Imagine 💡

Create 📸

Inspire ⭐

Underexposure vs overexposure

As photographers, our goal is to properly expose our images, but sometimes that can get a little boring. So how can we spice it up a little bit?

Well, we can do it through purposeful underexposure or overexposure. But what if I told you that there is really no such thing as overexposure or underexposure?


Understanding exposure

It's important to fully understand what exposure means in order to understand underexposure and overexposure. In short, exposure in photography refers to how light or dark an image appears when captured by the camera.

Graphic showing light hit camera sensor.
Light hitting camera sensor

In technical terms, it’s the amount of light that reaches your camera sensor that determines how bright or dark your photo is. Now, in order to master exposure, you need to understand the exposure triangle.

Graphic of the exposure triangle.
Exposure triangle

The exposure triangle consists of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, and these three elements work together like cogs in a wheel to control the amount of light that reaches your camera sensor.

If you have no idea what any of that means, I have separate guides on ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, so be sure to check that out. So, now that we know what exposure means, let’s take a closer look at underexposure.


What is underexposure?

Underexposure in photography occurs when your image has less light than is needed to reproduce your scene accurately. In layman’s terms, it’s darker than desired.

Characteristics of underexposed photos

Characteristics of underexposed photos often include the appearance of deeper shadows, muted colors, and even sometimes a loss of detail in your darker areas.

1. Darker overall appearance

The first characteristic of underexposed photos is a darker overall appearance. This is the most obvious trait of an underexposed photo. The details are usually hard to see, especially in the shadows.

Underexposed photo of a plant.
Underexposed photo - darker appearance

2. Increased contrast

The second characteristic of underexposed photos is an increased contrast. Underexposure can lead to higher contrast where there is a stark difference between your light and dark areas.

Underexposed photo of a plant showing increased contrast.
Underexposed photo - increased contrast

3. Muted colors

The third characteristic of underexposed photos is muted colors. If you take an underexposed image, you may notice that the colors are less vibrant or appear more subdued due to the lack of light.

Underexposed photo of a plant showing muted colors.
Underexposed photo - muted colors

Where underexposure might occur

There are various scenarios where underexposure might occur, so let’s look at each one.

1. Low light conditions

The first scenario where underexposure might occur is in low-light conditions. If you are photographing somewhere with inadequate lighting, like during twilight or in a dimly lit area, this can lead to underexposed images if your camera settings aren’t adjusted properly.

Landscape photo of mountains during twilight.
Photo during twilight

2. Faster shutter speeds

The second scenario where underexposure might occur is when you are using faster shutter speeds. The main reason we use faster shutter speeds is to freeze frame our subject so there is no motion blur.

So, if you photograph with a fast shutter speed and don’t adjust the other two elements of your exposure triangle, aperture and ISO, you’re reducing the amount of light hitting the sensor, which can lead to an underexposed photo.

Graphic showing a fast and slow shutter speed.
Faster vs. slower shutter speed

3. Small aperture

The third scenario where underexposure might occur is when you use a smaller aperture, which would be a higher f-stop number. The main reason we use smaller apertures is for a more narrow depth of field to capture more of our scene in focus.

Two photos side by side showing a shallow and then narrow depth of field.
Shallow vs. narrow depth of field

So, if you photograph with a smaller aperture and don’t adjust the other two elements of your exposure triangle, shutter speed and ISO, you’re reducing the amount of light hitting your sensor, which can lead to an underexposed photo.

Graphic showing a narrow aperture and a shallow aperture.
Small vs. wider aperture

4. Incorrect metering

The fourth scenario where underexposure might occur is when you have incorrect metering. If you rely too heavily on your in-camera exposure meter without eyeballing how the image actually looks after taking it, you can end up with an underexposed image.

Exposure meter on a camera.
Exposure meter on my camera

Let me explain.

For example, you could be in a scene where your camera meter is biased towards a bright part of the scene, while the rest of your image might be underexposed to prevent overexposing for the highlights.

You'll often find this with backlit scenes, which I'll discuss later. For example, you can see it with this image I took where the histogram says it's exposed, but as you can see, my subject is underexposed:

Man sitting on car in an underexposed photo.
Subject underexposed

This is perfectly fine if you intentionally do it to avoid blowing out the highlights and are aware of it. If not, and you're relying on your camera exposure meter to align in the middle, you'll be surprised with the result after you take the image.

