How far can editing raw files rescue exposures?

How far can you rescue bad exposure when editing raw files

There are lots of good reasons for setting your camera to shoot raw format. However, one of most persuasive is the degree to which you can tweak tonal range and exposure of your pictures after they have been shot.

But just how far can you go with your exposure correction? The advantage of using a digital SLR is that your exposures are likely to be pretty close to perfect in at least 95% of your pictures.

How far can you push your raw files?

But for that odd disaster when shooting in to the sun, or when you have accidentally taken an important shot with the wrong settings, what degree of correction can you make?

In this tutorial we’ve got a sequence of shots taken at different exposures, ranging from severely over-exposed to drastically dark. Although we can improve all of them in Photoshop Elements’ Camera Raw processor, we can’t perform miracles.

Shots that are more than one stop over-exposed (that had twice as much light as they needed) are impossible to save successfully. Under-exposure, however, is much easier to correct for; shots that are two stops too dark (receiving only a quarter of the light needed) can be rescued convincingly, but even here the treatment has its side effects, increasing grain noticeably in the shadow area of the picture.

Editing Raw Files: step 1

Step 1: Batch basic corrections
Go to File>Open from the Full Edit area of Elements. Ctrl-click all the rescue_start.CR2 files so they open in the Camera Raw interface. They were shot at different exposures, but we can correct some things in all the shots simultaneously. Click on Select All (top left) and crop to lose the dark patch on the right. Set Temperature slider to 5400, to warm up the shots.

Editing Raw Files: f/5

Step 2: Two stops too bright
Here we used an image shot at f/5. This shot is severely over-exposed.

Editing Raw Files: step 2

By moving the Exposure slider to -1.95, the Recovery slider to 100, Contrast down to +9, and reducing Brightness to +29 we can make this shot vaguely presentable. But in most circumstances this is only fit for the Recycle Bin – as colours have become distorted, and the model’s cheek is still far too bright.


Editing Raw Files: f/7.1

Step 3: One stop over
Next we used an image taken at f/7.1. Again, the shot is very over-exposed, but this time we can make a much better rescue effort.

Editing Raw Files: step 3

Move the Exposure slider to -1.30, set Recovery to 67 to get a reasonably presentable result. The forehead is still too bright – but trying to set Recovery levels higher begins to create more problems than are actually being solved.


Editing Raw Files: f/11

Step 4: Correct exposure
Our next shot was taken at f/11. This looks good, but we can still tweak the settings to get the best out of the shot.

Editing Raw Files: step 4

Move the Exposure slider right slightly, to +0.15. Set Recovery to 29 to reduce facial shine, and nudge Fill Light to 5 to squeeze a bit more detail from the shadows.


Editing Raw Files: f/18

Step 5: One stop too dark
This image was taken at f/18. This shot is at least one stop under-exposed. However, the shot is easily fixed with the top three tonal control sliders…

Editing Raw Files: step 5

Move Exposure to +1.00, nudge Recovery up to 10 and shift the Fill Light slider to 20. This shot now looks as good as the ‘correct’ exposure in Step 4.


Editing Raw Files: f/29

Step 6: Over two stops under-exposed
Our last image was taken at f/29. This is severely under-exposed, with tones that are as black as treacle, but we can affect a miraculous rescue.

Editing Raw Files: step 6

Move the Exposure slider to +2.45, and push the Fill Light to 50 – this is enough to give you a remarkably presentable end result. Zoom in, however, and you can see that the image is much noisier than the more correctly exposed versions, particularly in dark areas.


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