Highlight Recovery

I believe that a highlight recovery tool should never be used, but if it is unavoidable, then here is how I use it.

Highlight recovery is a technique where you try to get back the details in the brightest, blown-out, areas of a photo through software processing. I use Lightroom for this, but just about any image post-processing software has a control for this.

If you’re forced into using highlight recovery tools, then it means that you have portions of your image where the highlights (brightest areas) are blown out (overexposed and white). You use the highlight recovery tool to regain detail in those blown out areas, taking them out of their featureless state.

First, I would try to avoid having blown out highlights by…

  1. Shoot to the left (darker) instead of to the right. This may mean setting your exposure value (EV) lower. I set mine at -1/3 EV and leave it there for almost every shot. This makes sure that my camera does not overexpose the scene.
  2. Use a ND filter on bright days or where there are lots of specular highlights (reflecting glare). My Canon G-series cameras have a built-in ND filter I can turn on or off. I use that or my screw-on ND filters on my Canon dSLR. If you go this route, then you still have to watch for overexposure because in the aperture priority mode for example, the camera will increase the exposure time to compensate, and render this method ineffective. A much better way would be to both use the filter and use the -1/3 EV technique above, or use a circular polarizing filter.
  3. Use a circular polarizing filter. Same as above, this filter will reduce the incoming light. But, another thing this filter will do is take down the glare and reflections (specular highlights) through polarization. Where the ND filter just blocks the light, the polarizer will cut off the polarizing light, deleting the glare and reflections almost entirely. This is a great method for avoiding overexposure.

Avoiding blown-out highlights does not mean avoiding blown-out highlights that are supposed to be there. For example, the sun is always a blown-out highlight in every landscape photo. Unavoidable.

When I get back to the office and find my photos with blown-out highlights where they shouldn’t be, I use Lightroom to bring them back in:

  1. My first choice is always the highlight recovery tool (highlights or white tool). It seems obvious, doesn’t it. But, I have to be very careful when using this thing because it can bring down the whole photo. I use it only a little bit and only after I’ve done the rest of the touch-up work on the whole photo. Often the other work I do to the photo will increase or decrease the highlights so I leave use of the highlight recovery tool for last.
  2. If using a highlight recovery tool causes the rest of the photo to darken or if it reduces the brilliance of the photo in unwanted areas, then I try to do local adjustments using the adjustment brush. This involves reducing the exposure and brushing this adjustment onto the photo in the areas where the unwanted highlights are.
  3. Sometimes a gradient is also effective, and I can reduce the brightness in an entire area in this way.
  4. Sometimes simply the exposure is incorrect so use of an exposure tool works. Reduce gently though and look at the whole photo so as not to lose contrast overall.

Highlights are one item of a photo that you want to control. I have found this out via experience. If the highlights are blown out (too bright) they will be instantly noticed by anyone looking at your photo. You don’t want this. Trust me.