Click here to grab 20 of our best Lightroom presets now, for FREE.

How to Brighten an Underexposed Ambient Light Portrait

How to Brighten an Underexposed Ambient Light Portrait

The type of post processing you do can change drastically depending on the lighting when the photo was taken. When working with diffused, ambient light, it's much better to underexpose than overexpose, because you can bring back a ton of detail afterwards.

This tutorial will show you how I processed an underexposed, ambient light portrait, taking it from unusable, to publication-ready.

Original Image

Diffused lighting is ideal for portraits. It softens features, and creates a large amount of leeway in post processing. This image may seem too dark to use, but wait until you see the final image.

Step 1

The darkest parts of the image are not necessarily too dark, we just want to increase the apparent brightness of the overall image.

Rather than increasing the Exposure, which would brighten the entire image, I'll increase the Whites slider to +75, brightening the midtones and highlights only.

Step 2

To soften the contrast, I'll increase the Blacks slider to +75.

Next, I'll darken just the darker tones in the photo but taking the Shadows slider down to -15.

This gives us a good balance of contrast and detail in the shadows.

Step 3

Now that we can see the image better, we can do some basic color correction.

The background is pretty green, so the auto white balance has the Tint shifted a bit too much towards the magenta side.

I'll take the Tint down from +42 to +25 so the subject isn't so pink looking.

For most portraits, I also like to increase the Temperature to a slightly more yellow setting, giving the subject more warmth. In this case, I increased it from 7350 to 7500.

Step 4

To give the photo a bit more pop, I'll take the Clarity up a bit to +15.

I also want to focus more on the subject, so under the Effects panel, I'll decrease the Amount for Post-Crop Vignetting to -35.

Step 5

I want to really hone in on the subject's face. Using the Radial Filter, I'll increase the Exposure to 0.10 and the Shadows to 25 on the inside of my selection.

Step 6

Another trick to make the subject stand out is to paint in local adjustments.

I'll use the Adjustment Brush to paint over the subject, then increase the Clarity to 30.

Step 7

Since his shirt is so bright, I want to make it less noticable.

Under the HSL/Color/B&W panel, I'll open the Luminance section and decrease the Blue slider to -10.

Since not much in this photo is blue, it will darken just the shirt, making his face the focal point.

Before and After

Brightening dark images always increases the noise in a photo, so depending on the final usage, you may want to apply noise reduction as well.

Final Image

What do you think? Were you able to apply some of these tips to your own images? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Share Your Thoughts