A Fast Trick to Salvage an Underexposed Photo

Cameras are, like Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel, easily confused. If you take a photo of a scene that has a lot of contrasty lighting, you're likely going to end up with parts of the photo that are under- or overexposed. I have written about ways to fix photos like this--for example, check out how to brighten unwanted shadows. Most of these sorts of techniques take time and effort, though.

This week, I've got a trick that takes less than 2 minutes and is perfect for situations in which you want to take a photo with badly underexposed areas and make it presentable for uploading to Facebook. It won't be perfect, and I wouldn't use this approach to make a large print, but it's awesome for rapidly making snapshots presentable.

Duplicate the Photo

You can do this in almost any program that supports layers; I'll demonstrate it using Adobe Photoshop Elements. Suppose you have a photo like the one on the left, in which a strong backlight casts important parts of your subject in shadow.

Open the photo in your editing program and duplicate the photo in a new layer. In Photoshop Elements, do that by choosing Layer, Duplicate Layer and clicking OK. You'll now see two copies of the photo in the Layers palette on the right side of the screen.

Invert the Layer

Next, we want to saturate the top layer a little. Make sure that the top layer is selected in the Layer palette, and then choose Enhance, Adjust Color, Adjust Hue/Saturation. Grab the Saturation slider and reduce it by 50 percent so the slider says -50, then click OK. Now for the fancy bit: With the top layer still selected, press Ctrl-I, which will invert the colors in the layer. The top layer should now look sort of like a photographic negative.

Finishing Touches

It might not look like it, but we're one step from being done. In the Layers palette, change the mode from Normal to Overlay.

Instantly, you should see a much better photo. It's not perfect, and you could likely do better if you had a half hour to spend with some more advanced exposure correction techniques. But compare the new photo to the original: The shadows are much improved, making the image quite usable.

To finish the photo, right-click on the Layers palette and choose to flatten the image. Now you can run a little noise reduction on the image (select Filter, Noise, Reduce Noise), which might be helpful if brightening the shadows brought out a lot of speckling. Save the image; you're done!

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Great news! For a limited time (from March 1 till August 31, 2012), Hot Pic of the Week winners will receive one free downloadable copy of Corel PaintShop Pro X4.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 800 by 600 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Sunset Rainbow in Newfoundland" by Jerry Hissong, Hillsboro, Texas

Jerry says that he shot this photo near Deer Lake, Newfoundland, just after a heavy rain. He used a Canon EOS Digital Rebel.

This week's runner-up: "A Bench With a View" by Paul Bild, Vancouver, British Columbia

Paul writes: "I shot this photo with a Canon PowerShot G12 in downtown Vancouver last winter. I converted to the photo to black and white with Topaz Detail 2."

To see last month's winners, visit our March Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

Product mentioned in this article

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  • Photoshop Elements 10

    A great consumer-level image editor, but the image organizer should stay on the shelf.

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