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Rescuing wedding photos taken in bad light

The bride standing in bad light during wedding ceremony

The original image as it came out of the camera, nothing good here…

I had to photograph a wedding in East Sussex last weekend in typical church conditions, bad light and no flash allowed. When the bride took her place at the front of the church she was in the worst possible position for photos, in a really harsh pool of sunlight coming from a high angle and surrounded by gloom. The shot at the top is what came out of my camera, panda eyes, no shadow detail and burnt out highlights, yechh!

Professional digital cameras can deal with low light very well but there’s not a lot you can do about just plain bad light, except add some of your own with a flash or a reflector. If you can’t do that, the only thing left is software and digital retouching to try and rescue the image. I had a go at this series of shots and was quite surprised at what I eventually managed to pull out with the help of Lightroom and Photoshop.

Photo of bride after some work in Lightroom

First stage of the rescue operation in Lightroom

First step was to get the best I could from the RAW files in Lightroom. Using lots of fill light and some highlight recovery I ended up with the shot above, better but still not very lovely. I then exported two versions one as you see it and one overexposed until it started to reveal some shadow detail.

I merged the two files in in Photoshop, using the best detail from each version, then started work with Photoshop tools. After about ten minutes I had the final version below. It’s still not technically a great shot, but it was an important part of the wedding and at least it’s better than when I started.

Image of bride in church after final retouching in Photoshop

The final image after quite a lot of work in Photoshop.

I sometime get asked if I miss using traditional film cameras. Well, not really, I love digital imaging and all the stuff I can do that I could never achieve with film. If I had taken this photo on film it would have been almost impossible to rescue. I do have the occasional misty moment recalling images appearing before my eyes in a tray of warm developer, then I remember the stink of the chemicals and being stuck in a darkroom for the whole summer and get over it very quickly!

Helena McElhinney - This was lovely to see and very encouraging. Our wedding photographer made a complete hash of our photo’s. Whole shots missing- I mean eg. all the romantic shots of us together alone. What remained tended to be badly composed- a lamp shade growing out of my head, someone’s leg sticking out of my dress(they were behind me!) and so many blurred and out of focus.

I have no idea how to fix the out of focus ones, although I am tweaking lots of the others. My husband and me are even going to a studio to have some good pic’s taken of us, dressing up in our wedding clothes again, as there weren’t even any of us in close up, looking eye to eye, hugging, etc.

I have never heard of Lightroom and am a complete newbie to photoshop. But I am learning! Do you have any advice re the blurred ones?

Wish we had found someone like you to do ours (we’re up in Colchester) 🙁

Anyway, any tips, and your time spent reading all this, very appreciated. X thank you X


David - Sorry to hear that Helena, it must be such a disappointment to have photos of your wedding day messed up.

There isn’t an awful lot you can do about out of focus photos. If you have access to Photoshop you can try various sharpening tools, but they aren’t going to fix anything that’s really soft. Try going to the top menu, go to filter/sharpen/unsharp mask or smart sharpen. Adjust the sliders in either of these and see if things improve, you might be able to rescue a few.
There are also a couple of independent software companies that make programs to rescue blurry shots, though I haven’t tried them myself:

Unfortunately there’s nothing to stop anyone calling themselves a wedding photographer, even if they have absolutely no experience or talent. With the availability of reasonably priced, good quality digital cameras, there’s now a virtual tidal wave of ‘weekend warriors’ who think it’s going to be an easy way to make a few extra quid. Weddings are actually one of the most difficult things to photograph well, I’ve been a photographer for over twenty years and they still make me nervous!

My advice to anyone looking for a wedding photographer is to always meet up and look at previous work, look at complete weddings, not just a few nice photos that have been cherry picked from a day’s shoot. Don’t put too much faith in membership of ‘professional’ photography organisations, some of these just exist to take annual subscription fees and don’t monitor their member’s work (Though there are very good ones too). Referrals are often the best way to find someone decent, ask your friends and someone will probably recommend a good person. Lastly, and I know everyone has a budget to work to, is don’t go for the cheapest photographer you can find, there’s usually a reason things are cheap!

Hope you manage to get a selection of shots from your studio session.

Best wishes, David.

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