Aperture in Action

13 min read

Controlling clipped highlights

The problem of clipped highlights is a very common issue that a photographer will often have to deal with. Digital cameras only have limited dynamic range, so clipping becomes an issue, especially with high-contrast scenes. However, if you shoot RAW, then your camera will often record more highlighted information than is visible in the image. You may already be familiar with recovering highlights by using the recovery slider in Aperture, but there are actually a couple of other ways that you can bring this information back into range.

The three main methods of controlling lost highlights in Aperture are:

  • Using the recovery slider

  • Using curves

  • Using shadows and highlights

For many cases, using the recovery slider will be good enough, but the recovery slider has its limitations. Sometimes it still leaves your highlights looking too bright, or it doesn’t give you the look you wish to achieve. The other two methods mentioned give you more control over the process of recovery. If you use a Curves adjustment, you can control the way the highlight rolls off, and you can reduce the artificial look that clipped highlights can give your image, even if technically the highlight is still clipped. A highlights & shadows adjustment is also useful because it has a different look, as compared to the one that you get when using the recovery slider. It works in a slightly different way, and includes more of the brighter tones of your image when making its calculations. The highlights and shadows adjustment has the added advantage of being able to be brushed in.

So, how do you know which one to use? Consider taking a three-stepped approach. If the first step doesn’t work, move on to the second, and so on. Eventually, it will become second nature, and you’ll know which way will be the best by just looking at the photograph.

Step 1

Use the recovery slider. Drag the slider up until any clipped areas of the image start to reappear. Only drag the slider until the clipped areas have been recovered, and then stop. You may find that if your highlights are completely clipped, you may need to drag the slider all the way to the right, as per the following screenshot:

For most clipped highlight issues, this will probably be enough. If you want to see what’s going on, add a Curves adjustment and set the Range field to the Extended range. You don’t have to make any adjustments at this point, but the histogram in the Curves adjustment will now show you how much image data is being clipped, and how much data that you can actually recover.

Real world example

In the following screenshot, the highlights on the right-hand edge of the plant pot have been completely blown out:

If we zoom in, you will be able to see the problem in more detail.

As you can see, all the image information has been lost from the intricate edge of this cast iron plant pot. Luckily this image had been shot in RAW, and the highlights are easily recovered.

In this case, all that was necessary was the use of the recovery slider. It was dragged upward until it reached a value of around 1.1, and this brought most of the detail back into the visible range.

As you can see from the preceding image, the detail has been recovered nicely and there are no more clipped highlights. The following screenshot is the finished image after the use of the recovery slider:

Step 2

If the recovery slider brought the highlights back into range, but still they are too bright, then try the Highlights & Shadows adjustment. This will allow you to bring the highlights down even further. If you find that it is affecting the rest of your image, you can use brushes to limit the highlight adjustment to just the area you want to recover.

You may find that with the Highlight and Shadows adjustment, if you drag the sliders too far the image will start to look flat and washed out. In this case, using the mid-contrast slider can add some contrast back into the image. You should use the mid-contrast slider carefully though, as too much can create an unnatural image with too much contrast.

Step 3

If the previous steps haven’t addressed the problem to your satisfaction, or if the highlight areas are still clipped, you can add a roll off to your Curves adjustment. The following is a quick refresher on what to do:

  1. Add a Curves adjustment, if you haven’t already added one.

  2. From the pop-up range menu at the bottom of the Curves adjustment, set the range to Extended.

  3. Drag the white point of the Curves slider till it encompasses all the image information.

  4. Create a roll off on the right-hand side of the curve, so it looks something like the following screenshot:

If you’re comfortable with curves, you can skip directly to step 3 and just use a Curves adjustment, but for better results, you should combine the preceding differing methods to best suit your image.

Real world example

In the following screenshot (of yours truly), the photo was taken under poor lighting conditions, and there is a badly blown out highlight on the forehead:

Before we fix the highlights, however, the first thing that we need to do is to fix the overall white balance, which is quite poor. In this case, the easiest way to fix this problem is to use the Aperture’s clever skin tone white-balance adjustment.

On the White Balance adjustment brick from the pop-up menu, set the mode to Skin Tone. Now, select the color picker and pick an area of skin tone in the image. This will set the white balance to a more acceptable color. (You can tweak it more if it’s not right, but this usually gives satisfactory results.)

The next step is to try and fix the clipped highlight. Let’s use the three-step approach that we discussed earlier. We will start by using the recovery slider. In this case, the slider was brought all the way up, but the result wasn’t enough and leaves an unsightly highlight, as you can see in the following screenshot:

The next step is to try the Highlight & Shadows adjustment. The highlights slider was brought up to the mid-point, and while this helped, it still didn’t fix the overall problem. The highlights are still quite ugly, as you can see in the following screenshot:

Finally, a Curves adjustment was added and a gentle roll off was applied to the highlight portion of the curve. While the burned out highlight isn’t completely gone, there is no longer a harsh edge to it. The result is a much better image than the original, with a more natural-looking highlight as shown in the following screenshot:

Finishing touches

To take this image further, the face was brightened using another Curves adjustment, and the curves was brushed in over the facial area. A vignette was also added. Finally, a skin softening brush was used over the harsh shadow on the nose, and over the edges of the halo on the forehead, just to soften it even further. The result is a much better (and now useable) image than the one we started with.

Fixing blown out skies

Another common problem one often encounters with digital images is blown out skies. Sometimes it can be as a result of the image being clipped beyond the dynamic range of the camera, whereas other times the day may simply have been overcast and there is no detail there to begin with. While there are situations when the sky is too bright and you just need to bring the brightness down to better match the rest of the scene, that is easily fixed. But what if there is no detail there to recover in the first place? That scenario is what we are going to look at in the next section. This covers what to do when the sky is completely gone and there’s nothing left to recover.

