How to Use Histograms To Properly Expose RAW files in Adobe Lightroom Part 2 of 3 – Whites and Blacks

What’s the difference between a good photograph and a great one? It’s the attention to details. How can you quickly tell when you are losing details in your dark colors and light colors? Find out in Part 2.

Hello again! Most of you probably came from Part 1 of this article here where I covered what a histogram is and how to adjust Shadows and Highlights.

In this next part of the article we are going to cover adjusting the whites and blacks of a RAW file as part of the retouching process and once again getting as much visible information into the photo as possible.

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

What are Blacks and Whites?

They are the color tones located in the pure black and the pure white part of an image where no further detail is visible. Lightroom allows you to set which pixels of the image fall into this area.

To refresh your memory a little bit here is where they are located on the histogram:

Blacks on the left.

Whites on the right.

Setting the Whites

What we are doing in this part of the workflow is again trying to achieve a well balanced histogram with the values evenly distributed across it and therefore have a nice overall exposure of the image. (We are just talking about exposure balance in this article, we’ll get to using the histogram for color correction in a later article).

Part of this is setting what pixels are going to be punched through into the white part of the image. This is controlled on the “Whites” slider in the Lightroom “Basic” tab. Try sliding the Whites slider back and forth and you can see the image changing. But now reset the Whites to the center, hold down the Alt key and click and hold on the whites and slide it to the right. You should start to see something that looks like this:

The red colored spots breaking through the black screen showing you what parts of the image have blown out and that you have lost detail in. If you were to let go of the alt key this is what your photo looks like:

Deciding how you want the image exposed and what details are okay to lose is an artistic choice. But Lightroom helps guide you from going too far. As an obvious example hold down the alt key and slide the whites all the way to the right.

You should see something that looks like this with large portions of the black covered with big pieces of the image.

And then when you let go of the alt key this is what your photo will look like:

I think most of us would agree this isn’t going to win first prize for proper exposure anytime soon.

Generally when I am working with a photo that I took exposing for the highlights I need only push the whites a little bit to get all possible detail revealed. So now compare the histograms to see what adjusting the whites has done.

As you can see, the information is taking another step towards being evenly distributed across the histogram.

Now let’s talk about the blacks.

Setting the Blacks

Just as you have set the whites, you must set the blacks. So once again hold down the alt key and begin dragging the blacks slider to the left. You will see a white screen being punched through with black pixels. Go way over on the slider and you will see something like this:

And if you let go of the alt key you see that there are many areas of the photo which look very dark, like this:

There is no visible information in those black areas. Sometimes it’s desirable when you are going for a particular grungy look or something like that, but generally speaking you want the most details possible in your photos. So let’s set the blacks to the right amount. Hold down the alt key until you get something that looks more like this:

Now if you let go of your alt key your image will look something like this:

That’s a pretty well balanced image. Still needs retouching, but examine the histograms from when we first started and what you have now and you’ll see a well balanced histogram: 

Now have a look at the original photo and the photo with the highlights and shadows as well as the whites and blacks adjusted.


And the photo with Shadows, Highlights, Whites and Blacks retouched:

Quite a startling difference!

Now this won’t work for all your photos. What?!!!??? I can hear you screaming to the high heavens like a movie superhero as the hold someone who was wounded in battle. NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!

But unfortunately yes, this isn’t a cure-all which is why I recommend so much exposing for the highlights. I’ll go into this in detail in Part 3 of this article (here). I’ll also show you a cool little-known Lightroom trick with your histogram tool to instantly see what parts of your photos are blown-out or completely black.

For those of you who won’t be carrying forward and are stepping back from this feast of information like a visiting foreigner walking away from a French banquet (the analogy works if you really think hard about it), I hope that you enjoyed Part 2 of this tutorial and that these tips helped you understand how to set your whites and blacks in Lightroom! 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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