If you’re anything like myself, you prefer to not spend a lengthy amount of time recovering an underexposed photo, as you’re limited by time restrictions such as providing photos for a client or uploading them to social media. Because let’s face it…you probably have dozens of images to edit from your most recent vacation, photo shoot or other current event (hopefully not all underexposed, but hey…it’s better to have an underexposed photo than an overexposed one!).

Recover an Underexposed Photo in Less than 10 Minutes

Five of the Topaz plug-ins were used to achieve the final look, taking less than ten minutes to accomplish. Exposure was corrected in Adjust along with tone and micro-contrast enhancements in Clarity. The apparent noise in the background was reduced with the use of DeNoise. In addition to this, the photo was made-over with ReStyle’s color filters and finalized for output with Detail’s sharpening tool.

Recover an Underexposed Photo in 10 Minutes or LessOriginal photo © Michael Sterling 

How to Recover an Underexposed Photo

Here are the steps I took to restore an underexposed photo in less than ten minutes using the Topaz plugins.

DeNoise-> Noise Reduction

It is important to use DeNoise as the beginning of the workflow before making any exposure adjustments, which will only worsen the noise and make it harder to remove later on. The image was taken after sunset with limited light and the camera’s ISO was increased in order to obtain a sharper image. A high ISO can cause your camera to be more sensitive to light, resulting in noise artifacts. With this image the noise is most evident in the background. DeNoise fixed this up with ease. 

Recover an Underexposed Photo in 10 Minutes or LessSince the image is underexposed, I turned the auto brighten preview on so that I could see the noise better. The auto brighten doesn’t actually apply brightening to your image; it is only a visual tool within the program.

Recover an Underexposed Photo in 10 Minutes or LessAuto Brighten Preview Normal – Noticeable Artifacts

I slowly increased the Overall Strength slider until the noise was eliminated in the background. You can also apply a custom created preset starting with the lightest one for either a RAW or JPEG image, and then adjust the sliders accordingly. *Note: raw formats cannot actually be brought into Topaz without converting them first through an editor such as Adobe Camera Raw.

Recover an Underexposed Photo in 10 Minutes or LessAfter noise removal

The Recover Detail slider was increased just a tad to restore details, followed by the addition of grain back into the image to bring back the appearance of detail without worsening the noise.

Total time: 1 minute

Adjust-> Exposure Adjustment

To enhance the dynamic range of the image and correct the exposure, I expanded the Global Adjustments panel and increased the adaptive exposure and regions sliders. Regions are used to balance the tonal values, disbursing the exposure adjustments throughout the image on a region based scale. A higher region number will increase the amount of disbursement of the adaptive exposure enhancement, adding depth to the image.

Recover an Underexposed Photo in 10 Minutes or LessTo avoid enhancing any leftover noise artifacts, I didn’t overdo the exposure adjustments, but rather kept it on the lighter side (regions 8, adaptive exposure between 0.30-0.40).

Recover an Underexposed Photo in 10 Minutes or LessBefore and after exposure Adjustments

Total time: 30 seconds

Clarity-> Selective Contrast Control

To help define the texture in the elephants’ skin, I applied the Fur + Feathers I preset from the Nature Collection. This preset boosts the micro-contrast and small dynamics, which affects the smallest contrast areas in the image.

Recover an Underexposed Photo in 10 Minutes or LessContrast and Tone Adjustments

Clarity’s advanced technology allows for natural edits which do not result in artifacts or haloing, so the noise was not worsened when I made this corrections in tone levels and selective dynamics. Since noise removal also removes detail, the micro-contrast slider in Clarity helped to bring back the appearance of detail without actually sharpening the image (or any leftover noise).

Total time: 1 minute

ReStyle-> Color Makeover

ReStyle is one of my favorite plug-ins created by Topaz as it allows you to completely transform your image in a click, giving it a stylistic look. With hundreds of effects to choose from, I already knew in advance there were a few presets labeled with ‘Elephant’ in the Nature Collection. From this point I took snapshots (camera icon) of certain presets so that I could later compare and contrast while in grid view mode.

Recover an Underexposed Photo in 10 Minutes or LessSnapshots in Grid View Mode

An important thing to know about ReStyle is that you will often find that the effect looks better with a reduced opacity. When browsing through presets always have in mind that you’ll be able to reduce the opacity and apply blending modes (like Luminosity) if desired.

Recover an Underexposed Photo in 10 Minutes or LessOpacity at 100% versus 50%

I ended up choosing the style ‘Elephant Daze’ and then reduced its opacity to 40%. I then made minor adjustments in overall saturation and temperature.

Recover an Underexposed Photo in 10 Minutes or LessElephant Daze preset with a reduced opacity

Total time: 3 minutes

Detail-> Output Sharpening

Before conducting output sharpening in Detail, you’ll want to resize your image for output. If you apply sharpening and then resize your image, the sharpening will be pointless and won’t transmit after resized. If uploading to the web (social media, blog, etc.), reduce the image’s size to around 1,000 pixels (on long side) so the upload doesn’t take forever.

To help bring out the skin texture, under the Creative Detail Collection, I applied the Micro Contrast Enhancement I preset.

Recover an Underexposed Photo in 10 Minutes or LessThis however worsened the noise in the background, so I then used the Effect Mask within the program to remove the detail sharpening in specific areas. Since the background is already out of focus, detail enhancements are pointless.

Recover an Underexposed Photo in 10 Minutes or Less
Background masked out from detail sharpening

Total time: 2 minutes

Seven and a half minutes later, here’s the final result:Recover an Underexposed Photo in 10 Minutes or LessIf you are new to our software, this might take you longer than ten minutes the first try as you’ll probably want to experiment with the software.  I hope that this tutorial helped you become better acquainted with the Topaz plug-ins so that in the future you are able to make haste, yet quality and artistic edits. Most importantly, have fun during the process!

Tweet us your results @topazlabs!

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