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Underexposed vs Overexposed Photos - What To Look For

Photography is as much an art as it is a science, and understanding the nuances of exposure is crucial for capturing the perfect shot.

It doesn't matter whether you're new to film photography or are a seasoned photographer, learning how to perfect shots is something that is learnt and nurtured over time.

Two common issues photographers encounter are underexposed and overexposed photos. Knowing how to identify and correct these problems can significantly enhance your photographic skills.

Understanding Exposure

Exposure refers to how much light is captured by your camera's sensor. The right amount of light ensures that your photo is well-lit and retains detail in both the highlights and shadows.

Take a look at our film photography jargon buster glossary for more technical terms that are worth understanding.

Underexposed Photos

Underexposed photos are incredibly common, especially if you're shooting in poor lighting. Insufficient lighting is one of the most common causes of underexposed photos, but a low ISO setting on your camera, fast shutter speed and narrow aperture can also impact your shots.

So, how can you tell from looking at a photo that it's underexposed? Being able to learn and identify this from your own photos is key to being able to learn and improve your photography.

Typical characteristics of underexposed photos are dark, lacking detail in shadow areas, colours can appear muted or muddy and the overall image appears dim.

After my first time shooting on film in Japan, my parents looked at the photos and said 'gosh, the skies grey there, was it like that everyday?'. In fact, it was mostly blue skies, and that is one of the key ways to identify if your photos are underexposed, and definitely one I was quickly able to learn from. The sky can just look grey, and dull in photos.

See below a shot which is underexposed from that trip to Japan, you can tell by the pallid colour of the sky, and the lack of detail on the left hand side of the street.

  • How to Fix:

  • Increase the ISO setting.

  • Slow down the shutter speed.

  • Open up the aperture (lower f-stop number).

  • Use additional lighting or a flash.

  • Learn from your previous photos.

Overexposed Photos

You guessed it, overexposed is the opposite of underexposed. Typically overxposed photos are bright in nature, often with blown-out highlights or areas of pure white. There may be a loss of detail in the brightest parts of the image, with washed-out colours.

Overexposed photos are usually the result of too much light entering the camera, a high ISO setting, slow shutter speed and wide aperture.

Take a look at the overexposed photo below. As you can see, the the sky and surrounding area is so bright that it gives the appearance of pure white, with loss of detail and colour in the surrounding section.

Whilst the detail on the street is clear, the sky is completely blown out of this image. Like the underexposed shot, there is still beauty in these shots and they're definitely unique in their own right, but you can clearly see what went wrong in each.

  • How to Fix:

  • Lower the ISO setting.

  • Speed up the shutter speed.

  • Close down the aperture (higher f-stop number).

  • Reduce the amount of light in the scene or use neutral density (ND) filters.

Tools and Techniques for Perfect Exposure

  • Histogram:

  • Use the histogram on your camera to check exposure. A well-exposed photo typically has a histogram that spans the entire range from dark to light without excessive peaks at either end.

  • Bracketing:

  • Take multiple shots at different exposures to ensure you capture the best possible version of the scene.

  • Post-Processing:

  • Use software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to adjust exposure. You can recover some details in shadows or highlights, but it’s best to get as close to perfect in-camera as possible.

Practical Tips

  • Shoot in RAW:

  • RAW files retain more detail than JPEGs, giving you greater flexibility in post-processing.

  • Learn Your Camera’s Metering Modes:

  • Different metering modes (e.g., spot, matrix, center-weighted) can help you manage exposure in various lighting conditions.

  • Check Your Settings:

  • Always review your settings before shooting, especially in changing lighting conditions.

By understanding the differences between underexposed and overexposed photos and knowing how to adjust your settings accordingly, you can significantly improve your photography.

Practice, experiment, if you're shooting with film, get your films processed and review them. Don't be afraid to make mistakes—each one is a step closer to mastering exposure.

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