How to recover burned-out highlights

Can you recover data in a photograph with over-exposed highlights? Well, yes you can. PhotoActive student Steve McGregor explains how

I was pleased to receive this short article from one of my students Steve McGregor, who came to one of my One-Day Photography Workshops at Carlisle Cathedral earlier this year.

I have always been of the opinion that once highlights were over exposed or ‘blown-out’ there was little that could be done to retrieve the image information within those highlights, and that the photograph was really a lost cause. Well, Steve has been doing some experimenting – with a photograph he took during that Photography Workshops – and he’s come up with some surprising results.

I hasten to add that the results Steve has achieve apply only to images shot in RAW. There is little or nothing that can be done with the ‘blown-out’ highlights of a jpeg image, and unless it is of a truly unrepeatable subject, it is best binned.

I certainly stand by my teaching maxim that it is best to get it right in the camera FIRST. Then you won’t need to play with the image in the computer.

Thank you Steve – both for the information and for allowing me to share it on the PhotoActive blog.

Recovering overexposed highlights in a RAW image
by Steve McGregor

Photographer Steve McGregor

Photographer Steve McGregor at work during the Photography Workshop at Carlisle Cathedral

I have been taking photos in RAW mode for almost 5 years, for a most of that time I really am not sure I knew what I was doing!

I have read many articles over the years and the impression that I have had is that if the highlights are blown then the information in that area is irretrievable. If that is how you understand it then the following may be of interest.

I use Adobe Lightroom 3 and have used a version of Lightroom since July 2007. When taking photos I tend to underexpose, using the histogram on the camera display to try and ensure that the highlights aren’t blown. I then use Lightroom’s ‘Brightness’ and ‘Exposure’ controls to lighten the photo to the correct overall exposure.

So why have I been writing all this? Wel,l let me try and explain my findings…

I was on a One Day Photography Workshop with Philip Dunn at Carlisle Cathedral, we were experimenting with manual exposure. During part of the day we were to take some photos of people in public places. Through a gate came a small group and I ‘snapped’ them, unfortunately I was still in manual exposure mode it was over exposed. Normally I would just delete it and take another but there wasn’t time and when I arrived home I ended up importing it into Adobe Lightroom.

PHOTOGRAPH 1:  As you can see, this photograph is over-exposed, but let’s look more closely at the white dress of lady in the centre
Overexposed white dress

PHOTOGRAPH 2: There has been no processing of this image other than cropping. The detailin that white dress really is ‘blown out’
Overexposed in Raw image - highlights in red

PHOTOGRAPH 3: All I have done here is to turn on the ‘highlight’ button, this indicates where the image is burnt out and where no ‘data’ can be found
Recovered highlights in RAW image
PHOTOGRAPH 4: With the exposure reduced by 1 full f stop, the whites now contain detail, texture and shadows – a perfectly acceptable image

So what I did next was to reduce the Brightness by ’48’ and the ‘Exposure’ by 1 stop

This is how the dress then looked – see PHOTOGRAPH 4.

You can now see the pleats in the dress and the richness of its colour and this is where there was no data to be seen before, and the highlights were blown.

I hasten to add that I have no idea why this has happened but I guessed that it may be of interest to those of you who thought, like me, that an overexposed shot is only fit for the recycle bin.

Steve McGregor

Thank you again Steve – I reckon that’s apretty convincing demosntration of how effectively ‘blown’ highlights can be recovered when you shoot RAW images.

Find out more about Photography Courses with Philip Dunn


  1. Using the recovery slider can be useful in this context, with the advantage of restricting the changes (largely) to the highlights. Used in concert with exposure and brightness gives great flexibility in rescuing unhappy highlights.


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