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How to Fix a Badly Lit Portrait in Adobe Lightroom

Don’t toss a photo just because the lighting isn’t the best. You may be able to bring it back alive in post-production. As photographers, we face countless different scenarios and it’s nearly impossible to get the perfect shot 100% of the time.

Understanding what’s possible in post-production can help you still achieve a professional result nonetheless. This is why it’s crucial to learn editing techniques to save imperfect images. In this video, I’ll be walking through how to fix a badly lit portrait in Adobe Lightroom.

Before we dive in, be sure to download the exercise file here and follow along as I edit.

Getting the Image Right In-Camera

You can check out how the image was taken in a previous video where I discuss why the Canon RF 28-70mm f/2 is my favorite lens. Before jumping into post, the very first step is to try your best to get the best shot in-camera given the conditions. You can do that by:

  1. Shoot in RAW format to capture as much information as possible.
  2. Expose properly to preserve as much detail in the shadows and highlights as possible.
  3. Work with the natural lighting.

Step #1: Raise the Exposure

First, set the exposure for the subject. In the case of imperfect images like this, it’s okay to let the background blow out. The important part is that the subject is properly exposed.

Step #2: Set the White Balance

Set the white balance using the eyedropper on a white part of the image, in this case, Kiara’s shirt. You’ll notice that the green color cast caused by the surrounding leaves and grass still remains.

Step #3: Base Tone Adjustments

Use the basic tone adjustments to bring out more detail from the highlights and shadows.

Step #4: Set the Tone Curve

An S-Curve adds basic contrast. Then, add a matte look by pulling the white point down and black point up. This causes the whites to turn soft light gray and the blacks to turn a matte dark gray.

Step #5: Color Calibration

Use the color calibration panel to correct for the color casts here. I focused on restoring the proper skin tones.

Then, tune the white balance more to your liking based on the adjusted colors.

Step #6: HSL Adjustments

Jump into the HSL panel to further separate the skin tones and eliminate the green tint from the beginning. Here are the final adjustment settings.

Step #7: Split-Tones

You can use the “Custom Color” option to select hues already in the image. I picked out a cool area for the shadows and warmer tones for the highlights and mid-tones.

Step #8: Tweak Your Adjustments

Make your final adjustments here. I tweaked the basic adjustments for a touch more contrast.

Step #9: Local Adjustments

Lastly, I added a subtle radial filter from the Visual Flow Retouching Toolkit to create a subtle vignette.

The Final Image

See the huge difference between where we started out and the final image!


I hope you enjoyed this article/video. Next time you take a photo in imperfect conditions, rest assured that you can still fix a photo with bad lighting in post. It’s crucial to learn and understand what you can do in post-production in case these situations arise. That being said, always prioritize getting the shot right in-camera when possible.

I hope you enjoyed this article/video. Rest assured knowing that even in imperfect conditions, you can still end up with fantastic photos. That being said, none of it should be a substitute for trying to get the best image in-camera. However, understanding these editing techniques and tools will set you up for success and you’ll be prepared for any obstacle that may come your way during a photoshoot.

P.S. Be sure to check out the Complete Lightroom Tutorial over on SLR Lounge Premium. In addition, check out Visual Flow for the Retouching Toolkit as well as intuitive, lighting based presets.

About the author: Pye Jirsa is a wedding photographer based in Southern California and the co-founder of SLR Lounge. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Jirsa’s work on Instagram.

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