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How To Bring Out The Most Detail in Your Low-Light Photos

Six easy steps for editing low-light images

By Brian Fulda 

Photographers can leverage certain editing techniques to bring out the full range of detail in their low-light photos. Just a few simple tweaks in Lightroom can totally transform your image, without sacrificing its quality or authenticity. I’ll walk you through my post-production process for low-light photos and show you how I turned the dark, unedited photo on the left into the stunning sunrise photo on the right in a few easy steps.

  1. I export my selected .lri image from Lumen as a DNG. I always export my files as DNGs in Lumen because it retains more information in the image than a JPEG—and that can be especially helpful when editing low-light images.Then I import my DNG into Adobe Lightroom, my editing software of choice. (Feel free to use whichever editing application you prefer — these tips will also work for Adobe Camera RAW as well.) Here’s what the original image looks like:

  1. Even though this was a 15-second exposure, the image is very dark. With heavy shadows like these, I like to start by making the most basic adjustments, such as raising the exposure or brightness by 1.30 stops. I also take care of the very dark parts of the image by raising the shadow slider about +25. Now I can at least see what I’m working with!

    Once I can see all of the fine details in my image, I decide to crop it so that my subject is positioned in the center of the image.

  2. Next, I start to make finer adjustments that affect contrast and color. The image looks slightly cooler than I want it to, meaning it has a bluish cast to it. I try to combat cool tones by raising the overall temperature, or white balance, of the image. This image was captured at a white balance of 5350K, and I raised that up to 7000K. This brings out the warm light of the sunrise at the bottom right of the image.

  3. Now the colors closely reflect what the scene actually looked like. When I warmed up the image’s white balance, however, I lost a bit of the gorgeous blue hue in the sky. Plus, the orange glow from the pre-dawn sky isn’t nearly as bright as I want it to be. To fix these issues, I raise the overall saturation and vibrance. I make sure not to go too far with these two sliders, as the image can end up looking very unrealistic if pushed too far. For saturation, I go up +7 and raise the vibrance to +15. To add some pop, I like to bump up the contrast +25  and raise the clarity slider to +15.

  1. My photo is beginning to look much closer to the magical sunrise I witnessed. For the final adjustments, I usually add a little sharpening, setting the slider to 30. It’s always a good idea to bring up your noise reduction slider a tad too—I set it to 15. I like to make the stars pop in any night sky, so I raise the highlights up to +10. I also use Lightroom’s curves feature to raise the black point to 5%, giving the photo a more natural look.

  2. Now my photo is ready to export. On the export dialog window, I choose to export the image at 3000 pixels on the long side and 72 dpi. I also picked the sRGB color profile, which is the best setting for the web while also keeping the file size down.

    Here’s what my editing flow looks like through the six steps above:

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