Potential benefits of underexposure in photography

Now, we talked about all the challenges of underexposure, but are there any potential benefits? Well, let’s look at them now.

1. Enhancing mood

The first benefit of underexposure in photography is to enhance the mood. I’m sure you’ve heard other photographers talk about creating “moody” images, and I probably have as well.

Well, underexposing your images on purpose can sometimes create a moodier, more atmospheric feel to your image, which is perfect if you want to convey a sense of mystery, drama, or intimacy.

Underexposed photo of a girl during blue hour.
Underexposed on purpose for moody effect

2. Avoiding highlight blowout

The second benefit of underexposure in photography is to avoid blowing out your highlights. By purposely underexposing your image, you can ensure details in bright areas of your scene are preserved.

This can be useful in high-contrast scenes like the photo I showed earlier. When the sky is bright behind your subject, you either have to expose it for the sky, which will underexpose your subject, or you expose it for your subject, but then you blow out the highlights in the sky.

Man sitting on car in two photos side by side.
Exposing for sky vs. subject

Luckily, if you do decide to expose for the sky and leave your subject underexposed, our advanced post-processing software, combined with RAW image files that retain more image data, allows us to easily recover detail in our slightly underexposed areas by bringing up the shadows and blacks.

3. Creating silhouettes

The third benefit of underexposure is to create a silhouette look. In photography, creating silhouettes is an artistic technique in which a subject is dark, if not completely black, with a bright background.

Silhouettes can be used when you want to emphasize the shape or form of your subject, such as a dancer hitting a perfect pose.

Woman hitting dancing pose on beach creating a silhouette.
Dancer hitting pose silhouette

So we covered everything about underexposure; now let’s look at its counterpart, overexposure.


What is overexposure?

In photography, overexposure occurs when an image has more light than is required to accurately represent a scene or subject. In layman’s terms, it’s too bright.

Characteristics of overexposed photos

This can be seen with the fact that your highlights look washed out or are just completely lost.

1. Washed out colors

The first characteristic of overexposed photos is the appearance of washed-out colors. Overexposed photos are typically noticed due to their faded or very pale colors, which lack vibrance and depth.

Overexposed photo of a dog.
Overexposed photo - washed out colors

2. Lost details in highlights

The second characteristic of overexposed photos is a loss of detail in your highlights. You may notice that important details in the bright areas of your image are lost and look pure white without any texture or features.

Overexposed photo of a dog with lost detail in highlights.
Overexposed photo - lost details in highlights

3. Overall lack of contrast

The third characteristic of overexposed images is an overall lack of contrast. Your image may just look flat and have no range between the darkest and brightest parts.

Overexposed photo of a dog with lack of contrast.
Overexposed photo - lack of contrast

Where Overexposure might cccur

There are various scenarios where overexposure might occur; let’s look at each one.

1. Incorrect camera settings

The first situation in which overexposure may occur is when you have incorrect camera settings. If your ISO is set too high, your aperture is too wide, or your shutter speed is too slow, you’re allowing too much light to hit your camera sensor.

2. Misreading the light meter

The second situation in which overexposure may occur is when you misread your camera light meter. So, similar to misreading the light meter for underexposure, you can misread it for overexposure as well.

If you rely too heavily on it, you can be deceived by pointing your metering at a darker part of the scene, leading to overexposed brighter areas. For example, in this image, I pointed my metering at my subject, which was in the darker part of the scene, and now my sky was overexposed:

Man sitting on car in an overexposed photo.
Metered on subject sky is overexposed

3. Intentional creative decision

The third situation in which overexposure may occur is simply intentionally overexposing your images. Similar to intentionally underexposing your images, you may choose to intentionally overexpose your images due to some advantages that overexposure can have.

And this leads me to my next point.

Potential benefits of overexposure

I discussed all the challenges of overexposure, but are there any potential benefits?

1. Ensuring shadow detail

The first benefit of overexposure would be ensuring shadow detail. By intentionally overexposing your photo slightly, often termed "exposing to the right,” you can ensure that the details in your shadows are preserved.

This can then be balanced out in post-processing by reducing highlights and whites. For example, with the image I just showed, I was able to balance it out in post-processing by reducing highlights and whites:

Man sitting on car in an overexposed photo.
Balance out overexposure by reducing highlights

2. Creating a high-key effect

The second benefit of overexposure would be to create a high-key effect. Minimal shadows and a bright and airy look often characterize a high-key effect. This effect or style is often used in fashion photography, portraits, and weddings to convey a positive, uplifting mood.

