Recover clipped highlight detail: how to rescue your over-exposed photos
In this Photoshop Elements tutorial, learn how to banish clipping by targeting specific tones to recover highlight detail in over-exposed areas.
The human eye is adept at discerning detail in a wide range of tones, even when faced with a contrasting mixture of sun and shade.
In our start image below the camera has tried to get a balance between revealing detail in the shadows and retaining highlight detail.
This compromise has produced a disappointing shot in which you can’t clearly see the interesting textures in the shadows, plus many of the highlight details are still over-exposed. These clipped highlights will print out as detail-free patches of garish colour, especially in the paintwork of the sunlit boats.
Fortunately, Photoshop Elements’ tone-tweaking tools can enable you to create a more balanced exposure with less highlight clipping.
Here, we’ll show you how to use the histogram window and the Levels command to identify clipped highlights and then send in the powerful Shadows/Highlights command to restore highlight detail.
Shadows/Highlights can produce halos around contrasting features in the image though, so we’ll also show you a brush-based trick that will reduce these ugly image-editing artefacts.
After fixing our photo using Elements’ standard tone-tweaking tools we’ll finish off with an alternative technique by showing you how to give your humble JPEG access to the Camera Raw editor, so that you can make use of its handy clipping warning and tone-tweaking tools.
Step by step how to recover clipped highlight detail in Photoshop Elements
01 Open the start file
Launch Photoshop Elements. Go to File>Open and browse to your start image. Click Open and the photo will open in Photoshop Elements 11’s Expert editing workspace (or Full workspace if you’re using an older version of Elements). Go to Window>Layers to make the Layers palette visible.
02 Duplicate the layer
Before editing the image it’s worth making a copy of the Background layer, so that you can compare the edited version with the original. In the Layers palette, click on the Background layer’s thumbnail. Press Cmd/Ctrl+J to duplicate it. The duplicated layer will appear as Layer 1.
03 Summon the histogram
To understand the shot’s spread of tones, go to Window>Histogram. You can see from the Colours histogram that our photo contains some strong blues peaking in the highlight section far right. These bright blues will be clipped and print out with no detail. They’ll just be featureless patches of colour.
04 Create an Adjustment Layer
Go to Layers>New Adjustment Layer>Levels. Click OK. The black and white Levels histogram shows the spread and strength of tones in the shot, from the shadows at the far left to the highlights at the far right. Just as you saw with the Colours histogram, the brightest highlights are off the scale.
05 Use the clipping warning
To see more clearly which areas in the shot are clipped (over-exposed), you can use the Levels command to summon a clipping warning. Alt-click on the white highlight input level slider at the right of the graph. Clipped areas (such as the sky and most of the sunlit boats) will appear as patches of colour.
06 Levels’ limitations
The highlight input level slider only slides to the left, making the highlights become brighter and causing even more clipping. Leave it at 255. While the Levels command provides a useful highlight clipping warning, it can’t cure the problem. Fortunately there is another command you can use along with Levels.
07 Try Shadows/Highlights
In the Layers palette, click on Layer 1. Go to Enhance>Adjust Lighting>Shadows/Highlights. By default, this assumes the image is backlit and suffers from under-exposed shadows, so it automatically sets the Lighten Shadows slider to 35%. Drop this to 0 so you can focus on fixing the clipped highlights.
08 Horrible halos
Drag the Darken Highlights slider right to 65%. This restores more detail to the over-exposed clipped highlights (adding more colour and texture to areas like the girl’s leg). However, you need to watch out for lighter halos around contrasting areas such as the roof and lamppost.
09 Before and after
To get a compromise between restoring highlight detail and keeping halos to a minimum, set the Darken Highlights slider to a lower value of 35%. Tick and untick the little Preview box to see a before-and-after version of the edited image. Click OK to apply the highlight adjustment.
10 Check for clipping
In the Histogram window the graph’s blue highlights have slid left, indicating they are not as over-exposed as they were. For a second opinion, double-click on the Levels Adjustment Layer. Alt-click on the white highlight input level slider. The clipping warning patches have been considerably reduced.
11 Improve the contrast
To lighten the shaded areas, drag the grey midtone slider left to 1.51. This reveals some architectural detail in the under-exposed buildings. To make sure that the shot has some dark shadows (and a healthy range of black and white pixels), set the black shadow input level slider to 4.
12 Warm it up
The shot’s colour balance could be considered a little cool, especially given its sunny subject. To warm up our scene, go to Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Photo Filter. Set the Filter drop-down to Warming Filter (LBA) and reduce the Density to 20% for a more subtle warming effect.
13 Boost the colours
To give the shot more impact, go to Layers> New Adjustment Layer>Hue/Saturation. Keep the Channel set to Master and drag the Saturation slider to +16. It’s a good idea to keep your colour boost adjustment subtle, or you’ll run the risk of re-introducing clipped colours into the shot.
14 Set up a brush
There’s a hint of a halo around the lamppost. To fix this, choose Layer>New>Layer and click OK. Layer 2 will appear at the top of the Layers palette’s stack. Grab the Brush tool. From the Brush Preset picker in the options bar, choose a soft round tip with a Size of 200 and set Opacity to 100%.
15 Hide the halos
Place the brush near the lamppost (but not on the lighter halo) and hold Alt to activate the Eyedropper tool. Click to sample some blue sky. Spray the tip over the lamppost. To hide the lighter halo set the layer’s Blending Mode to Darken and reduce its Opacity to 29%.
16 Save the edited version
You can now go to File>Save As and set the Format drop-down menu to Photoshop. This preserves your shot’s layers. Alternatively, set the Format to JPEG and label it clipping_after. This creates a flattened file that you can easily upload to Facebook or email to family and friends.
17 JPEG to raw
To open a JPEG in the Camera Raw editor, go to File>Open. Browse to our clipping_before.jpg. Set the Format drop-down menu to Camera Raw. Click Open. Press O (over-exposed) to see all of the clipped highlights as patches of red. Clipped shadows can be displayed by pressing U (under-exposed).
18 Clobber clipping
To restore detail to the clipped highlights in Elements 11, set the Highlights slider to –22. If you’re using an earlier version, the Recovery slider will do a similar job. Restore shadow detail by dragging Shadows to +55 (or use the Fill Light slider in older versions.) Boost Vibrance to 20 and you’re done.
This entry was posted on Thursday, January 24th, 2013 at 7:00 am and is filed under Tutorials. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a comment. Pinging is currently not allowed.