The Dark Secret Of Digital Photography

How the dark side of your photos can be limiting your prints

Using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Sheppard makes adjustments to the dark areas of the image via the Darks slider in the Tone Curve adjustment window. Some will argue that making adjustments on the curve itself is more precise, but the parametric sliders actually do a solid job quickly and intuitively. Other programs like Apple Aperture and Adobe Photoshop also have parametric slider controls that work the same way. Be sure to have the Linear box activated for best results.

Digital photography vastly expands our opportunities for better pictures. We can now shoot in lower light with higher quality results, instantly see our images as we capture them and easily process those images for the best results. Despite the huge amount of information about digital photography, there's something I've found to be consistently missing—a dark secret of digital photography. This secret element can affect all images, but is most noticeable with photos that include a lot of dark tones and dark colors in them.

When you move the Darks slider, your changes will be strongest in the darker tones where you'll see muddy shadows brought up to show details. The Darks slider will affect lighter areas like the sky and the sunlit area on this natural bridge as well, but the changes become progressively less in these lighter areas.

Simply put, digital camera sensors don't do their best work with dark tones and dark colors. The best rendering of brightness values and color quality comes in the sensor's midrange. There are a lot of reasons for this, including the challenge that dark areas simply don't have as much "energy" striking the sensor as bright areas do.

So what happens? When printed, dark parts of photos are rendered murky and muddy in tone and color. That's a problem because it's not how we see the world at all. Much has been written about the fact that the camera sees a fraction of the range of brightness that our eyes can see. That's definitely an issue and a good reason to consider shooting high dynamic range (HDR) photography, but that's not the issue here. I'm talking about the dark tones that the camera does see, parts of a scene where both the sensor and our eyes can see detail.

The problem becomes one of how well the camera sees these tones. Yes, the camera records the tones, colors and detail, but not nearly as well as our eyes. We can easily pick out tonal or brightness differences, even in dark areas of a scene, plus, we can see color equally well in bright and dark parts of a scene. The camera struggles to do that. It definitely doesn't see things equally, even within the range of detail it can handle.

The result is a photo that expresses the midrange to brighter parts of the subject or scene just fine, but the dark areas are out of balance. Their murkiness gives a heavy quality to that part of the composition and drags down the rest of the image. You'll see this on your monitor, but it's much more visible and objectionable in a print.

Some photographers have taken to slightly overexposing images shot in RAW format, often called exposing to the right, to get better detail in the dark areas. Then they process the RAW image back to normal tonality in Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw or other RAW-processing software.

I'm not crazy about exposing to the right. First, it affects colors in bright areas. The sensor can actually handle brightness that's a little overexposed, except that the chroma or color quality isn't handled well in those bright areas. You often lose subtle colors that can't be brought back by any work in Lightroom or Camera Raw. For some subjects, such as outdoor scenes with bright colors in the sky, that can be a serious problem. Second, it can add significantly to the workflow and increase time you must spend processing images, and time spent struggling with an image in the computer is better spent outside shooting.

So what can you do? Lightroom and Camera Raw both have a simple solution—move the Darks slider of the Tone Curve to the right. Even if you know and use the Tone Curve as a point curve, i.e., clicking and dragging points on it directly, it's so easy and quick to use the parametric sliders (Highlights, Lights, Darks, Shadows) that it's really worth checking out.

And for the dark secret of digital photography, a simple use of the Darks slider does work. I find that for most photos I shoot that include dark areas in the composition, I can open up those areas, reveal detail, and give them more guts and strength, yet without making these areas too bright, just by moving the slider to the right. How much totally depends on the photo, but typically, I find most digital images need 20-40 points of adjustment.


The low-angled light of sunrise and sunset creates dramatic landscapes, but you can easily end up with very murky foregrounds like this. Instead of trying to "expose to the right" make a proper exposure in the field and then use your sliders to bring the dark areas up as shown here.

This is important—you're not trying to make the dark areas bright! You're only working to bring their brightness values up a notch so the colors and tones display properly in an image. You're trying to gain some liveliness and strength to these areas so they don't look muddy and murky.

One thing to watch out for is the Point Curve setting for the Tone Curve. Lightroom and Camera Raw use Medium Contrast as the default for the Tone Curve. I think this is a mistake. Yes, the Medium option does make for a snappier image, but it also usually makes the dark tones less clear. That could sort of be considered a solution to the darks dilemma—it can make them dark enough that you can't see any tones or colors there, so you don't care! But for most outdoor photography, that isn't a good solution.


When you use the technique of proper exposure combined with moving the Darks slider, one of the key advantages is a preservation of the color information. If you try to bring out dark areas by overexposing the image when you capture it, you'll lose subtle color data that can't be recovered.

So I change the Point Curve setting to Linear. That immediately helps bring out the dark tones better. This will make your photo look "grayer," but with the proper use of the Blacks slider in Basic, and sometimes a little help from the Shadows slider, you'll get both more tones and colors with a good-looking image.

Much of the time, the Darks slider is all you need. Sometimes you need to add some Shadow adjustment, but this isn't an automatic, more or less. Sometimes it helps to increase the Shadow adjustment to bring out darker tones; sometimes it helps to decrease that adjustment to put a little contrast in the dark parts of your photo.

You may be wondering, what about Fill Light? Fill Light is an important slider just above Blacks. It helps bring out the darkest detail in the image. However, you have to be very careful in using it. As you increase its setting, the image can start to have an unnatural-looking balance of dark tones because the darkest tones get too bright before the less dark tones do. In addition, Darks does a better job of bringing out the best of all dark tones and colors with a nice blending among them for a more natural look.

