How can I avoid too-bright windows in indoor photos?

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April 21, 2016 at 10:30 am  •  Posted in Q&A, Tips & Techniques by  •  0 Comments

I am shooting interior photos of our cathedral for a church publication, and I have run into one technical problem. Sometimes, the interior is quite dark but the stained glass windows are extremely bright. When I get a good exposure for the interior, the windows are too bright without any detail at all. How can I prevent this problem or solve it with Adobe Photoshop CS6 (not the new Photoshop CC)? 
—Betina T.

This is a common problem in travel photography, too, Betina, when recording the interiors of some palaces, theatres, churches and other buildings. The first technique is the simplest: try to take the photos on a grey, dark day when the windows will be much less bright than on sunny days. You could then use the Highlight Recovery, Curves, or a similar feature in your imaging software at minimal strength if you want to further darken the window areas.

Shoot wide angle interiors on an overcast day when sunlight is not striking the windows (as I did in this case), and you should have plenty of detail in those areas. Be sure to avoid overexposure, however. © 2016 Peter K. Burian

Of course, we must sometimes take interior photos on sunny days when brightness of the windows will be problematic. Here’s one solution. Shoot in Raw (not JPEG) capture mode and set an exposure compensation of -1 to create photos that are darker than usual. This should prevent window areas that are grossly overexposed. In the Raw converter software (such as Photoshop, Elements or Lightroom), use the available slider tools to darken Whites and Highlights. Then lighten the mid-tones and shadows to improve the exposure of the darker areas of the interior. (A Raw file is more tolerant of exposure modification than a JPEG as discussed in the previous Q&A, Is it true that you need to shoot Raw photos for the best quality?)

In situations where the windows are too bright and you’ve lost some important detail, it's worth using one or both of the techniques discussed in the text to darken them. (I applied both to this image.) The result should be a more pleasing overall effect. © 2016 Peter K. Burian

In situations where the windows are too bright and you’ve lost some important detail, it’s worth using one or both of the techniques discussed in the text to darken them. (I applied both to this image.) The result should be a more pleasing overall effect. © 2016 Peter K. Burian

There’s a second solution that has worked well for me in difficult situations. It calls for a tool that is available with both Adobe Elements and Photoshop: the Magic Wand/Quick Selection tool. Start by using the technique in the previous paragraph. After converting the Raw photo, identify each window that is still too bright with the Magic Wand tool or with Quick Selection. Then, use the Highlight slider in the Shadow/Highlight utility to darken that window area (by about 35 points) to recover additional detail or to at least tone down the excessive brightness. Do so for every other window that requires adjustment. When you’re finished, the overall look of the photo should be acceptable at the very least.

Hint: The Magic Wand and Quick Selection tools are not difficult to use, but it’s worth viewing a video tutorial that provides guidance about them. Fortunately, these tools have not changed much from earlier to more recent versions of Adobe Elements and Photoshop. You can find several relevant videos with a Google search, such as the Magic Wand and Quick selection tools (Photoshop) and this Photoshop Elements 10 tutorial on these tools. And if you’re not familiar with the Shadow/Highlight utility mentioned above, check out the Using the Shadows/Highlights Adjustment tutorial.

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