There are options open to you in this case. The first is pretty obvious. Leave it as it is. However, you might have an image that is nicely lit otherwise, but all that’s ruining it is a flat washed-out sky. What would add a nice balance to an image in such a scenario is some subtle blue in the sky, even if it’s just a small amount. Luckily, this is fairly easy to achieve in Aperture. Perform the following steps:

  1. Try the steps outlined in the previous section to bring clipped highlights back into range. Sometimes simply using the recovery slider will bring clipped skies back into the visible range, depending on the capabilities of your camera. In order for the rest of this trick to work, your highlights must be in the visible range.

  2. If you have already made any enhancements using the Enhance brick and you want to preserve those, add another Enhance brick by choosing Add New Enhance adjustment from the cog pop-up on the side of the interface.

  3. If the Tint controls aren’t visible on the Enhance brick, click on the little arrow beside the word Tint to reveal the Tint controls.

  4. Using the right-hand Tint control (the one with the White eyedropper under it), adjust the control until it adds some blue back to the sky.

  5. If this is adding too much blue to other areas of your image, then brush the enhance adjustment in by choosing Brush Enhance In from the cog pop-up menu.

Real world example

In this example, the sky has been completely blown out and has lost most of its color detail. The first thing to try is to see whether any detail can be recovered by using the recovery slider. In this case, some of the sky was recovered, but a lot of it was still burned out. There is simply no more information to recover.

The next step is to use the tint adjustment as outlined in the instructions. This puts some color back in the sky and it looks more natural. A small adjustment of the Highlights & Shadows also helps bring the sky back into the range.

Finishing touches

While the sky has now been recovered, there is still a bit of work to be done. To brighten up the rest of the image, a Curves adjustment was added, and the upper part of the curve was brought up, while the shadows were brought down to add some contrast.

The following is the Curves adjustment that was used:

Finally, to reduce the large lens flare in the center of the image, I added a color adjustment and reduced the saturation and brightness of the various colors in the flare. I then painted the color adjustment in over the flare, and this reduced the impact of it on the image. This is the same technique that can be used for getting rid of color fringing, which will be discussed later in this article.

The following screenshot is the final result:

Removing objects from a scene

One of the myths about photo workflow applications such as Aperture is that they’re not good for pixel-level manipulations. People will generally switch over to something such as Photoshop if they need to do more complex operations, such as cloning out an object. However, Aperture’s retouch tool is surprisingly powerful. If you need to remove small distracting objects from a scene, then it works really well. The following is an example of a shot that was entirely corrected in Aperture:

It is not really practical to give step-by-step instructions for using the tool because every situation is different, so instead, what follows is a series of tips on how best to use the retouch function:

  • To remove complex objects you will have to switch back and forth between the cloning and healing mode. Don’t expect to do everything entirely in one mode or the other.

  • To remove long lines, such as the telegraph wires in the preceding example, start with the healing tool. Use this till you get close to the edge of an object in the scene you want to keep. Then switch to the cloning tool to fix the areas close to the kept object.

  • The healing tool can go a bit haywire near the edges of the frame, or the edges of another object, so it’s often best to use the clone tool near the edges.

  • Remember when using the clone tool that you need to keep changing your clone source so as to avoid leaving repetitive patterns in the cloned area. To change your source area, hold down the option key, and click on the image in the area that you want to clone from.

  • Sometimes doing a few smaller strokes works better than one long, big stroke.

  • You can only have one retouch adjustment, but each stroke is stored separately within it. You can delete individual strokes, but only in the reverse order in which they were created. You can’t delete the first stroke, and keep the following ones if for example, you have 10 other strokes.

It is worth taking the time to experiment with the retouch tool. Once you get the hang of this feature, you will save yourself a lot of time by not having to jump to another piece of software to do basic (or even advanced) cloning and healing.

Fixing dust spots on multiple images

A common use for the retouch tool is for removing sensor dust spots on an image. If your camera’s sensor has become dirty, which is surprisingly common, you may find spots of dust creeping onto your images. These are typically found when shooting at higher f-stops (narrower apertures), such as f/11 or higher, and they manifest as round dark blobs. Dust spots are usually most visible in the bright areas of solid color, such as skies.

The big problem with dust spots is that once your sensor has dust on it, it will record that dust in the same place in every image. Luckily Aperture’s tools makes it pretty easy to remove those dust spots, and once you’ve removed them from one image, it’s pretty simple to remove them from all your images. To remove dust spots on multiple images, perform the following steps:

  1. Start by locating the image in your batch where the dust spots are most visible.


    Zoom in to 1:1 view (100 percent zoom), and press X on your keyboard to activate the retouch tool.


    Switch the retouch tool to healing mode and decrease the size of your brush till it is just bigger than the dust spot. Make sure there is some softness on the brush.

  4. Click once over the spot to get rid of it. You should try to click on it rather than paint when it comes to dust spots, as you want the least amount of area retouched as possible.

  5. Scan through your image when viewing at 1:1, and repeat the preceding process until you have removed all the dust spots

  6. Close the retouch tool’s HUD to drop the tool. Zoom back out.

  7. Select the lift tool from the Aperture interface (it’s at the bottom of the main window).

  8. In the lift and stamp HUD, delete everything except the Retouch adjustment in the Adjustments submenu. To do this, select all the items except the retouch entry, and press the delete (or backspace) key.

  9. Select another image or group of images in your batch, and press the Stamp Selected Images button on the Lift and Stamp HUD.

Your retouched settings will be copied to all your images, and because the dust spots don’t move between shots, the dust should be removed on all your images.


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