When making basic adjustments in the Development module in Lightroom, should I adjust the Exposure first or set the Whites and Blacks?
Assuming you have a properly exposed image to begin with, when I start to edit a photo in Lightroom’s Development module I prefer to set the Whites and Blacks first before making changes to the other luminance adjustments or contrast. In most photographs there are areas that are almost pure white as well as parts that are pure black. With a few exceptions, knowing what part of the image is clipping in the whites and blacks will help adjust exposure and contrast.
Look at almost every photograph and you’ll find areas that are pure white or black. Look at the sun-lit edges of clouds or the deep shadows in dense foliage or a rock formation, and you will notice there will be small areas within every scene with very little detail where the whites and blacks are clipped.
Before we jump into how to set the whites and blacks let’s first look at the histogram. As you hover your mouse over the histogram in the Development module for Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw for Photoshop, you’ll notice the mouse changes to a double arrow, and there are sections of the histogram that are highlighted and below the names of the sliders that adjusted that range of luminance from blacks, shadows, exposure, highlights and whites. What’s important to understand is the luminance range each slider represents and how it works. Exposure shown to cover the mid-tone luminance values on the histogram will actually shift the entire image from lighter to darker. Shadows and Highlights cover the range between the mid-tones and the shadows or highlights, but not to the far ends of the histogram. While these two adjustments are great for recovering shadows and highlights, they will also reduce contrast in the image, making the image flat, because the adjustments apply more to mid-tone luminance values.
Now look at the Blacks and Whites sliders and how they are different. As you move the sliders you’ll notice that more of the histogram moves compared to the shadows and highlights, they cover a much wider range of luminance values, but it’s the far ends of the histogram or the extreme ends of the luminance ranges that are important. When I adjust the blacks and whites I look for the areas of the image that would be almost pure black, the deep shadows in the rocks that have no detail, and the same for the highlights. So my adjustments are to make the blacks darker and the whites brighter to find the settings where parts of the image start to clip. This will also increase contrast in the image because the mid-tones in the image are now spread over a wider luminance range. Once the blacks and whites are set then I fine-tune the exposure, shadows, highlight sliders and contrast if needed.
It’s easy to set the Whites and Blacks in the development module in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw, and to know where and how much information is being clipped. When you move the slider for any of the luminance adjustments you need to hold down the ALT key on a PC or OPTION key on a Mac, the image on the screen will change to all black or white, depending on the slider. As you move the slider and hold down the ALT or OPTION Key, in the case of the Whites, to the right to increase the whites, areas of the image will start to change from black, no clipping, to white, or color like red or yellow, which indicates that area is starting to clip. Then it’s the same process for the Blacks where you look for parts of the image that are in deep shadow.
A final note. If you are starting with a photograph that is over- or under-exposed by more than a couple of stops you will need to adjust exposure first. Also if the white balance is way off, too blue or yellow, that first will affect the overall exposure and where the blacks and whites start to clip, so you may need to correct the white balance first.