Correcting Exposure in Lightroom Fast – Rescue The Shot

Everyone has encountered shots that have been over or under exposed before. Be it accidental or the result of bracketing, there are always a few less than ideal exposures in any project. Fixing each of the images can be time consuming, but if you leverage some tricks in Lightroom, you can speed up your workflow drastically.

Open up a poorly Exposed image in the Lightroom develop module. For this article we will be working on this image.

Example of exposure that needs rescuing

Once you have selected the image you wish to fix, the first step is to adjust the Exposure. Normally you would simply adjust the image until it appeals to the eye or fills the histogram in a proper way. However both those method take more time. Start by holding down your ALT/Option key on the keyboard and then click on the Exposure slider. The preview will turn either mostly or completely black.


Our preview window is black, with no signs of white in the preview. So, start adjusting by moving the Exposure to the right, increasing the exposure. Keep going until you see white start to appear.


After you get the whites to pop out, simply back off the Exposure there is just some white still showing. Now the Exposure is more or less properly set. The areas of white in the preview are blown highlights, but the little white you leave will be removed in the next step.

Not perfect, but the exposure is getting better

Please note, if there are blown specular highlights in your image, they will show up in your preview. If you know those whites are from completely blow out areas, simply ignore those white spots. Work the Exposure until you get new whites appearing in the ALT/Option preview.

Now we want to get rid of the white areas that you see in the Exposure preview. As the white areas in the preview denote blown highlights. You normally will have a few small areas left in the preview, which means you created some highlight clipping while adjusting the Exposure. This is best removed by using Recovery as opposed to reducing Exposure, as you want your histogram filled.

Holding ALT/Option again, click on the Recovery slider and look at your preview window. It should look identical to the final result of your Exposure manipulation.


Now move your Recovery slider to the right slowly, until the whites just disappears. If the image has specular highlight clipping, you may have to go easy and leave those white areas, but normally you want to reduce the preview back to black.


Using the Recovery tool in this manner allows you to push the highlights of your image back down without altering the image histogram drastically. By just applying Recovery until the whites disappear, you will be rescuing blown highlights without applying too much recovery, leaving a natural looking image still.

Now that the Exposure and Recovery levels are set we will now pay attention to the shadows of the image.

Now you need to hold ALT/Option and start to adjust the Blacks slider. As you click on the Blacks slider the preview will turn white. Usually you will see some straggling black and color in the preview, but usually no more than a few lines and dots.


So now adjust the Blacks to the right until you start to see a light outline of the contents of you image. This will darken the shadow areas of you image while leaving the rest of the image alone.


If you want less shadow, go with a faint outline of your subject. Increase the Blacks until you get a heavy outline if you want pronounce, dark shadows. After you complete this step, the quick adjustment process is almost done.


Now, as you can see, the final result seems a bit dark. The final step of the quick adjustment process is to adjust Brightness until the image looks good. In this example Brightness needs to be increased slightly. Now the image is done with its initial rescue.

Exposure rescued!

Reading this, it may seem that the process is rather long, but in reality it is simply four quick adjustments that take mere seconds to apply. Doing this to over and under exposed images in your catalog will quickly bring the images to a good starting point for further work and take little time to do so.

Now allow me to quickly step aside and talk about an area of confusion in Lightroom.

In this quick adjustment workflow, we utilize both Exposure and Brightness. In the comments of last Tuesday’s post a comment was left asking to explain the difference(s) between Exposure and Brightness; I felt this should be addressed since both are integral to this procedure.

From what I can gather, the difference is in how the two alter the image, although to the eye they seem quite similar. Exposure in Lightroom is essentially a form of exposure compensation. It simulates the effect of gain applied to the camera sensor. If you adjust your Exposure to +1, you are essentially using Lightroom to increase your images effective ISO by a full stop. Increasing Exposure to +1 on an ISO 200 image alters exposure to make it appear as if it was shot at ISO 400.

