After a long day of shooting, you get home and upload your images to your desktop. And most of them are very overexposed photos.
Great. Half a day wasted. Or is it?
At some point or another, you are going to need to know how to fix an overexposed photo, in Photoshop or otherwise. Our article will teach you all about it.
Understanding the Problem of Overexposure
An overexposed photo could be down to a number of different reasons. Either you aren’t reading the light correctly, or your camera isn’t. We are so used to our eyes compensating light and dark areas, that we forget cameras can’t do the same.
Consider this. When you look at a building on a bright, sunny day, the facade hides in the shade. The ground, along with the sky is well lit.
To our eyes, there isn’t much difference in the light. We can pick out the details in the shaded areas, as well as the well-lit ones.
Our camera, however, can’t do the hard work – they lack a brain. To your camera, the shaded areas could be over three stops darker than the well-lit ones.
You will see that when you try to photograph this scene. Either the sky is perfect and the building is too dark, or the building looks perfect and the sky becomes blown out. Goodbye clouds.
Knowing why your images turn out overexposed is half the battle.
Your camera doesn’t necessarily have a brain, but it does have a few ways to let you know that your photos are over-exposed. The main one is the histogram, and most cameras have them to help you in a pinch.
A histogram is a graph that shows you the tonal range of your exposed scene. It separates into three equal parts; Dark tones, mid-tones and Light tones.
The dark tones are further split into blacks and shadows, and the light tones split into highlights and whites.
Being able to read a histogram will help you know when the images you are taking become overexposed. By looking into which areas your coloured pixels fall into, you can see what types of light are in your image.
A majority of pixels towards the left shows dark areas in your image. The more pixels, the bigger the area. As they fall more and more to the left, the areas are darker and darker.
This works in the reverse as more and more pixels in the right areas means larger and stronger areas of white.
A contrasted image will have pixels that fall in all three areas, peaking in the mid-tones. This is, depending on the scene, a well-balanced image.
Shooting in RAW
Shooting in RAW is the only way we recommend taking photographs at all. Actually, RAW images have jpgs embedded in them, so even photographing with RAW and JPG is pointless.
A RAW file may be 2-6x bigger than a jpg, but there is a good reason for that.
A RAW image holds more information about the scene than a jpg does. This allows you more control when it comes to editing your images. Especially when bringing detail back into the overexposed areas.
RAW files come as many different file types. Canon uses CR2/CR3 file types, NEF is for Nikon, and Sony uses ARW.
You will need Camera Raw to process them. A as long as you use Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, they will pose no complications.
Why Are My Photographs Over-Exposed?
The exposure triangle is made up of how the ISO, shutter speed and aperture work together in correctly exposing your scene.
If you are shooting in manual mode, it is very easy to create an overexposed image.
Regarding the ISO, you may have just set it too high. For a sunny day, your ISO should land around 100-200, not 800.
After setting your ISO, the next area you should be looking at is the aperture. The lower the f/stop, the more light will enter your lens.
The more light hitting your sensor means a higher chance of over-exposing your image. Try closing down the aperture for a better-exposed image.
After setting your ISO and aperture, turn your attention to the shutter speed. If your image is too bright, you need to increase your shutter speed.
Raising the shutter speed from 1/200th to 1/600th will help, as long as it doesn’t affect your other settings.
The best thing about the exposure triangle is that all three settings are co-dependent.
If you increase the amount of light entering your lens with one setting, you need to decrease it using another setting. For more help, read our exposure triangle article here.
Your camera has a built-in light meter. This is handy for knowing when a scene needs a change of settings.
There are three metering modes; Matrix, Center-Weighted and Spot Metering. They all look at your scene in different ways. The matrix or evaluative metering mode looks at the whole scene to work out the best exposure.
A centre-weighted metering mode looks at the centre of the image and works out the best exposure. This is perfect when you need to correctly expose one area of your image, not taking the background into consideration.
Spot metering correctly exposes for one point (spot) in your scene. It doesn’t take in the other 99% of the image.
The light meter is a curse and a blessing. The metering modes will help give you a correct exposure. Yet, it can really mess it up if you aren’t careful with your placement, or your metering choice.
For example, if you photograph a portrait in the centre of the image, it might overexpose the rest of the image. Trying to capture a shot of the sky, your metering modes will find that correct exposure.
However, clouds coming along means your camera needs to re-evaluate the scene. Now that mountain in the background needs more light, so your camera lets in more light.
This is how your sky becomes overexposed and the clouds look perfect.
How Can I Fix an Overexposed Photo?
