Common photo problems and how to fix them in Photoshop: #3 My photo is overexposed!

Photoshop overexposure
(Image credit: James Paterson)

It's easy enough to fix underexposure in Photoshop, so surely it should be just as easy to fix overexposure? Not quite! For digital cameras, overexposure is a much more serious problem because highlight detail is very fragile – and once it's gone, you can't get it back. This is why we always recommend photographers shoot raw files – raw files have just a little extra exposure leeway that can allow a small amount of highlight recovery.

Welcome to the third instalment in our a 15-part series on how to fix photo problems in Photoshop, Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw.

It's aimed at all photographers learning how to use Photoshop, Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom to enhance their photos, but we hope it's going to be especially useful to photographers who find themselves stuck at home during the current coronavirus crisis. Let's look on the bright side – now's a chance to do some of the image-editing tasks and experiments we never had time for before!

In this instalment we'll show you how to correct a photo that's been overexposed. It's a simple enough job if you took the precaution of shooting raw files.

Oh dear. Our original image is clearly way too light, and we've started losing detail both in our model's skintones and especially in her woollen hat. (Click the gadget in the top right to see a full size version.) (Image credit: James Paterson)

This is the same picture after we've reduced the exposure in Adobe Camera Raw. It's worked really well, but that's the advantage of shooting raw files. (Image credit: James Paterson)

Exposure and Highlights

(Image credit: James Paterson)

If an image is too bright for your liking, you can use the tonal tools in Camera Raw/Lightroom to darken it down. The Exposure and Highlights sliders in the Basic Panel are a good place to start.

As long as the highlights aren’t clipped to pure white, there will be detail in the brightest areas that you can recover (especially if it’s a raw). Some photographers like to overexpose on purpose, or ‘expose to the right’—while being careful not to blow out or clip the highlights—then recover the image afterwards. This ensures the minimum of visual noise.

Jargon buster

Highlight recovery: This is a technique used when processing raw files. You can adjust the processing to recover very bright highlight areas that would otherwise have been 'clipped' or blown out.

Expose to the right: This is a technical trick used by some photographers to get the maximum theoretical quality. It means choosing an exposure that pushes the image histogram as far to the right (the highlight end of the scale) as you dare. The more light the sensor gets the better, though the more likely it is that you will end up clipping the highlights. For the small theoretical gain in quality, we think it's just too risky.

Next instalment: #4 My photo is out of focus

If you don't use Photoshop or Lightroom, why not sign up for the trial version? You can use this free for a period of 7 days and then decide which of three Photography Plan subscriptions would suit you best.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

James Paterson

The lead technique writer on Digital Camera MagazinePhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine and N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine, James is a fantastic general practice photographer with an enviable array of skills across every genre of photography. 

Whether it's flash photography techniques like stroboscopic portraits, astrophotography projects like photographing the Northern Lights, or turning sound into art by making paint dance on a set of speakers, James' tutorials and projects are as creative as they are enjoyable. 

He's also a wizard at the dark arts of Photoshop, Lightroom and Affinity Photo, and is capable of some genuine black magic in the digital darkroom, making him one of the leading authorities on photo editing software and techniques.