Just How Good is Recovery in Lightroom

First off, I’m at the Photoshop 20th Anniversary Party today, so if you’re coming by the event this evening in San Francisco make sure you catch me and say hi.

This week on DTown TV (the show should be up at some point today – or maybe tomorrow) I talked a little about metering when it comes to snow and I briefly jumped into some post-processing talk about what you can do if you have blown out highlights. Below is an example of a photo I have where the snow is, well, pretty blown out as you can see.

(Click to see a larger version)

When I took this photo I saw a huge portion of my LCD on the camera blinking at me. However, one of the things I’ve learned to do is trust that Lightroom, Camera Raw, and Photoshop are really good at bringing back highlight detail. Now, of course there’s a bunch of things you can do and a bunch of different ways you can blow your highlights to the point of no return. However, take a look at what moving the Recovery slider about 10-15% of the way toward the right will do (the red highlight warning disappears).

(Click to see a larger version)

That’s pretty darn good considering how much was blown out to start with. I’d even tweak the Exposure down a little as the face was kinda bright to begin with. Moral of the story… if you’re in a sticky exposure situation keep in mind that Lightroom and Photoshop give you a lot of wiggle-room in recovering detail in those highlight areas. From my experience, I find I’m much better off overexposing a little (if I can afford the longer shutter speed) and getting the key area of the photo (the face in this example) bright to start with, instead of trying to brighten things after the fact and risk introducing noise into the photo.


Share This Post On
468 ad


  1. Sorry for chiming in late. But I thought that anyone reading this would be interested in UniWB.

    Basically, you set your white balance so that the histogram of the jpeg accurately represents what can be captured by the RAW file, then expose to the right. The down side is that the picture will look awful on your camera’s LCD screen.


    Post a Reply
  2. There still is no detail in the snow. Also, it renders really strangely, like big square blocks. If you are a laptop tilt the screen so you get that “negative” look you’ll se it very clearly.

    When there is no data there is no way to bring it back.Period

    Post a Reply
  3. Look at the name tag and you will see how much detail was brought back. The first pic you could not read the tag… second pic is clearly readable.

    Post a Reply
  4. I really like the face better in the first shot. Skin looks off-color in the fix.

    Post a Reply
  5. Hi Thomas. Yes, I do also recognize that often. Almost on all of my pictures (Nikon D300, NEF 14bit). As soon as I start recovering the highlights, the colors of my photo are changing as well.

    In some of the before/after videos here, Matt is also using that slider, but without altering the colors. Can’t really understand the behavior.

    Post a Reply
  6. I find recovery works nine times out of ten. When the warning is flashing on the back of the camera I can relax in the knowledge that some of the highlights can be recovered.

    Post a Reply
  7. “If the histogram shows clipping (and the preview image is blinking)” above refers to the camera’s LCD, not Lightroom.

    Post a Reply
  8. Highlight recovery tries to *rebuild* data for those pixels that have one or two missing/burnt/value_of_65535 channels (since we are talking 16bit) based on the values of the neighboring non-missing channels. It is an interpolation algorithm and nothing more.

    If one channel is missing, chances are that the remaining two will give acceptable luminance and color information.

    If two channels are missing, luminance will be recovered from the only surviving channel, but color may not be accurate.

    If all 3 channels are missing (pixel values of 65535,65535,65535) no detail can be recovered. In that case the highlight recovery slider will just lower the exposure, but the result will still be flat (e.g. 63000,63000,63000)

    Will is right. Even if we shoot RAW only, the histogram on the camera’s LCD corresponds to the JPEG that is developed in-camera (for preview and for providing a thumbnail).

    If the histogram shows clipping (and the preview image is blinking), it is possible that some (or all) of the channels are not really clipped in the RAW file. The main reason for that is white balance. White balance is the highest factor for histogram shifting, due to the multiplication of the WB coefficients. Severe clipping may happen when WB is applied. But if we shoot RAW, the captured values are still there, so we can back off at development time.

    The above is the reason while RAW “retains more highlight information”, not because it is 12 or 14bit vs JPEG’s 8bit. Both staircases are the same height. RAW’s staircase has 16x or 64x more stairs.

