Creative Exposure: Underexposing and Overexposing

creative exposure guide

How to Get Creative with Exposure

As a beginner photographer, you’re probably taking getting the correct exposure very seriously – and that’s good. But what if I were to tell you that there is no such thing as right or wrong exposure? You’d think I’d gone a bit mad, wouldn’t you?

Photographers do it all the time. Have a look around the internet or in photography books, and you’ll see beautiful images that are technically under or over-exposed, but that only makes them more pleasing to look at.

The key difference with these images to the too dark or too bright snapshots you see everywhere, is that they are deliberately under or over-exposed to give an effect. The photographer knew what he or she wanted before they took the image, and they changed their settings accordingly. Before we get into exposing for creativity, I’ll explain what underexposure and overexposure mean.

What is Overexposure?

Simply put, it’s an image that’s brighter than it should be. Too much light has been allowed in to the camera sensor, resulting in loss of detail in the light areas, and no shadows to give contrast. If you turned your camera’s highlight warning on when you took the image, it would be flashing bright red on the LCD screen where all the highlights are blown out.

You can’t save blown highlights from a digital camera in post processing. There is simply no detail left for your photo editing software to recover. It’s different with film, just to confuse matters – you try to overexpose film rather than underexpose, as it makes it easier when it comes to print making. However, we’re concentrating on digital images, so just be aware that there is no recovering of loss of detail in overexposure.

The image below is very overexposed. Large parts of the baby are completely without detail, and the whole thing has a sort of ‘washed-out’ look to it.
creative exposure guide

What is Underexposure?

Underexposure is the complete opposite. It’s when an image is so dark you can’t see any detail in the shadow areas, just blackness. Too little light has been let in to the camera sensor. If you turned your camera’s shadow warning on, it would flash bright blue on the screen where your shadows were completely black. It’s a loss of detail at the bottom end of the spectrum, as opposed to loss of detail at the top end with overexposure.

Technically, you can recover underexposed shadows in post processing with your image editing software. The detail is still there in the image, unlike with blown highlights in overexposure. There’s a fine line to tread, though. Bring the shadows up too far in post, and your image just looks wrong. I think it’s fair to say that trying to fix an accidentally underexposed image in post won’t work if it’s too far gone.

The image below is meant to have a ‘low key’ lighting effect, but personally I would call it technically underexposed. The blacks are completely without detail, and the baby’s skin is murky and dull-looking.

creative exposure guide

So, What is Technically Correct Exposure?

Technically correct exposure is where the image looks right, neither too light nor too dark, and all the highlights and shadows are visible – theoretically, anyway. It’s a photo that looks as close as it can to what we see when we look at the same subject in real life.

It is actually impossible to capture a totally realistic image in terms of exposure. Even HDR techniques don’t quite manage it, but they can come close if used properly. Our eyes are far better at seeing highlights and shadows in a scene than a camera.

This image below has technically correct exposure. The highlight detail is visible, and there are no overly-dark shadows. This is mostly what we’d see with our eyes if we looked at the same scene.

creative exposure guide

Using Exposure Creatively

Now I’ve explained what correct exposure is and isn’t, you can forget it if you want. Technically correct exposure is what your camera will mostly give you if you have it on program or auto. If you have it on manual mode, you get to experiment and choose the correct exposure – for you. That’s the point; there is no correct or incorrect way to expose an image, it’s a creative choice made by you, the photographer, not the digital brain of the camera. Another photographer may choose to expose the same image differently, but it doesn’t mean that you or they are wrong.

You don’t need to start deliberately over or underexposing all your work now just for the sake of it, (unless you want to!) but a bit of thought before you take your image is a good idea. How bright or dark do you want parts of your image to be? Do you want a silhouette of someone with a bright light behind them? Give it a bit of thought and go for it! Would you like your sunlight reflections on water to sparkle like diamonds with blown highlights? Experiment with different exposures that give you the effects you want.

These two images below show how creatively under or overexposing can transform an image from ordinary to spectacular.

creative exposure guide

See how the background sky of this image is overexposed and lacking detail? It makes a brilliant backdrop for the model and is visually stunning. The model herself is correctly exposed, only the sky has blown highlights.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have this wonderful silhouette of the man in the window, caused by underexposing him, but having correct exposure for the window and most of the books.

creative exposure guide

You can also combine under and overexposure in one image, like the one below:

creative exposure guide

You will probably find that you discover whether you prefer ‘darker’ or ‘lighter’ images after experimenting. I personally am more drawn towards darker, more creatively underexposed images than creatively overexposed ones, but it’s down to personal preference.

What’s Next?

I hope that you have a better grasp of what exposure is now, and that you can use it to create some visually stunning images. Next time, we’ll be talking about white balance in your images, and how you can adjust it.