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Level: Beginner

Ok I want everybody to fess up.  Be honest: You’ve overexposed a shoot before.  I know I have.  It sucks, and to be honest, it’s a horrible habit.  Luckily for me, the power of shooting in RAW can often times help salvage an overexposed photo.  Below, I present to you exhibit A (straight out of camera).

A little blown out to say the least.  No skin tones.  Overall, just mediocre at best.  That said, I still see some hope in the photo (the expression is just too precious to give up on!) After making some very simple adjustments in Lightroom, I was able to get a nice, warm look without losing too much detail in the overexposed parts. (Lightroom preset available for download below).

The Shot Itself

The setup for this photo was pretty simple.  I had an ottoman with a white rug positioned about 8-10feet in front of me with a big window camera left.  The lights in the background were simply Christmas lights hanging on the wall behind the baby (another 15 feet behind the subject, give or take).  This was shot with a 135mm, 1/320 – 2500ISO, F2.8 – all natural light.

Post Processing (Lightroom)

I started off simply by lowering the exposure -.56 and increasing the contrast by about 40.  Doing so brought back some of the lost details on the skin and helped separate the baby from the foreground.  This, however, made the blacks and shadows seem a bit too dark and dreary for my liking.  To counteract that I upped the blacks significantly while also lowering the highlights and white levels.  For added color I warmed up the color temperature a slight bit and increased the vibrance slightly. To recap, here’s where we’re at:

What we have so far would be what I consider a very simple color-corrected version of that photo, but often times, I want to take the picture a little bit further.  To do so, I’m going to load the new photo into Photoshop and begin doing some standard color grading.

Color Grading (Photoshop)
I want to preface this by saying most of this stuff could have been done directly to the photo in Lightroom, but I’ve gotten in the habit of doing my major colorizing in Photoshop, so I’m going to stick with that 🙂

If you open the PSD file included in the link below, you’ll notice all my color changes are done with what are called Adjustment Layers.   Why do people use Adjustment Layers?  The reason is twofold: It provides a non-destructive way to edit the photo (meaning, we’re not altering the image itself, but rather adding layers on top of the image that change the color/settings to what we set through the Adjustment Layer.)  For this, I used a Color Balance Adjustment Layer and Curves Adjustment Layers.

The way curves work is pretty simple – the straight line represents a gradient from Blacks (Darks) to Whites (Highlights).  Adjusting the left side of the curve has an impact on the shadows and darks while the right side changes the whites and highlights.  The first Curves Adjustment Layer increases the blacks while slightly lowering the midtones.

On top of that I then added a Color Balance Adjustment Layer to put a little more color in the shadows and highlights.  For this particular image, I wanted to add a bit more blue and red to the shadows and midtones.

The next Curves Adjustment Layer was done to help bring back a bit more details in the face by lowering the highlights.  Since this layer seemed to have a large effect on the whole photo – I used a layer mask to only change the face (the part that was still slightly overexposed).

The subsequent Curves Adjustment Layers were then added to further help separate the baby from the background and give the image a bit more cool-warmth.  Here’s the final:

Processing like this comes down to taste – so I have no doubts there will be people out there that prefer the normal color-corrected version over this more stylized rendition – but, c’est la vie.

Download the pack to this tutorial below, which includes the Lightroom preset and PSD file.

Includes PSD file, original RAW, and Lightroom preset!
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Steven Kowalski

About the author

Steven Kowalski: Portrait photographer based in Chicago. Teacher. NYU grad.

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