    Post a Reply
  9. LR’s Recovery tool definitely has its pitfalls. The worst is that it alters colors, especially skin tones change a lot.
    The preferred way of dealing with blown highlights is to back off exposure (works for as much -1.3 steps) and then counter it with Brightness, Fill Light and Blacks.

    More tedious, but looks way better. I use Recovery only up to 5, max. 10.

    Post a Reply
    • Completely agree with Thomas regarding the undesirable effect the recovery slider has on skin tones. I just started using Lightroom seriously, but this is something that I battle with on a constant basis. As soon the recovery slider is brought anywhere above the 10 value, skin tones start turning red making subjects look like lobster backed tourists who got too much sun.

      I’ve tried to counter this effect by pulling the temp slider down, but am usually not happy with the results, the skin tone still looks unnatural.

      I will try the suggested work around.

      Post a Reply
  10. Just curious – do you expose in matrix (presuming Nikon) – and look at the histogram curve on the LCD and push to the right, or do you more work off the blinkies to know when to expose more/less ?

    I still think it’s lame that camera mfgs don’t provide a histogram curve that is based soley on the raw capture, and not the converted jpg that the LCD displays.

    It’s a good feature btw…

    Post a Reply
  11. I can’t wait to see what you guys have in store for tonight! See you there.

    Post a Reply
  12. Hey Matt, isn’t this more a reflection of how much highlight info is in the RAW, as opposed to what LR can pull back? After all it can’t pull back what doesn’t exist. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the point.

    Post a Reply
  13. Hi,
    sorry Matt, but I think that is not a good example of what the recovery tool can do. The large red area simply says that there is a large overexposed area. It does not tell you, whether overexposure is severe (say 2 stops) or negligible (say 1/3 stop). Only, that a large area is affected.
    If overexposure is not too severe, Lightroom can recover detail even if the whole picture is “red”. If overexposure is too severe, Lightroom can’t recover detail even if only a tiny portion of the picture is affected.
    @Tim: In an 8bit jpg, you can’t recover from (255,255,255). However, raw files usually store 12 or 14bits per pixel. Thus there is more information which can be used. The flashing red area often appears, because the default conversion cuts the highlights. Theoretically, you could implement a default conversion that prevents this. However, blown hightlights are often intentional, e.g. in a high key picture.

    Post a Reply
  14. Tim- If I remember correctly (Matt correct me if I am wrong), The histogram on your camera is not a representation of your entire RAW file. It’s just graph of the jpg preview. so even if you are blowing the highlights (or crushing blacks) a little in the jpeg there is likley real useable data in the RAW file that can be accessed by the recovery slider.

    Post a Reply
  15. Matt – correct me if I’m wrong, but LR displays “blinkies” when the pixel value is 255,255,255 (or 0,0,0, or very close to those values). If I capture a scene with my camera where the whites are truly blown (zero detail, even beyond RAW recovery), then that detail is unrecoverable even in PP. However, if you edit in LR using the recovery slider (or exposure slider), it brings those values to less than 255,255,255, correct? This means the “blinkies” go away and you have whites that are less than blown. Or in other words, false-detail – a pixel value less than pure white, but still zero detail from the original image.

    Post a Reply
  16. Yes RAW is pretty much required. If I remember how it was explained to me was the RAW file actually contains a bit more information on the brightness end that RAW processors can pull from. Also with the increase in bit depth it can see a slight shift in color. An 8 bit image has 256 shades of RGB while a 14 bit image has 16,384 shades. So in Lightroom (Camera RAW too) what shows as 255 actually can have up to 64 different shades in it. So it takes that information and stretches it down where you can see the differences more.

    Post a Reply
  17. So RAW is a must in this case? How good does it work in JPEG?

    Post a Reply
  18. What precisely does recovery tool do in LR?

    Post a Reply
  19. Matt, did you really publish this at 2:30 in the morning?! If so that answers how you juggle all of your commitments. Whew! Cindy

    Post a Reply
  20. I dont get it…. what did it actually recover? I dont see any edge detail recovery, looking at the large versions. So it rendered the background slightly less than totally white?

    Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>