Saving an Underexposed and Dull Image

Ever have a photo that you had great expectations for, that just didn’t work out? Here’s one of my experiences and how I salvaged it.

We’d been hiking at a high mountain lake in NE Oregon, when a thunderstorm came marching in. We retreated a mile down the trail and around Anthony Lake, almost to the parking lot, when I turned around and decided I needed to take one more quick panorama. The clouds and rain were moving quickly our way, and I really was rushed! The scene was very dramatic, but setting up the tripod, pano head, and getting the camera lined up, took enough time that the rain was just starting as I hurried through the 3 exposures. I tried to expose for the clouds, but didn’t take time to check the histogram.

The resulting RAW files looked pretty dismal, and sat on my hard drive for a couple years. One day, on looking at them, I decided to see what I could salvage, as the histogram didn’t really look that bad. It didn’t have and blown out highlights or pure black shadows, so all the detail was there, just dark.

raw and tiff

After doing what I could in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR), I went ahead and stitched the 3 images, one of which is shown above. The results were pretty dull, but promising.

Sky Adjustment Layer

Sky Adjustment Layer

The first thing I decided to work on was the sky. I used an adjustment layer (shown in blue, lower right), and then masked the mountains, trees and lake. I have the other 2 layers turned off, so they don’t show. The actual adjustment shows in the Levels Histogram, lower left.

If you aren’t familiar with masking, you click on the little mask box on that adjustment layer in the Layers Palette, then use the paint brush with either black or white, on your image. Black lets the underling layer show through, white shows the adjustment layer. You can also use grays to let a percentage show through, blending the 2 layers. The mask you paint will show in the small box in your Layers Palette.

Once the sky looked right to me, I decided to work on the lower portion of the image with another Levels Adjustment Layer. It turned out to be a pretty simple adjustment, you can see what I did to the levels in the Levels Histogram, then I masked out the sky, so these adjustments had no affect on it.

Trees Adjustment Layer

Trees Adjustment Layer

Now they exposure looks pretty good, but the color is pretty lacking in saturation, mostly due to the underexposed foreground. I used a Vibrancy Adjustment Layer to bump up the areas that needed a boost, and masked out the other areas with a gray, so they got much less increase in saturation.

Vibrancy Adjustment Layer

Vibrancy Adjustment Layer

With a better exposure, things would have been easier, and I probably would have had a better image, but I’m still very pleased with the result after processing, it looks very much like the visual scene that my eyes took in on that stormy day.


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