Blown Highlights in Print


Today’s Question: If you have taken a photo and want to make a print, but it has a blown-out highlights area, what will that look like on a print and is there anything that can be done in Lightroom Classic or Photoshop to fix it? I’ve been told that blown out highlights are unrecoverable, but in this time of AI has that changed?

Tim’s Quick Answer: Areas of a photo that are blown out will have no ink on the paper in the print, causing the area to look odd both in terms of tone and texture. This can be fixed by either pulling back the white point or using image cleanup techniques to fill in the area.

More Detail: When areas of an image are blown out to pure white, there is no texture in those areas. When printed, these blown out areas of the photo will not have any ink on the paper. That results in a complete lack of texture in the area, but also means the paper in that area will be exposed. This can look a bit odd, because the texture and degree of gloss can vary somewhat significantly between areas with ink versus no ink.

There are two basic ways to resolve this issue in the print. The first (and simpler) approach is to pull back the whites so that areas that are pure white are a very bright shade of gray instead. This can be done by reducing the value for the Whites slider in Lightroom Classic or Camera Raw. You could also adjust the white slider for Output Levels with a Levels adjustment in Photoshop. The result is that there will be ink on the paper in the areas that are blown out, but there still won’t be any texture in those areas.

Therefore, in many cases the better approach is to fill the blown-out areas using image cleanup techniques. This can be done with the Healing tool (with the Content-Aware option) in Lightroom Classic, or with the Spot Healing Brush tool or the Content-Aware Fill command in Photoshop.

If the blown-out areas are relatively small, image cleanup techniques can work remarkably well. If the areas are relatively large, it can be a little more difficult to clean up the area in a way that looks natural. However, with a bit of work you can fill those areas in so they will look better in the final print, to the point that (hopefully) nobody would recognize that any work had been done in those areas at all.