When adjusting Exposure Lightroom is increasing the response of the pixels across the image. The model for this increase is the same as increasing the voltage to a camera sensor to increase its sensitivity. Increasing the voltage to improve sensitivity is a real world application of Gain, and Exposure attempts to simulate this effect.

Brightness, on the other hand is essentially a form of Gamma Correction, much like adjusting Gamma in Photoshop. Increasing Gamma makes an image lighter in general and Brightness in Lightroom does essentially the same job.

Now, it appears that the two do the same thing, but watching the histogram in Lightroom while applying the different tools you can see minor differences in the effect on the histogram. Some images make the difference more apparent than others, but there is a difference between the two approaches.

Hopefully that explanation makes some amount of sense to you, but if not feel free to discuss in the comments. For now, try out the quick adjustment workflow we discussed today if you have not already discovered it on your own before.

Brandon Oelling

Hi there! I'm Brandon Oelling, the founder of XEQUALS. My team and I believe deep in our hearts that inside every one of us is an amazing photographer.

  1. Mike, the problem with this method is that you lose the detail in the sky that you had initially gained due to underexposure. For a shot like this it is always easier to make local corrections as opposed to global ones. In my opinion, the best way to handle this picture would have been to utilize the uber-useful graduated filter tool in Lightroom. It’s fast, quick and extremely effective in these images.

    Here’s the result using that:

  2. This is an excellent lesson, and a good example. Unfortunately I think it also proves that some images just aren’t meant to be “saved”. Whether you use this method or the graduated filter, this image alone doesn’t have a lot going for it. Maybe there would be something there if there were multiple exposures that could be blended…

    Thanks for the explaining the difference between the Brightness and Exposure sliders. I think a slightly better way to put it (for most readers) would be to say that Brightness affects only the midtones while Exposure affects the entire image.

  3. I’ve found this method useful when editing indoor shots with flash (weddings, parties etc)…often skin tones are blown out, folds in clothes are underexposed. The Alt/Option key trick is extremely useful in correcting these areas.
    As @mwgray says, it’s not a complete fix but a great starting point for further, more nuanced, adjustments.

  4. I assumed that this was just an example image! One key point for me to take from this lesson is to remember to try out the Alt/Option key trick more often. It’s available on so many of the LR sliders but I rarely use it. I use it for sharpening all the time, but not so much on the other tools.

  5. I whole heatedly agree with you that would be the “better” method, but this workflow is just designed to quickly tidy up those off exposures before further editing. Local corrections take more time than this method, although results are vastly improved.

    This method quickly gets images into “line” with other shots, providing a good starting point for editing, if further editing is even desired. Often under or over exposed images are automatic rejects to many photographers, however by using these quick steps they can see if an image has any value in just 4 adjustments. Obviously better editing would be needed to get the most out of any improperly exposed image, but this quickly allows a more accurate preview of an otherwise bad shots potential.

  6. All fine points gentlemen!

    In my own work, I personally like to blow out my images a tad, so this is my reason for smacking things around quickly with this approach.

  7. Thanks Sean! And yes, I purposely chose an image that shouldn’t have been saved just to help illustrate the effect. The drastic amout of underexposure helped to demonstrate the effect better than an image that could have been resonably saved. That shot was actually a -2EV frame from a 7 exposure HDR from when I was playing around some.

    As far as the explanation goes, thank you. I tend to get too deep in my explanations and I was trying to keep it short. Years of engineering school lead me to be rather verbose and too technical. Your explanation is accurate and simple. Thank you!

  8. Thanks Mike for your post.

    Personally I don’t like to use recovery as it affects the whole image too much.
    I instead push Exposure to the left for the blowout.
    Then brightness to the right, if not enough Fill light ass well.
    Of course, you have to check the noise and artifact to make sure everything is all right.
    By doing it this way you gain as well contrast, which I use only in local correction.
    After that I push up my blacks to make it snappy again.



  9. WOW! That was the best tut I’ve read in a while, and I used it right away. I’m blown away at how easy and how effective this was! THANK YOU!

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