I don’t always make underexposed photos, but when I do, I sure as heck know how to fix them!
Surely I never get everything correct in the camera. More often than not I am over or underexposed. I don’t always get the shot in focus, and I rarely get my horizons straight. Other photographers and subscribers to the blog seem to think my exposures tread on water, because they only see my highlight reel. The truth is I’m just like every other photographer out there. I do not have super human abilities to make every shot amazing out of camera and for this I am very thankful for the RAW file!
While on the workshop in Cannon Beach with Shutter Click Adventures in October we ran across a gorgeous sunset over the ocean. I was between my camera and bouncing all over the beach ensuring no one needed any assistance capturing the scene in front of us. I was distracted, in a good way of course, and wasn’t paying attention to my exposures. I took my skill-sets for granted and instead of ensuring all of the exposures were good before I recomposed my camera, I kept shooting. When I looked at my images later my memory card was full of poorly exposed photos for the foreground and overexposed for the sky. Luckily, I had a couple of underexposed 10 stop ND long exposures in the mix mix to help me out, because even the best HDR tone mapping program couldn’t help the amount of tone compression I was getting in the sky.
Fixing Underexposed Photos
The RAW format has so much dynamic range in the file that even some of the worst underexposed photos can be fixed with a bit of tweaking. For this reason I tend to expose to the left, or towards the underexposed side of the exposure spectrum especially when shooting the sunset. The sunset is usually not my focal point, but it is the “Best Supporting Actress” and for that reason it helps to underexpose the photo slightly to ensure you have enough range in your sun-setting sky. The foreground elements may appear dark, but they can be resurrected.
A vast ocean sunset will always give you some trouble in camera. There are ways to mitigate this trouble. One way is to use a graduated ND filter that will assist with getting a nice even exposure. The Graduated filter I have goes from 2 stops to 0 Stops making it appear like a gradient filter in Photoshop. This allows you to expose for the foreground while maintaining all of that nice color in the sunset by underexposing it by 2 graduated stops. I forgot mine in the condo we rented for the trip so I was SOL there.
The other way to mitigate the sunset trouble is to expose your sunsets to the left of the exposure spectrum. In the photo we will be discussing in the tutorial, the foreground was approximately 3-4 stops underexposed while the background was about 1.5-2 stops over exposed. This is no problem at all for Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom to fix. So instead of tossing those exposures, take a look at this tutorial and resurrect some of those images. It is not difficult you just have to know what sliders to tweak.
Like the style of this tutorial? You will LOVE HDR Insider! Full-Length HDR Workflows, Critiques & More!