Photoshop Tutorial: How to save dark restaurant photos

Dark “mood” lighting in restaurants is the enemy of every food blogger out there. I’ve seen bloggers request to be moved tables just so they can take better photos of their food!

Whilst I don’t do many restaurant reviews anymore, I still take a lot of food photos whilst on travel famils and end up with a LOT of underexposed, barely focused photos that seem basically useless at first glance.

But with these handy and simple Photoshop tips, we can save your underexposed photos! Hooray!


I took this photo of a salmon salad in a very dark restaurant in Hervey Bay on a travel famil. Despite setting my aperture to F1.8 (the lowest setting on my camera which allows the most light coming in) this was the result. It’s appalling! You can’t even tell it’s a salad!


Now I had 2 other options to get a brighter photo:

1) Bring a tripod and set the shutter speed to very slow, meaning even more light can come in. However I was at a dinner with a large group of people and there was no time for such a set up. There were a lot of hungry people wanting to eat!

2) Use the flash on my camera. Never, and I repeat never use your flash in a restaurant. Not only is it annoying for other diners, the food looks overexposed and far worse.

Ok, since my other 2 options weren’t going to happen I was stuck with this.

Let’s open up Photoshop. Now, most people’s first thought would be to simply bump up the brightness to fix this photo’s exposure.

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 9.44.02 AM

Right? Wrong. Whilst it has definitely improved the photo overall, it has overexposed some areas and left other areas black with little to no detail. Plus the brightness has cast a very strong yellow light.


So what’s the answer? The Shadows/Highlights tool. Set the amount for the shadows to 35% and leave the highlights at 0%. You can play around with these percentages, but that worked best for this picture.

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 9.40.31 AM

Much better! By only brightening the shadows, the rest of the photo stays at the right exposure and suddenly all this detail we lost initially has returned. It actually looks like a salmon salad.


Now it’s up to you on how to improve this photo even more. Things I suggest include adjusting the white balance (to fix that nasty yellow hue) and reducing noise (the grainy effect that low light photography gives). I also bumped up the brightness slightly.


Now, by no means is this a great photo, but going from start to finish, look at the huge difference the Shadows/Highlights tool makes when we place them side by side!

food-image-dark food-image-fixed2

This tip works well when photographing dark bars as well. I took this photo at Gonpachi in Tokyo, aka the ‘Kill Bill Restaurant‘. The Shadows/Highlights tool brought up a lot of detail lost in the darkness.

japan-bar-dark japan-bar-light

It also helps fix common outdoor shot problems where the building is underexposed and the sky is overexposed. This time I bumped up both the shadows AND highlights. Suddenly details in the buildings appear, and the clouds return. What a huge difference!

shrine-dark shrine-light

So basically, the Shadows/Highlight tool is my best friend. I can’t believe I spent 5 years of my life not knowing about it!

As a graphic designer I spend a LOT of time in Photoshop (and InDesign, and Illustrator). Would you like to see more of these tutorials?


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  • Reply vegeTARAian May 22, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    Ooh excellent tip, Swah. Great to see the difference in the photos side-by-side. I have PhotoShop but I use LightRoom to touch up all my images. Perhaps if I knew more about PS I’d use it more often!

    • Reply Swah June 1, 2015 at 11:01 am

      And similarly, I wish I knew more Lightroom! :)

  • Reply Nicole - Champagne and Chips May 27, 2015 at 12:03 am

    Great tips. I didn’t realise these problems were so easy to fix in post.
    I laughed at the idea of taking a tripod to a restaurant :)

    • Reply Swah June 1, 2015 at 10:54 am

      Can you believe I have seen a tripod in restaurants on more than one occasion! How embarrassing! But yes, thank god for Photoshop :)

  • Reply Bec May 29, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Absolutely! Dark lit restaraunts are the bane of my existance! I’m also a little bit of a photoshop noob so food photography tips in PS especially would be a fantastic series. x

    • Reply Swah June 1, 2015 at 10:48 am

      They are also the bane of my existence! And will definitely be sharing more tutorials soon x

  • Reply Keely @ Gormandize June 3, 2015 at 10:20 am

    Nice post Swah, and yes, I would definitely enjoy seeing more posts like this :)

    • Reply Swah June 8, 2015 at 1:22 pm

      Fantastic, glad you liked it! I will definitely be doing more of these posts in the future :)

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