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Photography Exposure

Overexposed vs Underexposed – Which is Best For You?

August 10, 2023 by

You’re standing in front of a beautiful mountain landscape, as you raise your camera, you eagerly frame the shot, adjusting the settings to capture the scene exactly as you see it.

But there’s a question that arises in that split second: Should you intentionally overexpose or underexpose the image to achieve your desired effect?

Each technique offers its own unique charm, but which one is best for you?

In this article, I’ll be answering that question by exploring these contrasting approaches to help you discover which one resonates with your creative vision.

Let’s dive in!

Learn overexposure vs underexposure From Credible Creators
Table of Contents

What is the Difference Between Overexposure and Underexposure?

In short, overexposure occurs when too much light reaches the camera sensor, resulting in a bright image than intended and underexposure occurs when too little light reaches the camera sensor, resulting in a darker image with reduced visibility.

Exposure in photography plays a vital role in capturing the perfect image and determines how bright or dark the final photograph appears.

Finding an ideal exposure, however, and understanding the balancing act of the exposure triangle can be a detailed process.

Understanding the difference between overexposure and underexposure allows photographers to harness these techniques intentionally, rather than leaving them to chance.

difference between overexposure and underexposure
difference between overexposure and underexposure

Is it Better to Shoot Overexposed or Underexposed?

Whether it’s better to shoot overexposed or underexposed is a subjective one and ultimately depends on your artistic vision.

For example, you may want to capture an overexposed image if you’re going for a bright, airy, and cheery mood. You may want to capture an underexposed image if you’re going for a moody, dramatic, or serious mood.

Both techniques offer their own unique advantages and challenges so let’s take a closer look at each one.

What is Overexposure?

Overexposure refers to a situation in which too much light reaches your camera sensor, resulting in an excessively bright or washed-out image.

Overexposure occurs when your exposure settings — consisting of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, allow for an abundance of light to enter the sensor.

Overexposure can happen in various lighting conditions but is most prevalent in scenes where the scene is predominantly bright such as midday with harsh sunlight or indoors with bright lighting.

What Causes Overexposure?

The causes of overexposure range from photographing in a bright scene, your exposure settings, and incorrect metering or exposure compensation settings.

Let’s take a close look at each one:

1. Bright Scene

The scene and setting of your photo session play a big role in whether or not you receive an overexposed image.

If you are photographing in a bright scene such as outdoors during midday or in an indoor setting with bright studio lights (fill light, key light, backlight), then the chances of you having an overexposed image are increased.

2. Wide Aperture or Slow Shutter Speed

Photographing with a wide aperture or slow shutter speed can also lead to an overexposed image.

Using a wide aperture (lower f-stop) will create a wider depth of field allowing more light to enter the camera sensor.

Similarly, using a slower shutter will cause the shutter to remain open for a longer duration allowing more light to enter the sensor.

aperture photography chart
f-stop chart

3. Incorrect Metering or Exposure Compensation

Lastly, if you meter incorrectly or do not have the correct exposure compensation settings, then this can create an overexposed image.

If you do not meter correctly with a light meter or your exposure compensation settings are not properly calibrated for normal exposure, then you can unintentionally end up with a bright, overexposed image.

How to Tell If a Photo is Overexposed?

Determining whether a photo is overexposed or not is an important skill every photographer should have.

Let’s take a look at some of the key indicators for whether or not an image is overexposed.

1. Blinking Highlights or Clipped Pixels

The first indicator for an overexposed image is blinking highlights or clipped pixels.

These days, many modern cameras provide a feature called “highlight warning” or “highlight alert” that will display a blinking highlight on your camera’s LCD screen if there is overexposure in the image.

This blinking highlight is often nicknamed “blinkies.”

Depending on your camera type, you can choose whether or not to enable this feature.

2. Histogram

The second way to tell whether you have an overexposed image is to analyze your histogram.

The histogram is a graphical representation of the tonal distribution in an image.

In the histogram, the shadows will be on the left side while the highlights will be on the right side.

If you’re dealing with an overexposed image, you will find that the histogram will show a buildup of data on the right side, indicating an abundance of bright pixels.

If you notice that your histogram is pushed up against the right edge, this will suggest that you are experiencing overexposure.

overexposed histogram
overexposed histogram

3. Loss of Detail

The third way to tell whether you have an overexposed image is to look for a loss of detail within the brightest areas of your image.

