the brights any further and to remove haze.
  7. My final step in the edit was to apply the vibrant preset from MCP’s Enlighten to pop the colors and add a bit more contrast.

Here is my final before & after edit.  There are still areas of the photo that are too bright, but it’s much better than it was.

 So, when you are darkening blown out highlights in Lightroom, make sure to start by displaying the Highlight Clipping Warning.  Use the Highlights slider, any of the others.  Odds are, you will be able to darken those hotspots!

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