Are your files looking washed out? Do your photos have burned-out highlights? If so, your images might be overexposed.
Fortunately, while overexposure is a significant, image-ruining problem, it’s not unfixable. With the right techniques, you can correct overexposure – either in the field or while post-processing your photos. In this article, I explain how to fix overexposed photos on the spot, and I also show you several techniques to handle overexposure in post-processing.
Sound useful? Then keep on reading!
What is an overexposed photo?
In simple terms, a photo is overexposed when it looks too bright. An overexposed image usually looks very washed out, due to the lack of contrast in the mid-tones and shadows. Additionally, overexposed images often feature limited details in the highlights.
Now, overexposure is caused by too much light reaching the camera sensor. (As you may know, the exposure of a photograph refers to the amount of light that creates an image.)
You can control the amount of light (and, consequently, the exposure) using the three corners of the exposure triangle: ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. For instance, you can modify the sensitivity of the camera sensor by adjusting the ISO. You can let in more or less light by changing the aperture size. And you can decide how long the sensor is exposed to the light by tweaking the shutter speed.
When you find the perfect balance of exposure variables – and hence a good amount of light – then you’ll produce a correctly exposed image. But if too little light hits the sensor, the photo will be underexposed, and if too much light hits the sensor, the photo will be overexposed. Make sense?
Keep in mind that an overexposed photo is different from a high-key photo. High-key photos feature mostly bright tones, but the few dark tones that are present look deep and intense. Plus, even high-key files feature detail in the highlights (at least on the subject).
4 basic ways to fix overexposure
As I mentioned above, overexposure is caused by too much light; you can fix it by adjusting your camera settings. Specifically, you can:
Lower the ISO
ISO determines the sensitivity of the camera sensor. (Yes, this is an oversimplification, but it’s useful to think in these terms.) In film photography, you can choose the sensitivity of your film, which remained consistent across the entire roll; in digital photography, you can adjust the ISO from one photo to the next.
High ISO values cause the sensor to be very sensitive. Therefore, these values are meant for low-light conditions. As a general rule of thumb, you should keep your ISO as low as possible.
So if your image is overexposed, start by lowering the ISO. Most cameras can drop down to ISO 100, although some can reach ISO 50.
Narrow the aperture
The aperture is the hole in your lens that lets in light. It’s an essential part of each and every lens design, and it can be a determining factor in the value (and price) of the lens.
A wide aperture allows you to shoot with faster shutter speeds, even in low light. But depending on the light levels, a too-wide aperture can lead to overexposure (if you’re not compensating for the increased light via other camera settings, that is).
A wide aperture will also create a narrow depth of field in your images, but if you don’t need a shallow depth of field effect and your images are turning out overexposed, you can narrow the aperture to let in less light and fix the issue.
Use a faster shutter speed
Your shutter speed determines how long the sensor is exposed to light.
A fast shutter speed can help freeze in-motion subjects and allow less light to reach the sensor, while a slow shutter speed will capture motion as a blur but will allow more light to hit your sensor. If your images are overexposed, simply speed up that shutter to produce a better result.
Try other metering modes
How does your camera know how much light you need for a photo? It’s all thanks to the built-in light meter. By default, the camera analyzes the scene and calculates a lighting average; it then indicates whether your current settings will give you a correct exposure or not.
Unfortunately, when you’re photographing a scene with lots of contrast or a large volume of dark areas, your camera’s metering mode may fail; it might tell you the exposure is correct, while in reality, the picture is overexposed.
To prevent this from becoming a regular issue, you can change the metering mode. Spot metering, for instance, lets you carefully determine the light levels on just your subject. It gives you a better chance of getting the exposure right and can be especially helpful if you’re noticing consistent overexposure.
Additional ways to fix overexposed photos (in camera)
While the aforementioned methods are highly effective methods for handling overexposure, you do have other options, such as:
Use exposure compensation
Exposure compensation allows you to (subtly) adjust the settings chosen by your camera when you’re shooting in a semi-automatic mode (e.g., Aperture Priority). If your camera is capturing too-bright photos, you can simply dial in a stop or two of negative exposure compensation, which will tell the camera processor to deliberately underexpose the scene and correct for any overexposure.
Some cameras have a dedicated button for this feature, which features the +/- icon. If you can’t find an exposure compensation button, you might need to search through your camera’s menu. (It can vary from camera to camera, so you may want to check your manual for this one!)