An easy way to do this is to look at the areas that are important such as the highlights on a subject’s face or if areas on intricate textures appear completely white.

If you notice these areas are blown-out then this is a clear sign of overexposure.

4. Lack of Contrast

The fourth way to tell whether you have an overexposed image is to look for reduced contrast.

In your image, bright areas that should have subtle tonal variations and textures may appear flat and lacking in depth.

If your image lacks distinct shadows and highlights and the overall tonal range feels compressed, then that could be an indication that you have an overexposed image.

5. Trusting Your Eye

The fifth and final way to tell whether you have an overexposed image is to trust your eye.

What I mean by this, is that if you are reviewing your image and it looks unnaturally bright and the colors look washed out to you, then there is a good chance your visual instincts are correct.

Your eyes can often detect overexposure simply by comparing your image to how you remembered the scene.

Trust your instincts along with looking at the details provided by our camera and editing software and it will be easy to tell whether you have an overexposed image.

Advantages of Photographing Overexposed Images

While overexposure can be seen as a technical error, many photographers including myself often intentionally overexpose images to add a creative effect.

Let’s take a look at some advantages of deliberately capturing an overexposed image.

1. Soft and Ethereal Aesthetic

The first advantage of overexposing your images is that it can create a soft, dreamy, and ethereal aesthetic in your image.

By intentionally blowing out your highlights, it can add a dreamy and gentle delicate quality to your images.

This is a great look to have in your images if you’re capturing a romantic portrait, whimsical landscapes, or going for a retro look.

ethereal portrait overexposed
Image by Nicola Margaret

2. Minimize Distractions

The second advantage of overexposing your images is that it can be an effective way to minimize distractions within an image.

By intentionally blowing out certain areas, you can draw attention to your main subject or focal point.

3. Enhance High-Key Images

The third advantage to overexposing your images is that it can be a great way to enhance your images that use high-key lighting.

High-key photography is a style characterized by having a predominantly bright and overexposed image using a key light.

This technique is often used in fashion, beauty, and product photography to create a clean, airy, and fresh look to your images.

By intentionally overexposing your image, you can emphasize this look.

Disadvantages of Photographing Overexposed Images

While there are advantages to photographing overexposed images, there are also disadvantages you need to be aware of.

Let’s take a look at them now.

1. Loss of Detail

As mentioned earlier, overexposure often results in a loss of important details in the highlights of your image.

By blowing out the brightest areas in your image, the fine textures, tonal variations, and intricate patterns in your image can be sacrificed leading to a loss of detail.

2. Unnatural Appearance

The second disadvantage of photographing underexposed images is that it can create an unnatural appearance.

I mentioned in the advantages that an overexposed image can create an ethereal look — but if it’s pushed too far then it can create an unnatural and unrealistic appearance.

3. Difficulty in Post-Processing

The third disadvantage of photographing underexposed images is that it can be difficult to edit.

While you can recover some highlights to a certain extent, excessive overexposure may cause irreversible loss of detail.

If you attempt to correct extreme overexposure in your image it can lead to increase noise or artifacts.

How to Fix Overexposed Photos

Now that we’ve covered all the advantages and disadvantages, let’s take a look at how to fix overexposed photos.

These are the tips you should know if you’ve already adjusted your exposure settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) and are still receiving an overexposed image.

1. Adjust Exposure Compensation

If you’re photographing in manual mode and you’ve already adjusted your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO correctly and are still receiving an overexposed image, then adjusting the exposure compensation values will help you achieve a balanced exposure.

You will want to decrease the exposure compensation value and that will darken the overall image.

2. Use Recovery Tools in Post-Processing Software

The second way to fix overexposed images is to use the recovery tools in post-processing software such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.

These softwares along with others include highlight recovery sliders, tone curve adjustments, and exposure adjustments that will allow you to bring detail back to the image.

As mentioned earlier, however, if your image is too overexposed then this will not work.

3. Shoot in RAW

The third way to fix overexposed images is to shoot in RAW format.

Shooting in RAW gives you more flexibility in post-processing.

This is because RAW files contain more data and retain a wider dynamic range compared to JPEG files, allowing for more extensive adjustments without sacrificing image quality.

What is Underexposure?

Opposite to overexposure, underexposure refers to a situation where too little light reaches the camera sensor, resulting in an image that appears dark or underdeveloped.

