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Tips & Tricks

Fixing Harsh Lighting in Lightroom Where Light Modifiers Aren’t An Option

By Shivani Reddy on May 12th 2016

Dealing with mid-day sun can be the absolute worst when it comes to preserving tonality and color in your images. Here, we are breaking down exactly how to post-produce images taken in harsh lighting conditions to balance out the overall tone of the image, while retaining highlights & shadows – an essential skill.

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Problem Areas

When you are shooting journalistically, you don’t have all the liberty you might like to modify light, and therefore, must work with the cards you are dealt.

Take for example this image above, with our beautiful bride making her way down the aisle. There’s spotty lighting at its worst, and absolutely nothing to do to prevent it. Moments like these cannot be rehearsed nor re-done, you only get one shot to make it work. Your best bet is to expose to prevent any clipping of highlights and shadows in order to set yourself to improve upon the image in post production. After bringing the image into Lightroom, bump up the exposure to get the subject’s skin tone to an even point.

Highlights & Shadows

After bringing the image into Lightroom, bump up the exposure to get the subject’s skin tone to an even point. When approaching a harsh lighting situation, notice the heavy contrast between the highlighted areas and the deep shadows in the scene. First, start off by pulling down the ‘Highlights’ and ‘Whites’ of the image in order to balance the overall tone. Bring up the ‘Shadows’ and ‘Blacks’ in the photo to brighten the darker portions of the image.

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You’ll notice that the reduction of Highlights and the brightening of Shadows leaves the image lacking in contrast , though never fear, the Tone Curve is here!

Using the Tone Curve to Bring Back Contrast

In order to preserve the original contrast-punch the image had, we adjust the Tone Curve accordingly, and to do that a simple S-Curve does the trick. We use the Tone Curve to decide which range of tones we need to adjust (shadows, midtones, or highlights), and in this case, we want to deepen the shadows and brighten our highlights to increase overall contrast. By pulling down the shadows on the left side of the curve and bringing up the highlights on the right, we have added back the contrast lost from the previous adjustments in the Basic Panel.

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Making minor preferential adjustments thereafter, such as warming up the temperature; adding radial or graduated filters to draw attention to the important parts of the image, and sharpening and noise reduction, bring us to the final image! The main goal is to balance out the image and add back contrast where it is lacking.

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[REWIND: Split Toning | The ‘Secret’ In The Recipes For Many Adored Images, & Totally Undervalued]

Have suggestions or other techniques to fix harsh lighting conditions? Leave them in the comments below! For more tips and tricks to take your images from ordinary to extraordinary in Lightroom check out our Advanced Lightroom Processing Workshop.

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Shivani wants to live in a world where laughter is the cure to pretty much everything. Since she can’t claim “Serial Bingewatcher” as an occupation, she’ll settle for wedding/portrait photographer at Lin and Jirsa & marketing coordinator here at SLR Lounge. For those rare moments when you won’t find a camera in her hand, she will be dancing, eating a donut, or most likely watching Seinfeld.

Follow her on Instagram: @shivalry_inc

Q&A Discussions

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  1. George Pennock

    Good technique. I approach images the same way in Lightroom. I had an outdoor wedding a couple of weeks ago and the harsh sunlight was problematic. Shooting RAW and Lightroom is a saviour. You can check out my work at http://www.georgepennock.com

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  2. Mark Hossack

    Very helpful, thanks!

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  3. Keith Bonds

    Good tips. I like how you use the Tone Curve to bring that contrast. That’s a really useful tip. I like to use flash but sometimes just going natural is the way to go. Thanks for sharing!

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  4. Jason Tan

    I see others have already suggested it, and I agree – I think a bit of simple on-camera fill flash to start with would’ve helped to get capture a more optimal starting place.

    Flash also improves colour and contrast IMO.
    Sure to get the best possible output or to render your vision you’ll probably still need to post, but post can be easier and more effective if you start from the best possible capture.

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  5. Brian Pendley

    I shot weddings in the days of film and manual focus. I always had a flash bracket on my camera. With todays tech and amazing low light sensors it seems no one uses flash anymore. It may make for a heavy camera but it’s still extremely useful for fill. I do love the shot and knowing how to best play the cards as they’re dealt is important too. Great article.

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  6. Jose Gil

    Thanks for the lesson!

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  7. Antony Pratap

    A tip I use most of the time. Thanks for sharing it with all. Such powerful sliders :)

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  8. Cedric Labour

    Very nice tip!, im still learning in and out of the tone curve panel…i have been told it can be a life saver…if you know how to properly using it.

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  9. Mark Romine

    Adding an on-camera low level fill can get you another 1/2 to full stop detail in the shadows to play with which can be a life saver in these kinds of harsh situations and make your LR post work even easier.

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    • Shivani Reddy

      Thanks for suggestion Mark!

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    • Pye Jirsa

      I dig this trick too Mark. Only issue during wedding ceremonies is when I try to do a very subtle level of fill flash (just to fill shadow details a bit like you mention), people are staggered forward/backward in front of the lens, so some people get a lot, while the bride/father in this shot would get very little. It’s hard to throw it evenly across the frame when the frame has so many different depths.

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    • Mark Romine

      Yes, you have to be somewhat selective when you use it. But in this situation (example above) it would have been a near prefect one to use it on. The guests on the left are pretty much equal distance or further away from the camera as the father and bride are. The guests on the right would have been effected little if any by fill since they are primarily lit by the sun anyway.

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    • Jean-Francois Perreault

      Would a grid help in this case?
      I was thinking of getting the Magmod one so I can put it on and off easily and rapidly. So whenever I see people close I would put it on in order not to spill the light onto them and if not, I would leave it off (?)

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    • Mark Romine

      It might, I’ve never tried one in a situation like this. It would be direct hard light so it will produce hard edge shadows. When I run into a similar situation like this I use a little dome diffusor just to soften a little.

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    • Jean-Francois Perreault

      Yeah I wouldn’t use it indoors but in this case, with harsh light from the sun, it might just fill some shadows. I should give it a try! Well I should get the grid first but then I’ll give it a try ;)

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