Lightroom Tip of the Week: Control Your Highlights

Adobe’s Lightroom is a great program for managing your photo library, editing your photos, and presenting them in various ways, from printing to creating books. I’ve been using Lightroom for a number of years now, beginning with Lightroom 2 all the way to the current version. Lightroom 5. Whereas Photoshop is really more of a graphic design program with tools covering a broad range of uses, Lightroom was built from the ground up with photographers and their workflow in mind, from image import and file management to printing and output. I use Lightroom for the majority of my image editing needs, rarely venturing into Photoshop (although Photoshop does have some specific uses and one of my goals for the year is to become more adept at using it).

I don’t how many of my regular followers are Lightroom users but I plan to make Lightroom tips a regular feature of this blog. Part of the reason for this is personal; while I consider myself to be a relatively proficient Lightroom user, I’m aware that there’s a lot I don’t know and this will encourage me to delve deeper. And I hope that some of you find this information useful, also. Although I titled this post Lightroom Tip of the Week, I would interpret the week part rather loosely as I have other topics I hope to cover as well.

While not an exactly new, the highlights adjustment tool has been greatly improved with recent versions of the program. This tool, located in the Basic panel of the Develop module (see Figure 1), allows you to recover detail that may be otherwise lost in areas that are extremely bright or blown out. Of course, this only works if there is detail available in your file to recover. If the highlights are completely blown out, there will simply be no data available for Lightroom to work with you’re just out of luck. This works best if you shoot in RAW, which I highly recommend you do all the time.

Highlights control slider in the Develop module

Figure 1: Highlights control slider in the Develop module

The histogram in the upper right corner of the Develop Module will tell you if you have highlights that are being clipped, or lost, although it won’t necessarily indicate whether all of these are recoverable. The histogram curve will be pushed up against the right side and a white triangle will appear on the upper right side of the histogram box (see Figure 2). Move the highlights slider in the Basic panel back and forth and watch as the histogram shifts. Move the slider to the left to reduce highlights, to the right to increase them.

Figure 2: Highlights clipping indicator

Figure 2: Highlights clipping indicator

If you hover your cursor over the white triangle, you’ll see any areas with clipped highlights appear as red shading in your image (see Figure 3). You can toggle the shading on and off by clicking the triangle. When it’s toggled on, a white box will appear around the triangle. By leaving this toggled on, you can watch the red areas disappear as you move the slider to the left (Figure 4). Notice however that even with a setting of -45 used for this image there are still some clipped highlights somewhere in the image, as indicated by the illuminated Highlights clipping triangle.

Figure 3: Clipped highlights shaded in red

Figure 3: Clipped highlights shaded in red

Figure 4: Red shading gone with Highlights set at -45

Figure 4: Red shading gone with Highlights set at -45

One of the ‘problems’ I find with making highlights adjustment using the controls in the Basic panel is that Lightroom is making a blanket adjustment across the image. Sometimes this is fine, but quite often the area needing adjustment is only in one small part of the image and I don’t necessarily want highlights reduced elsewhere. However, I find that using the Adjustment Brush is often a better option. Using the Adjustment Brush with the highlights setting selected (Figure 5) will allow you to paint the adjustment only over the area needing fixing.

Figure 5: Adjustment Brush

Figure 5: Adjustment Brush

Figure 6: Final histogram

Figure 6: Final histogram

For the final image below, I opted for a slightly different method and chose to reduce the exposure on the sky using the Graduated Filter (which I can cover in a future post). This left only small areas of clipped highlights which I recovered using the Adjustment Brush.

Villa de Zaachila, Mexico

Final Image: Villa de Zaachila, Mexico

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below. And if you know anyone who might find this tutorial useful, please feel free to share it.

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2 Comments

  1. Beverly McArthur January 12, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    Thanks Darin for the information! I do use this tool but really never understood exactly how it works, just moved it around and sometimes I can find something I like and other times not. You explained its function very well.

    • Darin January 12, 2014 at 3:49 pm #

      Thanks Beverly, I’m glad you found it useful.