It occurs when the camera’s exposure settings, such as aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, do not allow enough light to enter the sensor, resulting in an insufficiently exposed image.

What Causes Underexposure?

Similar to the causes of an overexposed image, there are certain factors that will cause an underexposed image.

1. Low Lighting Conditions

Underexposure can happen in various lighting conditions but is more prevalent in scenes with low light such as indoors or at night time or when photographing subjects that are predominantly dark.

When an image is underexposed, the overall brightness is reduced, leading to a lack of detail in the shadows and a loss of tonal range.

The resulting image may appear dim, with deep shadows and muted colors.

underexposed portrait
Image by “THEPALMER”

2. Narrow Aperture or Fast Shutter Speed

Using a narrow aperture or a fast shutter speed in dimly lit situations can result in too little light entering the camera.

This is because both a narrow aperture and a fast shutter speed don’t allow as much light to enter the sensor.

3. Misjudging Exposure

Lastly, metering errors, such as misjudging the exposure or failing to use exposure compensation, can also lead to underexposed images.

How to Tell If a Photo is Underexposed?

Similarly to knowing how to tell whether a photo is overexposed, it’s crucial that you know how to tell whether a photo is underexposed or not.

1. Dark Shadows and Lack of Detail

One of the most apparent signs of underexposure is dark shadows with limited detail.

Look for areas in the image where important elements or subjects appear excessively dark, obscuring details that should be visible.

These areas often lack tonal variation and may appear as solid black patches.

2. Histogram Analysis

The second way to tell whether a photo is underexposed is by looking at the histogram.

In an underexposed image, the histogram will show a buildup of data on the left side, indicating an abundance of dark pixels.

If the histogram is pushed up against the left edge and lacks detail in the shadows, it suggests underexposure.

underexposed histogram
underexposed histogram

3. Loss of Highlights

The third way to tell whether a photo is underexposed is by looking for a loss of highlights.

Underexposed images may exhibit a loss of detail in the brightest areas.

You’ll want to look for regions where highlights, such as bright spots on a subject’s face or reflective surfaces, appear dull or lack the expected tonal variation.

These areas may lack the necessary brightness and contrast, contributing to an overall dark and muted appearance.

4. Muddy or Flat Colors

The fourth way to tell whether a photo is underexposed is by looking for muddy or flat colors.

Underexposure can lead to a lack of vibrancy and saturation in colors.

The image may appear dull or muddy, with reduced contrast between different hues.

Be sure to pay attention to the overall color reproduction and look for a lack of richness and depth that should be present in a well-exposed image.

5. Trust Your Eye

Lastly, similar to knowing whether or not your photo is overexposed, you’ll want to trust your visual instincts.

Assess the image as a whole and consider if it appears unnaturally dark or lacking in brightness and detail.

Your eye will detect underexposure by comparing the image to your perception of the original scene.

Advantages of Photographing Underexposed Images

Photographing underexposed images has its unique advantages when it comes to creative aesthetics.

In fact, if I had the choice to photograph an overexposed or underexposed image, I always opt for the underexposed image due to my personal photography style.

1. Dramatic and Moody Aesthetic

Underexposure can create a dramatic and moody aesthetic in your photographs.

By intentionally reducing the overall exposure, shadows are deepened, and highlights are restrained, resulting in a heightened sense of contrast and visual impact.

This technique can be particularly effective in genres such as black and white photography, street photography, or when aiming to evoke a moody and mysterious portrait (my favorite).

underexposed moody portrait
Image by Joe Valve

2. Emphasis on Your Subject

Similar to overexposure, underexposing an image can help direct the viewer’s attention to the subject or key elements within the composition.

By darkening the surroundings or backgrounds, the subject becomes more prominent, drawing the viewer’s gaze directly to it.

This technique allows for a stronger visual focus and can create a sense of intimacy and intensity in the photograph.

3. Create Atmosphere

Intentional underexposure can be used to convey specific moods and atmospheres.

By manipulating the exposure levels, you can create a somber, mysterious, or even ominous ambiance.

Darker tones and reduced visibility can evoke emotions and narratives, allowing viewers to interpret and engage with the photograph on a deeper level.

I personally love creating these moody atmospheres and then adding a bit of grain to my images to create that nostalgic, cinematic effect that’s really popular online.

