How to Use Histograms To Properly Expose RAW files in Adobe Lightroom Part 1 of 3 – Shadows and Highlights

Few people truly understand the power of Histograms or Shadows & Highlights adjustments in Lightroom, yet they are crucial to creating properly exposed photos with all details. Take 10 minutes and understand your photograph’s real potential.

Hello again! In this article I am going to talk to you about something which you hear me say very often. 

No it is not that I am a French photographer living in Paris (although this is true), but rather that I start my retouching by opening up shadows and highlights and adjusting the black point and white point in Adobe Lightroom. I’ve done a lot of articles where I talk about how to do it, so I wanted to take a moment to talk to you about why I do it.

If you want the RAW files for this tutorial and all my other free presets and goodies, just subscribe to my newsletter here.You can follow along with the video here.

Alright so let’s get into this.

Exposing for highlights

A lot of the times when I am taking a landscape photo, especially when the sun is in the shot, I expose for the highlights. Now what does that mean?

If you look at the below photo, you can see all the details in the light areas such as the sky and the details in the darker areas are harder to see. (This is the RAW file that is unretouched).

So everything in the lighter areas is properly exposed. That is what is called exposing for the highlights. Now every photo that you take will have a certain amount of digital information stored. Generally the better the camera, the more dynamic range, the more megapixels results in more information being captured.

All of the information that exists in each photo is represented in what is called a Histogram.

What is a Histogram?

Now this is by no means the definitive article on Histograms. I’ll get to that. Consider this an introduction if you aren’t already familiar with it.

And actually it is shocking to me, but 9 out of 10 times when I ask a photographer what a histogram is they don’t really know. They sort of have a vague awareness of it but think that it is too complex or too confusing to easily understand. Kind of like tax laws.

I think sometimes people don’t want to learn it because the name “Histogram” sounds so complex. If it was the Color Shazamifier, copyright Serge Ramelli (just kidding), maybe more people would be less daunted!

All that being said this is a histogram in Adobe Lightroom:

As it relates to photography, in its simplest terms, a histogram is just a graph which represents the distribution of color information across an image from darkest to lightest moving right to left. When you hover your mouse over a histogram you will see areas of the histogram highlight left to right as Blacks, Shadows, Midtones, Highlights and Whites.

Now looking at the histogram you can see there is a lot of information in the darker areas of the photograph.

So what we want to do is instead of just having the majority of information clustered in the dark area, we want to distribute that evenly across the histogram. Why? Because it gives a photo with more visible information. Lightroom allows for laser precise retouching of the histogram. Now let’s get into the retouching.

Opening up the shadows and highlights

In Adobe Lightroom you have many, many controls to adjust the image. If you look to the right side of the Lightroom Develop interface you will see a tab called “Basic” which has sliders underneath. Go to the one called “Shadows” as shown here:

Now watch what happens when you open up the shadows by moving the shadows slider to 100. First look at the difference in the histograms:

Original histogram:

After the shadows have been adjusted:

You can see that the histogram shows that much more of the information is now out of the black and dark areas and spread into the midtones area. Now how does that look like on the photo?

Original photo:

With the shadows opened up:

Alright now I'm going to open up the highlights and watch what happens first to the histogram and then the photo.

This is the last histogram with shadows adjusted:

and now the histogram with highlights adjusted:

You can now see that there is a much more gradual hill that goes from the blacks up to the highlights which means you have a much better distribution of information, and what does that do for the photo?

Photo with Shadows and Highlights adjusted:

Are you beginning to see how much more visible information there is to utilize in the photo just by utilizing Shadows and Highlights? Excellent! Now if we all had someone to explain tax laws to us like this we would be much happier!

The next settings you want to look at are directly beneath your Shadows and Highlights in the Adobe Lightroom “Basic” tab and these are Whites and Blacks and we will talk about those in Part 2 of this article.

But first, please play around with the photo and the Shadow and Highlight sliders while looking at the histogram to see how it affects it, and once you feel you got it, go to part 2.

I hope that you enjoyed Part 1 of this tutorial and that these tips helped you understand how to expose in Adobe Lightroom using shadows and highlights! If you liked it please share it and remember to subscribe to the newsletter to get all the updates, goodies and new tutorials as they come along.

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