How to save your overexposed photo from the trash can

How to save your overexposed photo from the trash can

We all take badly exposed photos from time to time. Most are just deleted, but occasionally it happens at a birthday, wedding or roadtrip where we wish we had a chance to take it again.

Don’t despair. It is possible to recover images that are badly exposed with a little playing inside Affinity Photo, Photoshop or even the editing software on your camera. All it takes it a little playing with settings.

An overexposed image of Gloucester Cathedral.

This is an image I thought I’d lost. The original was horrifically overexposed, so much so it was close to being white.

Overexposed image of Gloucester Cathedral

The original, overexposed image.

The photo was taken on a day trip to Gloucester and is the only image of the cathedral I had. Because I’m a numpty, I forgot to reset the camera after going inside, which left me with a single overexposed image. When it happens there’s no use beating yourself up about it – it’s just one of those things.

I always shoot RAW where the camera allows, and it’s RAW files that I edit with in the main. A RAW file is a useful thing as it captures the data directly out of the camera without processing it. That’s everything from f-stop settings to the light touching the individual pixels on the sensor. Without processing for JPEG, there’s no loss in the data.

Photographer, choose your weapon

I work in Affinity Photo when I want to edit images, although you should find all of these settings available in your photo editing software on your phone.

Using the “Exposure”, I reduced the exposure until the detail in the image appeared. If I’ve got an image that’s badly exposed this is where I’ll usually start. I’ll adjust the setting until I get close to what I think “normal” should look like from memory.

Exposure corrected image of Gloucester Cathedral

Halfway through and the detail is starting to appear

The image isn’t great though. There’s a lot of noise and detail missing. My fine tuning came from adjusting “Contrast” and “Brightness”.

Contrast adjusts the difference between tones. A higher contrast would make two shades of brown look vastly different, while lower contrast would make them seem similar. In this image, increasing contrast brought the architectural details in the building out, such as the stonework around the windows. However, it also meant I lost some finer details, including the lead in the windows.

Adjusting contrast changes the perceived brightness of an image. It dulls or overemphasise colours, creating something that looks washed out or jarring. Brightness adjustments can offset this. In this case, I increased the brightness to help the structure stand out from its background.

A finished masterpiece (sort of)

This isn’t a professional grade image, it’s just one I happened to want to preserve as a memory. I didn’t spend long on it, maybe 5 or 10 minutes at most. Point is, I recovered something that otherwise I might have lost.

The final image ready for my gallery of memories

There’s more I could do to this image, but there comes a point where you have to stop. A few minutes of methodical tinkering is all it takes to bring a dead photo back to life and recapture the memory.

Next time you realise you’ve blown a photo don’t panic. Open up your editing software and start playing. Change the exposure, adjust the contrast and fine tune with the brightness.

Who knows, maybe you’ll create a masterpiece your family loves.

About Ross A Hall

I'm a freelance graphic designer and webmaster, working with small and growing businesses. For a chat about how I could help you drop me a line.

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How to save your overexposed photo from the trash can

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