never overexpose a photograph again

Never overexpose a photo again: Exposing for the highlights.

What does overexposure mean?

In every photograph there are highlights (brightly lit areas) and shadows (dark areas). Generally speaking you want to be able to see some detail in all areas of the photograph – see below left.

When we say a photograph is overexposed, it means that the brightest areas of the image are so bright that we can no longer see any detail there. In ‘proper’ photography speak we say those areas are ‘overexposed’ or ‘blown out’ – see below right.

Humans are very good at seeing detail in both shadows and highlights. Cameras are still a long way off being as good as the human eye, especially when it comes to highlights. If there is no detail at all in the brightest areas it looks unnatural to us.

The opposite is true with shadows. With recent advancements in digital photography, cameras can now capture a lot more information in the shadows that is not visible to the human eye but can be recovered in editing software. If we overexpose or blow out the highlights however there is no data there for us to recover.

Exposing for the highlights.

The good news is there’s a really simple thing you can do when you have a bright area in your scene so that you never overexpose your photograph again. It’s called ‘exposing for the highlights’ and all it means is to adjust the camera’s settings to allow us to capture detail in the brightest areas. Simple!

Before we tell you how to do that however, it helps to know why we are getting overexposed or blown out areas in the first place.

Why are parts of my photograph brighter than I want them to be?

When you use auto modes (although they are generally very good) the camera will be doing various calculations for you and having its best guess at lighting the whole scene evenly by brightening the dark and dimming the bright areas. It doesn’t know that we would prefer to keep the detail in the brightest areas and let the shadows be darker so it compromises and often the result is lost detail in the highlights.

In auto modes, the camera is having its best guess at lighting the whole scene evenly by brightening the dark and dimming the bright areas.

And anyway, you aren’t here because you’re happy with how your phone takes photos. You are here because you want to get better and understand why things aren’t working when you want them to.

So let’s get started on how to master exposing for the highlights so you can get better results every time.

How to expose for the highlights

Below are step by step instructions on how to do this on a phone or digital camera, whether you are using auto or manual modes.

If you’re using a mobile phone:

Step one.

When you are composing your photo, tap on the screen where the brightest part of your image is. Your phone should then auto adjust so that area is exposed correctly. If it does, then take the photo and you are done!! If it doesn’t, go to step two.

Step two.

When you tap, hold that finger on the screen and you should notice a bar pop up to the side, this bar is your exposure compensation dial – see below right.

Step three.

Take your finger off the screen for a second and then use the bar to change the exposure by sliding it up and down. You should notice the screen getting brighter or darker.

Use the bar to dial down the brightness until you can see detail in the brightest area. Once you have the light how you want it then you’re ready to take your photograph!

If you’re using a digital camera in auto mode:

Step one.

Find your exposure compensation dial. It’s different on all brands but if you’re lucky, you’ll have a physical dial like the Sony does on the left. Otherwise it’s a slight hunt in the cameras menus but it will probably look like the dial on the LCD screen of the Canon DSLR to the right.

Step two.

You want to dial the brightness down, so turn it to minus numbers until your scene is exposed as you want it i.e. when you can see the detail in the brightest areas.

That’s it! Alternatively, if you are feeling brave (go on, you can do it!) and want to try out your manual mode see below.

If you’re using a digital camera in full manual mode:

If the image you take is too bright then you just have the incorrect settings for this scene dialled in. You’re letting in too much light, so let’s get cracking on those dials to bring the exposure down.

You will need to know how to adjust three things on your camera – ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Consult your camera manual, or Google if you are unsure how to change these, to help I have given my camera settings below each image – see below.

If you’re not sure what shutter speed, ISO and aperture all mean and how they relate to each other and to your photographs then watch this space for posts coming soon on the basics of exposure. Better still, drop us a message and we will keep you updated as to when our one day workshops are back up and running (this post was written during Covid 19 lockdown).

Here’s what the back of the my camera looked like when I picked it up. Those black & white lines are called zebra lines and they alert me when I have any blown out highlights in my image. As you can see – I need to make some adjustments!

never overexpose a photograph again
Shutter speed: 1/8, Aperture: f5.6, ISO: 3200

Step one.

The first thing to do is to set your ISO as low as possible. This means the sensor inside the camera is less sensitive to the light that is coming in through the lens. The higher the ISO number the brighter the image will be so we want to keep that number low for this task.

If you’re happy with your image once you’ve done that i.e. you have detail in your brightest areas then you need not make any more adjustments. If, like me, your image is still too bright or you are getting blurring from camera shake, move to step two.

It is hard to hold the camera still enough when the shutter speed is slower than around 1/80 of a second without using a tripod. You can see my image above, shot at 1/8 of a second is blurry due to camera shake. To fix this see step two.

Step two.

Make your shutter speed faster (so that there is less time for light to come in through the lens). If you’re unsure what all the numbers mean at this stage, don’t panic – just work out how to adjust shutter speed on your camera and try changing it in one direction or the other. If the image gets brighter, you have lengthened your shutter speed – we want to reduce it so the image gets darker.

If you are happy with your image now then you’re good to go. If you still feel the image is overexposed like mine move to step three.

Step three.

Adjust your aperture setting. Aperture should be the last thing you tweak as it will affect how much of the image is in focus (depth of field). Aperture is measured in F numbers (although your camera may just display them as numbers) and the range is determined by the lens on the camera. For aperture, the higher the number, the darker the image so up the F number until you are happy with the exposure. Again, if you’re unsure just take some test shots and note what happens when you make adjustments.

Going further for a more dramatic shot.

Sometimes when working with direct sunlight, you can really capture its dramatic nature by dialling the shutter speed and aperture right down.

Shutter speed: 1/8000, Aperture: f8 ISO, 100

Thanks so much for being here, we really hope this helped you.

Now go out and try this on different brightly lit scenes. We’d love to see your results here or on The Photo Workshop Facebook page.

Eleri and Dan