Bracketing is a shooting technique where you capture the same scene with different exposure settings. The idea is to capture a handful of extra shots as insurance; that way, if you get the settings wrong and accidentally overexpose (or underexpose) the scene, you’ll have a bracketed shot that got it right.
So how do you do bracketing?
Some cameras have an automated bracketing option, called AEB (Automatic Exposure Bracketing); with this feature active, you can press the shutter button just once and your camera will take a handful of photos at different exposures.
If your camera doesn’t have AEB, you can still do manual bracketing. Start by finding the “correct” exposure (as indicated by the camera’s light meter) and take a shot. Then adjust the shutter speed by a step or two and take another shot. Repeat this a couple more times. (You can also bracket by adjusting the aperture, but you’ll end up with a variety of background blur effects.)
Use an external light meter
The exposure meter in your camera always reads the light that bounces off the objects in each scene. This method works, but it’s prone to error – and it can lead to overexposure or underexposure depending on the tones of the objects.
For a more accurate light reading, you can use an external light meter, held in front of the subject. It will measure the light levels directly, and you can use the reading to determine the right exposure settings (regardless of the color and material of the scene objects).
How to fix overexposure with a post-processing program
While it’s always best to handle overexposure while out shooting, you can still salvage overexposed shots with a bit of editing magic:
Do some RAW processing
If you’ve overexposed a RAW file, you may be able to recover some (or all) the missing detail. Start by opening your RAW file in a photo editor that supports it. I like to fix overexposure in Adobe Camera Raw, but the steps are very similar in most programs.
Activate the clipping alert by clicking on the top right of the histogram. This will highlight areas of exposure in the image (i.e., areas that are missing detail and need correction). As you make adjustments, keep a careful eye on the clipped areas.
You can start by dropping the Exposure slider. It’ll darken the overall photo, just as if you had shot the image with a faster shutter speed, lower ISO, or narrower aperture.
Then reduce the Whites slider, which controls brightness in the whitest parts of the image. Finally, drop the Highlights slider until you’ve eliminated all clipping. (You might have to go back and forth between the Whites and the Highlights slider until you find the right balance.)
Once you’ve regained all your missing detail, I’d recommend recovering contrast by lowering the darker areas of the image. You can do this with the Black and the Shadow sliders. It can be helpful to enable the shadow clipping alert (on the top left of the histogram). That way, you can instantly see if you accidentally make the image too dark.
If your image is still looking washed out, you can try using the Dehaze slider, which will darken the shot while adding plenty of contrast.
Work with different blend modes
Open your file in Photoshop (or another layer-based editing program). Duplicate the background layer. Then change the blend mode to any of the darkening modes found on the menu: Darken, Multiply, Color Burn, Linear Burn, or Darker Color.
Different photos benefit from different blend modes, so make sure you try them all. If you’re using Photoshop CC, you’ll see a live preview as you hover over each mode, which is highly useful. And if you get a result that feels too intense, you can always lower the opacity.
Try a Levels adjustment
Photoshop offers a handy adjustment, called Levels, that allows you to carefully adjust image tones.
Start by creating a Levels adjustment layer, which will let you modify the tones in your photo non-destructively. You’ll see a histogram; grab the dark slider on the left and pull it to the right until you reach the first peaks of the graph. You can also try moving the middle slider to the right (thereby darkening the image midtones).
Then, on the gradient stripe below the histogram, grab the rightmost slider. Drag it to the left, and watch as the brightest parts of your image are subtly darkened.
(If you want an even quicker approach, simply hit the Auto button, and let the Levels adjustment layer handle the changes on its own. You can always fine-tune the results afterward.)
Try a Curves adjustment
Curves is another Photoshop tool designed to adjust image tones – in fact, it offers even more precise control than Levels, though it’s harder to use.
Create a Curves adjustment layer, then grab the black eye dropper and click on the darkest tones in your image:
It’ll instantly darken the shot. If you prefer, you can add handles to the Curves graph and drag them to manually adjust the curve. Alternatively, you can click on Auto and let the editing program make its own decisions!
How to fix an overexposed photo: final words
As you can see, there are many ways to fix an overexposed photo! It’s always better to identify the problem while you’re in the field; that way, you can correct the exposure from the beginning.
However, as you should now be aware, it’s possible to adjust the exposure and recover missing detail in post-processing. Of course, this method has its limits, and a RAW file will give you far more flexibility than a JPEG.
So remember the methods I’ve shared. And take some powerful steps to prevent (or fix) future exposure issues!
Which of these approaches do you plan to take? Do you have any other strategies for handling overexposure? Share your thoughts in the comments below!