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Photoshop is fantastic at restoring details and fixing mistakes. Even if you end up losing a lot of light during a shoot, you’ll still have the chance to take (and edit) incredible photographs. The best way to preserve your image’s data is to shoot in RAW; however, if using JPEG is the only option or something you wish to use no matter what, don’t worry about this too much. Any kind of photo can be enhanced in one way or another.

Though I’ll be using an underexposed portrait in this tutorial, the steps could work for any type of image, be it a professional landscape photo or a simple snapshot of your food.

As you can see, the difference is already very noticeable.
To achieve this look, create a curves adjustment layer . Select two points in the straight line – this new curve will effectively restore the shadows in your photo. If your underexposed shot has too many shadows, on the other hand, drag the curve downwards to make your image ‘s highlights pop.

To further enhance your image, create a second curves adjustment layer. Use this layer to colour correct your shot and emphasise or remove shadows and highlights. There are many free Photoshop curves available online.

To fix skin tones (or important details in other types of photos) that may have been overlooked during the previous two steps, use the selective colour tool. For instance, to remove the redness in the subject’s skin, I worked on the Yellows section. To find out more about the selective colour tool, check out this article.

With heavily underexposed photographs, it’s important to remember that there will be imbalances in colour, noise, and so on. Though this “damage” can’t be completely fixed, there are ways to lessen its intensity. One of these methods is called despeckling. To use this tool, duplicate your background layer and go to Filter > Noise > Despeckle. As you will see below, the effect is very significant.


Despeckling softens harsh noise. If you need a quick fix that doesn’t require any manual adjustments, this tool is for you.

Now it’s time to make minor changes that will provide you with the best possible version of your photograph. Here are a few additional adjustment layers you can work with:

Brightness/Contrast, Exposure, and Levels This is the difference between using and not using these bonus features. Though they don’t seem like much, they managed to recover important details, reduce the overall noise, and make the shot a little more balanced in terms of shadows and highlights. In short, they’re great at making photos look more visually appealing.

This was a very dramatic example of what Photoshop is capable of. It’s very likely that your underexposed photographs aren’t nearly as severe as the photo I worked with. However, even if they are, there are techniques like this that can save you a lot of time, energy, and frustration. The more you practice, the more gems you’ll be able to save during the editing process. As a result, you’ll thrive as both a retoucher and a creative thinker. This will lead you to more opportunities, ideas, and a smoother workflow.

Good luck!

Feature photo by Maxime Caron.

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