Girl standing in light in a bright and airy photo.
Overexposing to create bright and airy look

3. Atmospheric effects

The third benefit of overexposure would be to create an atmospheric effect. Not only do slightly overexposed images create a bright and airy look, but they can create an ethereal atmosphere as well.

Plants in the sunset.
Ethereal look by overexposing

This can be particularly beneficial for stylized shoots or when you’re going for a creative look.


Which is better, overexposure or underexposure?

So, I’ve covered both underexposure and overexposure, but the question remains: Which is better, overexposed images or underexposed images? Well, just like many things in photography, the answer is it depends.

To help you better decide whether you should have an overexposed or underexposed image, as opposed to just a regular exposed image, here are six questions I made that will help you decide which is “better” given your photography situation.

1. What is the dynamic range of your scene?

The first question you should ask yourself is, “What is the dynamic range of my scene?”

If the brightness in your scene exceeds your camera’s dynamic range, you’ll have to determine which details are most important, the shadow or the highlights, and then choose an exposure method. You’ll often see this in backlit scenarios where you have a subject in front of a bright sky, as I've shown:

Man sitting on car.
Exposing for sky vs. subject

Personally, I like to expose the sky, leaving my subject a bit underexposed, and then I bring up the shadows and blacks on my subject in the post.

2. What mood or atmosphere do I want to convey?

The second question to ask yourself is, “What mood or atmosphere do I want to convey?” Remember that underexposure can add mood, drama, or mystery, while overexposure might convey lightness, openness, or a dreamy aesthetic.

Personally, I’m all about the mood, so photos that I take for my own collection are often slightly underexposed.

Two photos side by side one underexposed and one overexposed.
Underexposed vs. overexposed

3. Am I in a controlled environment where I can manipulate the light?

The third question to ask yourself is, “Am I in a controlled environment where I can manipulate the light?” If you photograph in a controlled environment like a studio setting, why are you overexposing or underexposing in the first place if it’s not for a personal choice?

Studio portrait using a softbox.
Using softbox in the studio

This is because in studio settings with artificial light sources like softboxes, you can set the exposure yourself, and you might not even need to choose between the two!

4. What are the limitations of my camera sensor regarding noise in shadows?

The fourth question to ask yourself is, “What are the limitations of my camera sensor regarding noise in shadows?” Cameras with larger sensors often perform better at higher ISO settings.

For example, when I switched to a full-frame camera from my starter APS-C camera, I noticed a difference in being able to handle higher ISO settings without noise being introduced so quickly. If your camera can handle higher ISO settings better, you probably handle underexposure and shadow lifting in post-processing better.

5. What are the end-use requirements for my image?

The fifth question to ask yourself is, “What are the end-use requirements for an image?” For example, are you taking photos and sending them to a client? Are you going to print out your images?

If you take photos for clients like I do, then make sure you are only slightly underexposing or overexposing, if at all. If you are in a normal photography scenario without any crazy dynamic range, then going for a properly exposed image might be the best choice for a client photo, such as a family session.

If you’re taking photos for your own creative purposes, feel free to expose them in any way you want! Another consideration is whether you’ll be printing out your images.

Often, if your image requires significant cropping or will be printed large, you’ll want to retain maximum detail without noise, so be aware of this before making any crazy under- or overexposure choices.

6. How comfortable am I with post-processing?

The final question to ask yourself is, “How comfortable am I with post-processing?” This question is important because underexposing or overexposing your images often requires editing in post-processing to balance out our images.

Whether it’s reducing highlights or bringing up shadows. Luckily, with RAW files, we have lots of flexibility to make these changes.

But if you aren’t familiar with post-processing or don’t know how to use software like Adobe Lightroom or Luminar Neo, you may want to hold off on creatively underexposing or overexposing your image until you become comfortable with post-processing.


In conclusion, while our goal as photographers is to take properly exposed images, sometimes, they can get a little boring. Knowing the difference between overexposure and underexposure and the benefits and drawbacks of each is important to know.

By asking yourself the right questions and understanding the impact of your creative choice, you can harness the full power of exposure!

© 2024 Imaginated.com