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Use Lightroom to Brighten Shadows on Faces and Small Areas

This is a group picture I took of the softball team in 2010. I ended up using a different picture in the end, because this one had some nasty shadows cast across two of the players faces. Here’s a tip: hats off.

Anyhow, what if you don’t have the luxury of using a different picture? Well, you can do some work in Lightroom to help selectively brighten areas of an image. In this case, you can brighten up a shadow cast on a face by a hat.

The Tool – Adjustment Brush

The tool we want to use is the adjustment brush (shortcut K). This allows you to paint over a small portion of an image and then selectively apply an adjustment (like Exposure or Brightness) to that area only.

Looking at this image, there were two regions of shadow on #3’s face. The top of her face has a deep shadow cast by her visor, and the right side of her face and her neck has a more shallow shadow.

With this first adjustment brush, I painted only over the darker shadow and then applied a little bit of brightness and positive exposure.

Next, I painted over the second shadow. I applied a more gentle brightness modification here, just to raise the shadow a little bit.

Why both shadows? Based on the lighting, you’re going to have shadows – you can’t avoid that. What we’re trying to do here, though, is make them less harsh.

For the image to look “normal” and make sense, we still need the shadows and we need to have a relationship between the shadows and the non-shaded parts. So we want to keep a relative contrast between the dark shadow, the light shadow, and the non-shaded part. We don’t want to brighten up the dark shadow and make it look the same as the light shadow, because that would then look a bit strange.

Before and After

Here’s our final result.

Drastic? Nope. But there’s a distinct brightening of the top of the face, and there’s a little more detail present in the eyes.

You may notice that there’s also an increased level of noise in the area – that’s an unfortunate side effect of brightening deep shadows. That’s also another reason why we don’t want to overbrighten the shadow, because the brighter it gets the more noise you’ll see.

Some Tips

Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Color within the lines. When you use the adjustment brush to color the shadowy area, make sure that you completely cover the shadow but don’t move onto the brighter area. You don’t want to inadvertently brighten an unshadowed area, because it certainly won’t look right.

Don’t overdo it. Again, you’re not trying to eliminate the shadow. You’re just trying to lighten it a bit so you can see some more detail.

Fix these things in-camera if you can. You’ll rarely be 100% satisfied with this kind of fix. It’s better if you can do things in camera to help eliminate and lessen these shadows. The next picture I took I used a fill flash to help lessen the shadows. It also helps to have people tilt their caps/visors up a bit or lift their head up. This prevents the shadow from going so far down their face.

Filed Under: How to Process Your Images

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About Digital Photography How To

Digital Photography How To is intended to be a guide to people learning how to use their digital SLR cameras. Three years ago, I had never picked up a camera; now, I produce a yearbook every year and I moonlight as a professional photographer.

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About the Author

Digital Photography How To is written by Brian Rock. In addition to being a photographer, he's an educator. He teaches high school history, he's the advisor of the school yearbook, and he trains his kids to do all of the photography for the yearbook.

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