Lightroom: how to use the Histogram to fix exposure and reveal hidden detail

Lightroom: how to use the Histogram to fix exposure and reveal hidden detail

Do your highlights look blown out? Do your shadows look too dark? In the latest of our Adobe Lightroom tutorials learn how to use the photo editing software’s Histogram to reveal hidden detail.

Lightroom: how to use the Histogram to fix exposure and reveal hidden detail

Of all the advantages to shooting in your camera’s raw format over JPEG, perhaps the biggest is the extra tonal information you get. Raw files hold much more detail in highlights and shadows. This is hugely useful at times when you need to adjust exposure or claw back lost detail.

So if you’ve taken a shot like this one, where the highlights look blown out or the shadows look too dark, chances are that there’s more to the image than meets the eye.

It all depends on the histogram, a graph that displays tonal brightness. Imagine all the pixels in your image rearranged in terms of brightness and stacked into rows, with the darkest on the left and the lightest on the right.

Pay particular attention to the extremes of the graph. If it intersects the sides, you’re in trouble as it means that the shadows or the highlights are lacking in detail and are ‘clipped’ to pure black or white.

If that all sounds a bit technical, think of it this way: the histogram’s peaks should slope down to sea level rather than ending in a precipice at either side.

SEE MORE: Histogram – photography cheat sheets for achieving perfect exposure

Take control

Just like your camera’s LCD, Lightroom also has a histogram. But it’s more than just a graph. It’s a powerful tool for adjusting exposure and teasing out the all-important details in your images. We’ll show you how it works in this Lightroom tutorial.

Using histogram adjustments in Lightroom and other tonal tools, we can check for clipping and improve shadow detail, then go on to tweak exposure selectively with the Adjustment Brush and Graduated Filter.

SEE MORE: How to use Lightroom – 8 mistakes every photographer makes (and how to fix them)

Lightroom tutorials: add hidden detail – steps 1-3

01 Check for clipping

Download our start files and follow along! Go to the Library Module and drag in our exposure_before.dng image, then press Import. Head to the Develop module. Press J to toggle on the clipping warning. Areas of pure white show up as red, black as blue. Experiment by dragging the Exposure slider left or right to see the warnings appear.


02 Set a white point

Double-click to reset the Exposure slider. Go to the Histogram at top right. Notice how when you roll over it, certain areas are highlighted – Blacks, Shadows, Exposure, Highlights and Whites. Drag the Whites section to the right to about +20, until the red clipping warning begins to show.

SEE MORE: Master Adobe Lightroom in 12 minutes or less

03 Reveal shadow detail

Zoom in on the jacket. Go to the Blacks section on the left of the histogram and drag it until the blue clipping warnings disappear at about +20. Next, drag the Shadows section to about +50 to lift the dark tones. Drag the Highlights section left to about -27 to reveal tonal detail in the water.

Lightroom tutorial: how to use the Histogram to reveal detail – steps 1-3
Lightroom tutorial: how to use the Histogram to reveal detail – steps 4-6


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  • Johan Bauwens

    Increasing shadows and blacks gives you extra noise. Best is to get the pic ok in camera, and in this case use a flash or reflector