Dealing with Blown Out Highlights


Today’s Question: Does this same advice [about dealing with shadows that are clipped in the original capture] apply to the white point as well? In a similar situation with the white point, I find that I can get past this with a combination of the Highlights slider and the Whites slider. Should I not be doing this? Am I making things worse?

Tim’s Quick Answer: Setting the white point for a photo is similar to setting the black point, except that in general it is almost always preferred to avoid clipping for the whites. Just keep in mind that if you reduce the white point for an image that exhibits clipping, you may still end up with a lack of detail in the bright areas of the image.

More Detail: As noted in yesterday’s answer about setting the black point for a photo, in general you want the darkest pixels in the photo to be black. However, if the original exposure has shadow areas that have been clipped to pure black, you won’t be able to recover detail in those areas simply by brightening the black point.

Similarly, if you have lost highlight detail in the original exposure, you can’t actually recover the lost detail with adjustments after the capture. If the brightest areas have blown out to pure white, you can darken those areas, but you can’t recover detail that isn’t represented in the original capture data.

If you reduce the value for Whites and Highlights in Lightroom Classic or Camera Raw, for example, the areas that had been blown out may no longer be entirely white, but those areas will still lack detail and instead be some shade of gray. Making this adjustment can cause the blown-out areas to look a little better (especially in print), but there will still be a lack of detail in those areas. Also, it is important not to darken those highlight areas too much, as doing so can make them look a bit muddy.

Ultimately, clipped highlights for anything other than specular highlights (such as strong lights or bright reflections) is generally problematic for a photo. If you have a photo where the highlights are clipped, you can tone down those highlights slightly (with the Whites and possibly Highlights sliders), or even use image cleanup techniques to add detail to those areas. But it is best, of course, to avoid those blown highlights in the first place. In most cases it is better to allow the shadows to be clipped in order to avoid clipping highlights. You can also bracket the exposures in high-contrast situations so you can create a high dynamic range (HDR) image after the capture, resulting in maximum detail for the final image.