An Underexposure Accident, Salvaged

My take on gear seems to be a bit controversial when you’re listening to the hordes of photographers who try to tell you that gear doesn’t matter. So here’s a real world example why new gear is better than old gear. Because accidents happen!

After I found a somewhat useful composition at this spot I attached my 6-stop filter to the lens to slow down the water movement. It was past sunset and looking at the meter reading from the camera I knew that it couldn’t be right: 5 seconds at f/11 and ISO100 after sunset, WITH a 6-stop filter? Something got the camera confused but what the heck, I released the shutter anyway. Here’s the result, straight out of Lightroom after importing:

Underexposed photo at Scripps Coastal Preserve, La Jolla, CA.
Underexposed photo at Scripps Coastal Preserve, La Jolla, CA.

BasicPanelWell, that is clearly a little bit underexposed, is it? So I did some quick adjustments, mostly in Lightroom’s Basic Panel, illustrated in the screenshot on the right. You can see that I increased the Exposure by five friggin’ stops, then pulled down the Highlights and increased the Shadows. Those are the edits that had the most impact.

After that I used the Adjustment Brush in the foreground (making parts of the rocks brighter, aka dodging) and used a Radial Filter over the sky just above the horizon to reduce Exposure, Contrast and Clarity, and bump the Saturation a little bit – all with one Radial Filter of course, and positioned precisely where I wanted it.

I do a lot of local adjustments in Lightroom nowadays. The combination of the Adjustment Brush, Radial Filter and Graduated Filter is incredibly powerful. For quite some images, it’s possible to dodge and burn so nicely that the results come close to the effect of Luminance Masks in Photoshop – without the hassle of going into Photoshop and creating huge TIFF files.

Most of my editing is done in Lightroom and I have one single and – relatively – small DNG file that contains all the editing steps, reversible and non-destructive. I can go back to an old image from 2008, click Reset and start all over – without having to find the backup of the 2008 raw files first. 🙂

Now have a look at the resulting image:

Scripps Coastal Preserve, Restored Image
Scripps Coastal Preserve, Restored Image

The power of the tools we have at our disposal is bedazzling sometimes. In all fairness though: yes, the image is noisy. Think about it: ISO100 bumped by five stops in post – that equals an ISO3200 image. (and that’s before using the Shadows control to pull up the dark areas even more – the shadows are probably closer to ISO6400 here.) And the noise? Is not visible in the web version. Or do you see noise? 🙂

I’ll show you the noise, all right… but with a twist. 🙂 The D800 is a 36 megapixel camera. And yes, I think more is better. Why? I apply some noise reduction in Lightroom (only a bit of Luminance noise reduction, but a lot of Color noise reduction actually), and then I export at 13.5 megapixels, with 4500 pixels on the long side*. And here’s a 100% crop of that, from the image center.

100% crop

Last not least, for a quick before-after comparison, here are the two images again as a gallery: click on one to open and you can switch back and forth between the two with your mouse or the cursor keys.

But, needless to say, I simply repeated the exercise with the correct exposure time. 😉

*) I do this with high ISO photos made during events and portrait sessions all the time. 13.5 megapixels is plenty, and that way the ISO6400 low light photos probably look better than what many compact cameras produce at ISO400. 🙂

7 thoughts on “An Underexposure Accident, Salvaged

  1. Well, you might be swaying my opinion a bit on more megapixels. If the gain was only printing larger, then I’d still say that I don’t care much about numbers beyond the 20’s. Clearly there are a few other benefits, if they are in a good sensor like yours.

    1. Absolutely. One of the LEAST compelling things for me when I initially got the D800 was the “insane” megapixel count. I quickly changed my opinion. Not only is zooming in to discover amazing detail totally addicting – the latitude for edits is expanded by the high pixel count. It makes sense: you’re sampling more data to begin with.

  2. I wouldn’t want to get into a discussion about gear (such treasures that you have many of us can only dream about!). But it does occur to me that this would be a nothing shot if the composition had been less than excellent 😉
    What intrigues me is not your clever recovery of the image but rather the fact your camera gave you such a erroneous metering in the first place… did you discover what the problem was for that exposure? One would have hoped that modern cameras were less prone to ‘logic lock-up’? I have sporadic ‘nonsense’ meter readings from my old dslr, but have never got to the bottom of why this might be so.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Stephen. I’m not sure what caused it, most likely i forgot to cover the viewfinder after attaching the filter (since I didn’t cover it with my head/eye).

      I can’t recall if I ever experienced a logic lock up with the D800. But I guess my usage is not very demanding, anyway. 🙂

      1. A flick of the wrist – to open and close the battery door usually cures the any lock up problems for me. (Which actually involves pulling back a piece of gaffer tape that I used to keep the door closed – following a rather stupid accident! 😉

  3. This happened to me a few times. It is quite amazing what modern sensors combined with good raw converters can get out. I’ve gone back to old images too and turned out to have some good images that I wrote off because of underexposure or forgetting to tone done the ISO from a previous shoot.

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