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  • Ed Dozier

Lightroom Exposure Editing Tips

Lightroom has some very confusing terminology, which keeps users from making effective edit adjustments. I’d like to concentrate on adjustments that control the light levels in the finished photo in this article. You’ll find that Lightroom’s use of the word “exposure” isn’t what you think it is.

Many photographers are familiar with Ansel Adams’ Zone System. Ansel divided the photographic light range into eleven zones, using Roman numerals 0 through X. Zone 0 is for pure black, with middle-gray being Zone V, and pure white falling on Zone X. Each zone ‘size’ is the same. The division of light into eleven zones was based upon the dynamic range capability of the best films of the day, combined with clever film processing tricks. This work was carried out in 1939 by both Ansel Adams and Fred Archer.

The developers of Lightroom decided to use a modified zone system, which is based on only 5 zones of light. They also came up with names, instead of numbers, to identify the zones. These zones, starting with the darkest tones, are called Blacks, Shadows, Exposure, Highlights, and Whites.

The Blacks zone range

In the shot above, you can see the Blacks light range depicted in lighter gray. It covers roughly the lowest 10% of the total light range, representing the lowest tones of the image. Despite its name, adjusting this range will affect the full color spectrum, and not just ‘colorless’ shadows.

The Shadows zone range

The Shadows light range shown above extends over approximately 20% of the total light range. Again, you can see the width of this light range depicted as a lighter shade of gray in the screen capture.

The Exposure zone range

The Exposure light range extends over about 35% of the whole range, making up the widest adjustment range of any of the sliders that control light intensity. These are all of the image mid-tones.

The Highlights zone range

The Highlights light range covers the lighter tones, with a width of about 25% of the overall light range.

The Whites zone range

The Whites light range covers the lightest tones, making up a narrow band of about 10% of the whole light range. The whole light spectrum gets adjusted in this zone, and not just ‘colorless’ white values. This range is critical to control the brightest zones of your photo, so that you don’t end up with disturbing blank-white areas without any texture in them.

I think it’s unfortunate that the Lightroom developers came up with a set of names that sound like they’re designed for different purposes, and they’re not even set up to cover the same width of a light zone. The Exposure zone is much wider than the other zones.

The five light adjustment sliders

These five sliders that control light levels have a little bit of overlap in their ranges, so that you don’t end up with an awkward “stair-step” adjustment between zones.

The Clarity adjustment alters the contrast in the Exposure light range (the mid-tones) only. This makes it more selective than the Contrast slider, which alters the contrast range in all five of the light zones (from “Blacks” through “Whites”).


Without a good understanding of what the light-adjustment sliders in Lightroom do, you’re not going to achieve optimal results. These controls will reward you with better results if you can shoot at lower ISO values, since that will allow your camera to capture a wider dynamic range of light.

Be aware that these adjustment sliders don’t relieve you of the responsibility of getting a good in-camera exposure; always avoid the garbage-in-garbage-out scenario.

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