In Lightroom, you have a Graduated Filter tool. This acts in the same way as a Graduated Neutral Density filter that landscape photographers use. The basic idea is that it adds a darkness gradient to an area of your image.
It is graduated so that it blends into your image better. This tool, when applied correctly brings detail out of the sky.
To use this, head over to Lightroom and into the Develop module. Under the Histogram, you’ll notice six little icons. The Graduated filter is the 4th one from the left.
Click on this to select it. Next, click and drag downward, where the top would be the most affected area. For a simple landscape with the sky covering the top area, click at the top of the frame and drag down to the horizon.
Now you are free to change the settings as you see fit, seeing a responsive preview as you do.
One way photographers get over the possibility of an overexposed photo is to use bracketing. This is when you take two extra photographs of your scene, but with a +1 and -1 exposure value than what you find to be the best.
This idea gives you three chances to nail the shot. This was a favourite technique of film photographers as they were unsure if they have the correct exposure.
All you need to do is first set your camera mode to manual. Take a shot to what you think is best then raise and lower one of the three exposure triangle settings. This will give you those -1 and +1 exposures.
For example, if I had a scene where the settings were ISO 100, Shutter Speed 1/1000th and Aperture f/5.6, I would capture that first. Then, I would change the shutter speed to 1/500th for the +1 value, and then 1/2000th for the -1.
Remember, if you change your shutter speed, you are changing how you photograph scenes with movement in it. You are free to move the aperture, but that may affect your depth of field. Do what is right for your scene.
Now, if instead of going for -1 and +1, you went for -3 and +3, then you have the possibility of stacking your images together. This is called high dynamic range (HDR).
The benefit of this technique is that by stacking these images together, you bring out detail in the lighter areas. You also bring up the exposure in the darker ones.
For example, by photographing the interior of an apartment, you’ll find a correctly exposed interior and overexposed windows. By taking three images, you equalise the light, making it more balanced.
Deal With It
Sometimes your overexposed photo can’t be fixed. Either the areas are too light, or there is no detail in them at all. This is why we hate sky shots on an overcast day.
If there is nothing you can do, then you should consider cropping the image to take away the importance of the area. If you have areas that are overblown, they may not standout as long as your subject is correctly lit.
In some cases, it is better to have an image with an area of overexposure rather than no picture at all.
Take Better Photographs
I know this sounds like a kick in the teeth when you’re down, but it’s the best way. Understanding how you take a correctly exposed image will help to eliminate the problem. In other cases, post-production will help.
If you are shooting in manual mode, make sure you meter the scene accordingly. Here, if your scene is too light, then either the aperture or shutter speed needs to go up. Or the ISO needs to come down.
As you become more and more proficient with your photography, you will see where the problems lie.
When it comes to post-processing your images, there are a number of things you can do to take the light out of your image. The exposure slider adjusts the overall brightness of your image. It is fairly sensitive, so go slowly.
The numbers you see in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom relate to the number of stops you can increase or decrease the exposure. Sliding it left makes the image darker, and right make it lighter.
This may not be the best way to finalise your image, but it is the best place to start. It is a global action, meaning it affects your entire image. For more local exposure changes, you need to use the Adjustment Mask.
If you are shooting RAW, you will have around 4-6 stops of play both ways. This means that you could bring the exposure down to -2/-3 or up to +2/+3 . And you won’t any loss of resolution or quality.
The White slider sets the overall brightness of the image too, but by adjusting the mid-tones. By pulling this slider to the right, you increase the brightness of the mid-tones.
When you pull it to the left, you take the brightness of your mid-tones down. There is a lot of contrast in those mid-tones.
If you go too far, you’ll suck the life out of the light areas instead of bringing out detail.
Highlights are the brightest areas of your image. This slider can really help to recover that last bit of detail in a burnt out area.
Actually, in the previous version of Lightroom, this slider was ‘Recovery’.
You can play with the slider with a 200° change. It allows you to go to -100 and +100. This might be your last resort.
Using All Three
You will find that moving one of the above three sliders will bring down some of the exposure, but not entirely. They work together in bringing the best out of your image.
For me, I work globally first, locally second. This means I decrease the Exposure value first. Then I go for the Whites, and if that doesn’t fix the problem, I go to the highlights.
After that, if there are any areas of my image that are dark, I use the Adjustment Brush to paint it back in.
The above is my process if the overexposed areas of my image make up more than 33% of my image. If the area is less, then I use the Adjustment Brush. This lets me bring detail out in the lighter areas, acting locally rather than globally.
This workflow will depend on your scene and how you work. But it’s a good start for combating overexposure.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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