How to use Lightroom to reclaim highlight and shadow detail

How to use Lightroom to reclaim highlight and shadow detail

Adobe Lightroom offers powerful tools for highlight and shadow recovery that can go a long way towards rescuing your images from common exposure problems. Find out how to use Lightroom to reclaim lost detail and stop wasting otherwise good pictures!

How to use Lightroom to reclaim highlight and shadow detail

High-contrast scenes make it more difficult for your camera to record the entire range of tones from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights.

This photo, taken on a sunny afternoon, is just the sort of scene to cause problems. At times like this a little subtle tonal adjustment can work wonders by pulling features out of dim areas like shadow of the castle here and also clawing back detail in overexposed skies.

If you shoot in raw format, it’s amazing how much unseen texture your image contains. Lightroom has some very good tools for teasing this out.

These range from basic tonal sliders that target different parts of the tonal range to localised tools that let you work on different parts of your image.

SEE MORE: Adobe Lightroom 5 – is this the game-changer you’ve been waiting for?

In this tutorial we’ll show you how to use Lightroom to improve shadows and highlights with subtle tweaks to the Basic sliders, then get stuck in with the Adjustment Brush and Graduated Filter tool to improve specific parts of the image.

How to use Lightroom to reclaim lost detail

How to use Lightroom to reclaim lost detail: step 1

01 Import and improve tones
Go to the Library module, click Import and find the sunny_before.nef, then hit Import. Click the Develop Module and go to the Basic Panel. Set Temp 5800, Tint +13, Exposure +0.42, Contrast -13, Highlights -68, Shadows +34, Whites +33, Blacks -16, Clarity +16, Vibrance +18, Saturation +25.


How to use Lightroom to reclaim lost detail: step 2

02 Lighten the castle
Grab the Adjustment Brush from the Toolbar and check ‘Auto Mask’ in the tool panel on the right. Paint over the castle (hit letter O to toggle a mask overlay on or off) then set Exposure 0.44, Shadows 24, Clarity 27. Paint over any other dark shadows you want to lighten.


How to use Lightroom to reclaim lost detail: step 3

03 Reveal the clouds
Click Mask: New at the top-right, then uncheck ‘Show Mask’. Paint over the brightest clouds, then set Contrast 21, Highlights -20, Clarity 33. Set two more pins and paint more masks, one for the grass with Exposure 0.44 Saturation +30, and a second for the boats and water with Clarity 51.


How to use Lightroom to reclaim lost detail: step 4

04 Darken the sky
Grab the Graduated Filter, hold Shift and drag down from the top to the horizon. Set Exposure -1.57, Temp -19 to darken the sky. Next, de-emphasise the bottom-left corner by dragging a diagonal gradient inwards, then set Exposure -0.56, Contrast -53, Clarity -79.


How to use Lightroom to reclaim lost detail: step 5

05 Boost the colours
Tweaking the saturation of colour ranges can help to emphasise detail. Go to the HSL Panel and click Saturation. Set Yellow +22, Green +16, Aqua +32, Blue +38. If you prefer interactive colour control, click on the target icon at the top-left of the panel, then drag over colours to alter them.


How to use Lightroom to reclaim lost detail: step 6

06 Add punch
The Tone Curve lets you lighten or darken parts of the tonal range by dragging different parts of the curve line up or down. Drag down slightly near the bottom, then drag up on the middle to lighten the midtones. Pin the top part of the line back in place to preserve the highlights.

Tools for shadow and highlight recovery

Basic Panel sliders
Use the Highlights and Shadows sliders to reveal detail. The Whites and Blacks sliders set the extremes of the tonal range.

Adjustment Brush
Paint over an area with the Adjustment Brush, then use the tool’s tonal sliders on the right to improve it.

HSL Panel
Tweak eight different colour ranges by altering the Hue, Saturation or Luminance.

See the clipping

See the clipping

The Highlights and Shadows sliders found in the Basic Panel enable you to lift dark areas and recover detail in bright patches. If you hold Alt while dragging a slider, the image will change to display any clipped pixels. This makes it easier to see which areas need recovering.


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  • Umesh Vishwanatha

    How can I find/get “sunny_before.nef” raw file?