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I was traveling recently and had a little time at a pier late in the night. The surrounding skyline was spectacular and I clicked the scene highly underexposed. Any ideas on how I can process this? If I try increasing the exposure the neon billboards in the scene get obnoxiously bright. Any ideas would be appreciated. I primarily use Lightroom for processing and Photoshops for any light touch-ups.

enter image description here

I want to bring out the detail in the buildings and make it look more like what I actually saw. The neons do stand out but so does the detail in the buildings. There is strangely a harmonious coexistence between the two. I can bring out the detail by increasing exposure and playing with shadows but that consequently also brightens the neons to an uncomfortable level

  • Something like this. – electrophile Dec 18 '17 at 14:57
  • you won't be able to brighten this very much without introducing a lot of noise and artefacts. but FWIW i think it looks quite interesting as it is! – ths Dec 18 '17 at 15:15
  • Tough call on trying to post process brightening. I've tried to rescue similar photos in darktable and gimp, and you'll run into noise quite quickly. – Calyth Dec 18 '17 at 16:08
  • @electrophile your sample is a long exposure shot, most likely with a filter too. – Nelson Dec 29 '17 at 11:47
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It is not underexposed. Any brighter exposure would have blown out the highlights which there are two in your photo. This left most of the scene black which means you have exceeded the dynamic-range of your camera. For something like that, you probably exceeded the dynamic-range of any camera, so the real solution would have been to take bracketed exposures and perform exposure-fusion on them.

You do not have much options without reshooting since a good percentage of the image has no details and nothing will bring them back. If you want to see what is there, try the Levels or Curves tools and lift up the shadow area.

It may not give you what you want but you can try the if you can't beat them, join them approach and lower the shadows to get just the neon lights, turning the image into something interesting too.

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On this image as it is there is nothing you can do.

The process would be adjusting the curves, either manually or using a gamma curve. This is a specific type of curve that quickly boost the shadows but it is gentle with the highlights.

The second step (or previous if you want) would be reducing the noise on the boosted shadows.

But on this image, there is nothing on the dark areas. (The curve is really exagerated so you can clearly see it)

enter image description here

If you have a RAW image, there is a little chance you can save some lost detail in the shadow.


A way to work on this type of scenarios would be taking multiple exposures and stack them in post, making an HDRI image and then tone mapping it. One of this exposures would be a long one to get some details on the dark areas.

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Try using a reverse-S curve to decrease contrast.

example S-curve used

It should keep the highlights from haloing while lifting the shadows.

adjusted image

You can also do this with a contrast slider, but curves give you more control.

Alternatively, you could use the Levels tool in Photoshop and slide around the white and grey points to taste, while leaving the black point alone.

level adjustments

adjusted image

See also: this Curves tutorial on the Chromasia website

But I don't think you're going to match that other image you linked to by reworking this one, as I suspect it may be a stacked image where the photographer took bracketed images and then combined them using HDR or exposure fusion techniques.

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Try to increase shadows. It will make them brighter but won't change bright billboards. If this won't help much you can try to make a pseudo-HDR:

Increase exposure (with or without decreasing highlights) and the combine two photos (original and with increased exposure) to a HDR using any tool (I think recent versions of Photoshop can do it).

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