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Tips & Tricks

How to Boost the Dynamic Range of an Underexposed Portrait in Lightroom 4

By fotosiamo on November 16th 2012


Often times we shoot images underexposed in order to preserve highlight detail when we don’t have additional lighting modifiers available. However, regardless of whether an image was intentionally or unintentionally underexposed, the production process remains the same.

This is a step-by-step tutorial that will show you how to correct for underexposure and increase the dynamic range of an underexposed portrait.

Lightroom 4 Preset System Mixology

If you own the SLR Lounge Lightroom 4 Preset System, this effect can be achieved in around 10-20 seconds. If you don’t own the preset system, please skip to Step 1 to learn how to do it manually.

Boosting the Dynamic Range

1. MY MIXOLOGY > 25 HDR Strong
2. BASE ADJUSTMENTS > 07 Lighten +1.5 (Exposure)
3. BASE ADJUSTMENTS > 23 Light Soften Skin (Detail)
4. BASE ADJUSTMENTS > 34 Medium Boost (Contrast)
5. ADJUSTMENT BRUSHES > 12 Sky | Cloud | Ocean (Detail Enhancers)
6. ADJUSTMENT BRUSHES > 13 Nature | Color (Detail Enhancers)
7. ADJUSTMENT BRUSHES > 16 Unenhance HDR (Skin) (Detail Enhancers)

The Video Tutorial

The Original Image

Original underexposed image

Step 1. Applying our Basic Adjustments

Because the image that we started with is very underexposed, one of the first steps that we need to do is to correct the exposure. In this case, the image requires a +1.5 stop in exposure compensation. We also want to boost the dynamic range of the image, so let’s bring down the Highlights and Whites by -80 and lift up the Shadows and Blacks by +80.

Additional Contrast is also needed because when we increase the dynamic range, the contrast becomes flattened.

Because we are working with a portrait, we want to have nice, smooth skin tones. So let’s decrease Clarity a bit. Your Basic Panel adjustment and image should look like the following:

01 Basic Panel

01 650px Basic Panel

Step 2. Adding Additional Contrast via Curves

In addition to adding Contrast in the Basic Panel, let’s add a slight contrast-boosting “S” curve that pulls down the shadows a bit and boosts the highlights up a bit.

02 Tone Curve

02 650px Tone Curve

Step 3. Sharpening and Noise Reduction

Normally, if you are using the SLR Lounge Preset System, the Sharpening are automatically applied. Here are the standard sharpening settings typically applied to our images:

03 Detail-Sharpening

Notice that we applied some Noise Reduction because we added a heavy boost in dynamic range and pulled up our shadows. We use this setting for Noise Reduction:

04 Noise Reduction

Step 4. Opening up the Borders with Vignetting

Finally, let’s add some Lens Vignetting at +30 Amount and +30 Midpoint to even out edge-to-edge brightness.

Here is how your image should look like after applying all of these adjustments.

04 Noise Reduction

Once we completed all the global adjustments, we are now going to use the adjustment brushes for fine-tuning certain elements of the image.

Step 5. Using Adjustment Brushes for the Sky and the Ground

In the Lightroom 4 Preset System, there is an adjustment brush called the “Sky | Cloud | Ocean” that we would apply to the sky, cloud, and ocean. The purpose of this brush is to increase the contrast and clarity. Additionally, this adjustment brush also increases saturation.

Here are the settings for this adjustment brush, followed by the image with the brush applied to the sky:

06 Adj Brush Sky Cloud Ocean

04 650px Sky Cloud Ocean Brush

We are also going to use a similar adjustment brush for the grassy field. The LR4 Preset we use is called “Color | Nature.” The settings for the brush are designed to boost the tones and colors typically found in nature. Here are the settings for this brush, followed by the photo after we applied this brush.

07 Adj Brush Nature
05 650px Nature Ocean Brush

Step 6. Using an Adjustment Brush for Skin Tone Correction

One of the drawbacks of using an HDR-like dynamic boost in a portrait is that the skin tone may become over-saturated and may exhibit unnatural color shifts. We can use an adjustment brush to counteract these effects. The LR4 Preset brush we use is called “Unenhanced HDR (Skin).” This brush diminishes the contrast, clarity, and saturation on the skin.

08 Adj Brush Unenhanced HDR (Skin)

This is how the skin tone looks before and after we applied the brush.

Unenhanced-HDR Skin Brush Before-After

Final Before and After Images

Finally, here are the before and after images comparing the original underexposed image against the finished image with the boosted dynamic range.


Original underexposed image


High Dynamic Range Portrait

The Lightroom 4 Preset System

The SLR Lounge Lightroom 4 Preset System is designed to enable users to achieve virtually any look and effect within 3-5 simple clicks. From basic color correction, vintage fades, black & white effects, tilt-shift effects, faux HDR, retouching, detail enhancing, and so much more. The sky is the limit with what has been dubbed the most powerful and intuitive preset system available. Click the link above to learn more/purchase.

You can also purchase the LR4 Preset System as part of the Lightroom 4 Workshop Collection.


Joe is a rising fashion and commercial photographer based in Los Angeles, CA. He blends creativity and edge with a strong style of lighting and emotion in his photographs. Be sure to check out his work at and connect with him on Google Plus and on Facebook


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  1. Joseph Prusa


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  2. Ed Rhodes


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  3. Basit Zargar


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  4. Justin Douglas

    Hahah… Like lucky charms magic!

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  5. Amanda

    Wonderful tutorial! This is exactly what I needed. Thank you for sharing!

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  6. Chasstaf

    Nice tut…thanks for sharing

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