Another option is judicious use of the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom and Camera Raw. I find it works best, when lightening dark areas, to set it to plus Exposure. I'll usually set it too high to start so I can better see the adjustment as it's painted on. Then I tone it back to a normal level when done.

Great darkroom workers used to talk about luminosity in a print. This referred to how lively the tones looked throughout the image, from dark to light. This is definitely possible with digital images, but the straight-from-the-camera image rarely will give you this. Just a little effort working on that image to clear up the dark tones can make a big difference in the final photo.

How (And Why) To Set Your Black Point
Digital cameras don't automatically give you an image with the best blacks. There are a number of reasons for this, though it partly has to do with lifting dark tones in a digital file because digital cameras can have trouble there. When blacks (meaning all the areas of pure black) in a photo aren't black, an image won't print or display with the best contrast, tonality or color. While some images won't have blacks (such as a foggy day), most do and need them in the photo.

Setting blacks is very visual with Adobe products
. Start with the left, black slider of Levels in Photoshop products. For Lightroom and Camera Raw, use the Blacks slider in Basic. Important: Hold down Alt or Option as you click and move the slider. The Blacks Threshold screen will appear, showing pure blacks against white when you get a pure black. Maxed-out color channels on the dark end appear as colors. You usually want at least some black to show up. If your image is filled with color, this might mean adjusting until areas of color show up.

A pure white screen means you're not using the entire range of tonality an image is capable of for most media. Use Fill Light to open dark areas slightly, but mainly use the Tone Curve.

Check your whites. With Adobe products, use the Alt or Option key with the white or right slider in Levels for Photoshop or the Exposure slider in Lightroom or Camera Raw to see a Whites Threshold screen. Usually, you barely want a white or color to show. I find that you have to be especially careful with Lightroom doing this, and sometimes seeing the whites in the Threshold screen goes too far.

Never use the black or white eyedropper in Levels if you're a nature photographer.
That will remove important color casts that are usually a key part of outdoor images; plus, the eyedroppers adjustment is very heavy-handed. Seeing the blacks and whites with a Threshold screen is much better.

You can see more of Rob Sheppard's photography, find his book and learn about his workshops on his website,


    THANK YOU! As an admirer of Reichmann’s images and Jardine’s explanations of how Lightroom works, I routinely expose to the right and push the shadows slider to the left. These starting points are often followed by struggling with the problems you have just explained. Tonight I start reworking the images in my Grand Canyon folder.
    Allen Tucker

    This is a very fin article, and it is very
    “welcome”that this issue now is highlighted.

    In fact it is my interest for this issue and the reason why I have just bought the Nikon D3x after reading a thorough article about “pushing the black” comparing this camera with others.(Lloyd Chambers)

    Thank you for taking this issue up, Rob Sheppard

    Great advice! Finally, a photographer who understands tonality and the range of light, just like Ansel. I especially like the cogent rejection of the expose to right myth. Watch the histogram. A balanced exposure makes the best capture.

    Thank you so much for this article. It clears up a lot of questions I have been having in terms of quality of overall tonality when I expose to the right. I usually try to fix this by increasing my blacks (I like the deeper tonalities this brings) and using the fill slider to then open things up, playing with curves, etc. What you presented is a much better approach. Your article is clear and concise, and your advice immediately has made a difference in my processing (including less time at the computer).

    Hmm. Overall, I found the content of the article useful and insightful. And it has given me new insights in how I may choose to process my images. However, I think too many may come away saying “aha! I knew all that expose-to-the-right stuff was nonsense!” The article nearly seems to be refuting that practice, but doesn’t quite go into detail. Here’s the deal: expose to the right will always give you more luminance information. This is how digital images work. As far as “losing subtle color data” I would be very interested in more discussion/explanation of this.

    Darker regions in a digital capture will simply have LESS information (color and luminance) as mentioned. Brighter regions can be a problem IF the photographer has saturated one or more of the color channels. But until that happens, no information (color or luminance) is lost. (Note your histogram will not help you much with channel saturation.) So unless the sensor processes color differently for different luminance values, I am not sure how color information could be lost. (human perceived color does change with luminance though…) Interesting article, needs more discussion on ETTR. (By the way, it sure would be nice if a comment could be longer than one paragraph.)

    The article could use more rigor. ETTR is not, as the article implies, overexposing. As long as the dynamic range of the scene doesn’t exceed the dynamic range of the sensor, ETTR basically allows a better exposure (more light/more information) to be gathered in the darker areas. You can’t reveal detail in the dark areas if it wasn’t captured to begin with. Overexposure doesn’t technically occur until you clip or push the histogram for a given color channel off of the right edge. Scenes with a large ‘red’ content often experience unrecoverable color problems if you are not careful using ETTR as red saturates before blue and green.

    Very interesting and useful article for anyone printing their photographs. However, I too am rather skeptical of the blank statement that you “often lose subtle colors that can’t be brought back” if you shift exposing the the right. As long as none of the individual color channels are saturated, no information should be lost – indeed more detail will be gained with this method, especially at the critical low end of the histogram. This type of ‘off the cuff’ pronouncement only reduces the credibility of the author.

    Similarly, claiming that “exposing the right” adds significantly to the workflow versus use of the several additional ad-hoc post-processing steps discussed in this article is rather dubious. It is a technique that can be used selectively when required, not blindly followed.

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