Disadvantages of Photographing Underexposed Images

While there are advantages to photographing underexposed images, it’s also important to be aware of some of the disadvantages.

1. Loss of Shadow Detail

Underexposure often results in a loss of detail in the shadow areas of an image.

Darkening the overall exposure can lead to deep, solid black shadows where important details may be obscured or completely lost.

This loss of shadow detail can result in a visually flat image lacking depth and may limit the ability to convey specific elements or textures within the composition.

2. Limited Editing Flexibility

Underexposed images offer less flexibility during post-processing compared to properly exposed or slightly overexposed images.

Since there is less captured information in the shadows, attempts to recover details may result in increased noise, loss of image quality, or unnatural-looking edits.

It becomes more challenging to fine-tune the exposure, contrast, and tonal balance without compromising the overall image quality.

3. Increase in Noise

Darkening an image during post-processing or intentionally underexposing in-camera can amplify noise and introduce unwanted artifacts.

When pushing the exposure levels to recover shadow details in an underexposed image, the noise in the darker areas becomes more noticeable, resulting in a loss of image quality.

Additionally, aggressive adjustments to brighten underexposed areas can introduce artifacts such as banding or color shifts, compromising the overall image integrity.

4. Reduced Printability Options

Underexposed images often have limited printability and may not translate well in certain display environments.

Darker areas with little detail can appear muddy or lacking in clarity when printed or viewed on screens with limited dynamic range.

It may restrict the options for showcasing and sharing the image in various formats or display settings.

How to Fix Underexposed Photos

Listen, we’ve all been there — we took an image that we underexposed but when we opened it up in post-processing, we saw that it was a bit too underexposed.

Let’s take a look at all the options to recover a bit of exposure.

1. Adjust Brightness and Exposure

The first step in fixing an underexposed image is to adjust its overall brightness and exposure.

Most photo editing softwares, such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, provides sliders or controls specifically designed for these adjustments.

Increase the brightness or exposure values gradually until you achieve a better-balanced exposure.

Be careful not to overcompensate, as it can lead to overexposure and loss of highlight detail.

2. Increase Shadows and Midtones

Underexposed images often suffer from dark shadows and lack of detail.

Use the shadow and mid tone adjustments available in your editing software to bring out the details in these areas.

Gradually increase the shadow sliders or use targeted adjustment tools, like the brush or gradient tool, to selectively brighten specific shadowed regions while preserving highlights.

3. Adjust Contrast and Tone Curves

Underexposed images can benefit from increased contrast to improve the overall tonal range and visual impact.

Utilize contrast adjustments or tone curve tools to fine-tune the contrast and enhance the separation between shadows, midtones, and highlights.

Carefully adjust the curve to maintain a natural look without introducing excessive artifacts or posterization.

4. Reduce Noise and Enhance Sharpness

Increasing the exposure of underexposed areas can also amplify noise.

Use noise reduction tools available in your editing software to minimize the noise while preserving details.

Additionally, apply selective sharpening to enhance the overall clarity and crispness of the image.

Strike a balance between noise reduction and sharpness adjustments to maintain a natural and pleasing result.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, knowing the difference between overexposure and underexposure along with the pros and cons of each is important as a photographer.

Each photographer’s style is also different so you may find yourself leaning more towards one side depending on the aesthetic you’re going for.

Whichever side you lean towards, be sure not to go too overboard. Good luck!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between underexposed and overexposed negatives?

An underexposed negative refers to one that was exposed to insufficient light during the capture process, resulting in dark and low-contrast images. Conversely, an overexposed negative refers to one that received an excessive amount of light, causing the image to appear overly bright or washed out with reduced detail in highlights.

What is the key to purposely overexposing or underexposing a photograph?

The key to purposely overexposing or underexposing a photograph lies in controlling the exposure settings of your camera, such as adjusting the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. By intentionally increasing or decreasing the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor, you can achieve the desired level of overexposure or underexposure, allowing for creative expression and the desired aesthetic effect in your photographs.

Is it easier to fix underexposed or overexposed?

In general, it is usually easier to fix an underexposed image compared to an overexposed one. Underexposed images tend to retain more information in the shadows, allowing for better recovery of details through exposure adjustments and selective editing, while overexposed images may result in irretrievable loss of highlight detail and require more advanced techniques for recovery.