Shot a portrait with flash + umbrella (indoors at night, some artifial ambient light) - but it's underexposed.

In my first go at darktable I managed to properly expose the whole photo within 2 seconds with the "exposure" module. - However, I'd like only the exposure of the subject's face (and hair strands, arms, body) to be corrected - not the background which I'd prefer to leave in the dark (i.e. dark/unchanged, not black - though that would be a bonus exercise)...

I can't seem to find any useful, authoritative tutorials etc on this yet (apart from proprietory non-Linux https://skylum.com/luminar); I guess one approach would involve drawing a "mask" over the subject's face (and body), but I'm just guessing around, feeling like an amateur photographer trying to fly a jumbo jet with all the knobs and buttons...

What are the standard ways of increasing the exposure of a face without changing the background's exposure? I'm a beginner in the field and need guidance... at least some name-dropping of key technical terms / concepts / approaches for darktable / gimp / lightroom / photoshop...


2 Answers 2

  • With Darktable you produce two outputs, one where the person it to your liking, and one where the background it to your liking

Then in Gimp:

  • You File > Open the background one
  • Your File > Open as layers the person one (this adds it as a 2nd yaer over the first one)
  • You add a mask to the person one (Layer > Mask > Add layer mask, initialize to white)
  • You paint the mask in black where you want it transparent (and therefore show the background only).

See here for a tutorial on masks.

  • \$\begingroup\$ In what way would this approach be superior (or easier?) than masking already within darktable (and within darktable's exposure module) ? \$\endgroup\$ Feb 10, 2022 at 11:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Two things: 1 ) from the Darktable doc, the mask iis what Gimp calls a path (ie, a sequence of Bezier splines). I have no experience with Darktable but a lot with the Gimp paths, and in my experience paths are not very easy to use on "organic" objects and 2) with a layer mask you are not limited to black/white you can use gray (or a soft brush) so you can more easily make the two exposures blend with each other. \$\endgroup\$
    – xenoid
    Feb 10, 2022 at 12:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nuttyaboutnatty I'd say it depends a lot on how the original image looks. If there is a notable difference in brightness and/or hue, you may be successful using a parametric mask in darktable, which would be the easier solution in this case. If you can't easily separate based on brightness/colour alone, using Gimp is probably better as you are more flexible in drawing the mask. \$\endgroup\$
    – luator
    Feb 10, 2022 at 14:29

In Darktable, multiple instances of exposure are usēd to mimic the 'dodge and burn' effect brought to digital image processing from the film darkroom or the effect of an on camera graduated ND filter. The masking functions are very powerful, there are many options:

  • uniformly
  • drawn mask
  • parametric mask
  • drawn and parametric mask combined
  • raster

Drawn masks can be circles, elipses, paths (similar to lasoo selections), brush or gradients and these have hardness and opacity properties.

Each of the mask types can be modified with blend modes such as multiply, divide, addition etc. and a mask refinement which can add feathering, bluring, contrast and reduce opacity. Masks can contain multiple shapes which can be combined in union, intersection, difference and exclusion modes in the mask manager.

A mask can be copied or shared between modules, for instance using a circle with exposure to darken the image and color balance rgb to reduce saturation for a vignette effect.

A simple example would be to darken the sky of a landscape photograph, using a second instance of exposure with a simple gradient drawn mask. A more refined method might use a drawn and parametric masking, a path to select the sky which is then refined with a feathering radius of about 30 pixels and then further restricted by setting parametric masking with the colour picker.

In the case of the portrait, use the path tool in drawn mask and select the area just inside the boundary of the person, finishing with a right click. Hover over the mask to make sure opacity is high and feather size of the shape itself is low. Toggle the shape off (the arrow and dotted line icon next to the mask drawing tools) and display the mask (the square with a dark circle icon next to mask refinement) the image goes black and white and the mask is shown in yellow. Move the feathering radius slider till the mask fills out to the boundary of your subject. This method of feathering is superior because it is guided to fit the image I think, but can introduce artifacts. Revert to the normal view and move the exposure slider to increase the exposure of the masked area. If the transition from masked to unmasked areas is too harsh or artifacts appear, play around with the refinements.

As regards help and tutorials, darktable's website has a resources page with links to the very good manual in several languages and formats as well as links to some video tutorials. Personally I like Bruce Williams' stuff as he comes at it from a non computer geek / photographer / user point of view and freely admits when something new in the programme stumps him.


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