Lost your friends to the shadows?

So often I see photos that show people almost totally lost in shadows. Maybe a group standing in front of the Eiffel Tower – beautiful detail in the landscape, but the faces of the people are totally unrecognizable because of the shadows falling across their faces. LJK11511-P7

Especially in photos taken with on-camera flash, the folks in front are way overexposed and the ones in the back row lost in the dark. It need not be so, there is help my friends! Some times all it takes is to let Auto Correct in Photo Gallery or a small move of the Shadows slider over toward the right to set matters right. In PicasaI’m feeling lucky” may do the trick or the Fill Light slider.

The dark areas of our photos hide a lot of detail that is often totally unrecognizable. Those details can be brought out. It may not result in award-winning photos, but it may make all the difference at a family gathering.

The photo above won’t let you bring out any detail in the figure, so don’t bother to try. It is a “doctored” photo, I made the figure, actually a flat sculpture, totally black.

I did make some experiments to see just how much information can be extracted from a painfully underexposed photo. I used a white cloth with a near-white plate and a white egg on that. The lighting was very soft, diffused window light so there would be hardly any shadows. My camera decided that the exposure at f/11 should be 1/15 of a second. Now we all know that cameras can’t tell an all white subject from a normal scene. You have seen photos of those white dogs romping in snow – they are just a dingy gray all over. So I over-exposed by 2 1/3 stops – used a shutter speed of 1/3 second. Here is my photo as seen in Photo Gallery.


Note the histogram chart on the right. It shows the relative number of pixels of each shade, from totally black on the left to totally white on the right. There are just a few pixels that are below the halfway mark on the chart. The most pixels are bunched up near the right, the white, end. The cloth is not completely white and you can make out some texture in it. But looking at the photo you would conclude that indeed I had used a white cloth, a white plate, and a white egg, and the photo fairly represents my subject.

The next photo here shows the same scene but photographed at 1/250 second – four stops under the camera selected exposure, 6 1/3 stops below the photo above.


Hopeless, wouldn’t you say? Take a look at the histogram. All the pixels are bunched up tightly on the black end. But note that they are just a tiny bit above the left end. There must be some data there.

Photo Gallery offers a number of sliders in the Adjust exposure panel. Those little doohickeys under the histogram are sliders too. They can be used to tell Photo Gallery to spread out the data. By sliding down the one on the white end you can tell Photo Gallery which pixel value to amplify up all the way to the white end, the rest will be proportionally lightened too. Lets see what happens when the “white” histogram slider is moved way left to just above where there is pixel data.


Look at the picture. Amazing, isn’t it? Not quite as white as it should be. So let’s use the Brightness slider to finish the job.


Well, what do you think? Yes, it is astonishing how much useful picture information can hide in shadows. I hope I have convinced you that you should take another look at your “uselessly underexposed” photos. As I said, maybe not gallery quality, but certainly very much worth doing.

For a bit more background on the histogram, see my post in Photography Notes & Tips Use the histogram to improve your photos.


© 2014 Ludwig Keck

There may be more detail in your photos than you think

Sometimes you may be happy with a photo – perhaps a flash photo of friends, or a photo of a bird against the sky, like here. Flash pictures often show the people in the front row just fine, but the ones in back are dark and hard to even recognize. hawk-E1Photos of back-lit subjects might make nice silhouettes but are a little too dark to show all the detail.

Cameras do a marvelous job of taking the work out of photography, but you can improve the photos more often than not after they come out of the camera.

Here is a photo of a hawk. The sun was high in the sky and what we see is the shaded side. Not a bad photo you might say – considering the luck in getting it.

You can see the red tail feathers and nice detail in the wings. The camera did a pretty good job.

The dark areas, almost black in this shot,  may contain more detail than is apparent when the photo is seen on a monitor or even printed as is.

Windows Live Photo Gallery makes it easy to improve your photos. Clicking Auto adjust lightened the dark areas a bit – it was a good improvement. hawk-E2

The manual adjustments can make it even better.

Photo Gallery, in the Adjust exposure panel, has four sliders and also two histogram controls.

Brightness affects the whole photo and makes it either lighter or darker. The Contrast control can make the dark areas lighter and the light areas darker or vice versa.

The Shadows control only affects the darker areas, it can lighten them or make them even darker.

The Highlights control works similarly but affects the lighter areas.

For this photo I set the Shadows slider almost fully to the right to lighten the dark, the shadow, areas.

The histogram shows the distribution of the pixels from full black on the left to full white on the right. The vertical scale shows the relative number of pixels of that shade. Note that in this photo of a hawk against a blue sky there are two humps or curves. The low, spread out curve on the left shows the pixels of the hawk, the big spike is the blue sky.

There are two sliders below the histogram. The left one lets you set the black level. Slide it to the right and every pixel that is to the left of the indicator will be set to black. The right slider lets you set the white level. Every pixel on the histogram that is to the right of the indicator will be set to full white. The nice thing is that once these settings are applied, the pixels between the slider settings will be spread out over the full range from black to white.

For this photo I moved the white level slider a ways to the left. There were no pixels there, so I did not turn any areas into chalk white. The effect was to spread the pixels out, lightening the photo and the sky.

There is no best setting for any of these controls, just play with them until you are happy with the results. I click Revert to original quite often to permit me to start all over.

Enhancing your photos is fun to do. It is even nice when your friends say that you take good photos.


© 2011 Ludwig Keck

Screens and dirty windows in front of your camera lens

Sometimes the conditions for taking pictures are very marginal but the photo is a must. Such was the situation recently for me. We have not had any rain lately and even the deer that live around our neighborhood were getting desperate. It was after dinner when a doe wandered to the bowl of water I have sitting our for the chipmunks and small birds. It was unusual and I wanted a photo. The only view was from a window with a heavy screen. There was a good deal of light falling on the screen from a window behind me.


Here is the result. The exposure was 1/15 sec , f/5.6 at ISO 1600. Marginal at best. Note the histogram, nothing on the black end as the illuminated screen provided glare and nothing on the high end as it was dark and there was not enough light for a hand-held exposure. My lens was as open as it goes at the zoom setting I used.

Those little controls on the histogram are the salvation for shots like this. I moved the bottom one up to just were the histogram curve starts and the top one down enough to brighten up the photo. A little bit of added contrast and a small boost of  color saturation was all, I did not crop the photo.


DeerMuch more acceptable, don’t you think? As a record of the event it will serve just fine. I only managed a few exposures. Our guest only stayed for a long drink and then scampered back into the woods. Maybe I should have told you, this drinking bowl is in our front yard! You can see a little more of the lawn in the parting shot.

The moral of this story is this: Don’t let screens, veils, or dirty windows stop you. Even in impossible situations, take the photo. Then use a bit of processing magic to bring out the picture.



© 2011 Ludwig Keck