Basic Exposure Fixes

Features Used:

  • Blowout highlighting
  • Quick Edits

 

Just about every photograph that I edit gets some exposure fixes, either because I had the camera settings wrong, or because I had them right and yet my pictures still feel a bit flat. The solution for both of these dates back to film photography, and Zoner makes it quick and simple.

Remember, a good exposure is one where neither the lightest nor the darkest parts of the picture have lost detail due to running into the “wall” of pure white or pure black. When they do run into that wall, you get blowout, e.g. a bright cloudy sky turning into one blob of pure white.

There are many written words out there about how to set up exposure and the in-camera factors behind it (shutter, aperture, and ISO). In short, it’s fundamental for anyone who takes photography seriously, so when you do get it wrong in the camera, you need to at least fix it afterwards.

1

For our illustration, we’ll use this picture, taken against the light. Due to bad exposure, it’s too light and it feels vaguely like it’s covered in a haze. Its histogram shows an exclamation point, indicating that it suffers from blowout. We could also learn this using in-picture highlighting: View-Show Blowout (Shift+O). When doing the edits that follow, we’ll leave Show Blowout on nonstop.

Blowout highlighting. There is some heavy red-channel blowout in the girls’ faces.

As a quick first step, we go for the Exposure slider. It moves the whole histogram right or left (it brightens or darkens all the light tones). Our goal is to get as much information as we can into the photo’s dynamic range—into its histogram.

For this picture, we’ll move Exposure down until the blowout warning disappears. (Note.: In this case, we’re only masking the problem. When a picture has blowout, the color information from the affected areas can never actually be recovered, except in some cases for pictures in RAW format.)

When we plan to work with the Curves or Levels tools, we use Exposure to move the histogram towards the middle. But here we’re in a hurry, so we instead keep the light tones running up to the edge of the histogram, so we’ll be able to make do with just what’s in Quick Edits. Now our color information is readied for further work, and we turn off blowout display.

Exposure—shifts right and left
Darken highlights—adjusts in right third
Brighten shadows—adjusts in left third
Black point—moves histogram edge right
Contrast—stretches out histogram on both sides
Clarity—increases contrast at edges

2

The photo is better off now, but it still looks like it was taken through glass. It’s short on contrast—on any real difference between light and dark. Normally, we’d use the Contrast slider to fix this, but here it would be a mistake. Contrast would push the histogram to the sides, giving us back the blowout we just got rid of. So instead we’ll move the Black point until the picture contains some absolute black—in other words, until the left end of the histogram curve hits the edge of the chart.

3

We wrap up our exposure edits with Darken highlights and Brighten shadow. The great thing about these sliders is that they only change part of the histogram. Darken highlights has almost no effect on the photo’s dark areas and vice versa.

Here we slightly brighten the shadows to draw out some detail. Note how Contrast got replaced in our workflow by other, gentler functions. Clarity deserves a boost in this picture, and in most pictures. We would only reduce Clarity when going for a dreamy photo, showing for example a portrait or flowers.

The final picture.

What You’ve Learned

  • How to read a histogram
  • How to avoid blowout
  • How to use the basic exposure edits
  • How to add contrast to a photo

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