Knowing how to properly expose your shots is an obvious first step for becoming a photographer or cinematographer. We’ll lay out examples and visuals to answer what is overexposure. But we’ll also take a look at why overexposing photos with intention sometimes works, (sometimes doesn’t), and the ways in which you can break the rules to produce visuals that are uniquely yours.
First, let’s define overexposure
In photography and film, exposure refers to the amount of light that hits your image. In the days of film, exposure was how much light touches the actual film. Now in the digital age, exposure refers to the amount of light that gets in through the lens and onto the camera’s sensor.
What is overexposure?
Overexposure is when an image appears brighter than it should, or brighter than neutral exposure. When too much light hits the camera’s sensor, it results in an extremely bright image that is now overexposed. Overexposure limits detail in the photo and reduces any opportunity for shadowing or distinguishable highlights in the image.
In order to reduce that possibility of an overexposed picture or overexposed film, the photographer controls the amount of light that gets into the camera. There are two settings that control exposure - aperture and shutter speed. These two settings allow the photographer to collect light and bring that light into the camera. ISO is another setting that can be adjusted to help regulate brightness, but because it doesn’t function to let light in, it doesn’t regulate exposure.
How to fix overexposed photos
- Prevent overexposure by adjusting aperture, shutter speed, and ISO settings
- Use bracketing as you’re taking your shots
- Use exposure sliders in Lightroom or other post program
Before we get into “correct” exposure, what does overexposure look like?
Well, for starters it’s noticeably brighter than it should be.
The brightness overpowers any distinguishing details we might see. No shadows exist and there aren’t any highlights other than the blobs of light all over the image.
Quite often, you can tell with the naked-eye when an image is overexposed, underexposed, or just right.
Underexposed is simply the opposite of overexposed, where the image appears too dark.
So now how do we go from overexposure to correct exposure?
How to Avoid Overexposure
Adjusting camera settings for “correct exposure”
When you snap a photo or film a scene, lighting obviously plays a major role. But you don’t have to be a lighting expert to nail the exposure of those shots.
With just a simple understanding of how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together, you can trust those shots will be properly exposed.
What’s aperture? Aperture adjusts how wide or narrow your lens opening is. The wider the aperture, the more light is let in, and the narrower, the less.
What about shutter speed? How fast or slow your camera’s shutter opens and closes will determine how much light gets let in when you snap a photo.
What’s ISO? ISO is the setting that controls brightness. So it’s not what allows light to enter, but it works in unison with the two other settings.
These three pieces are what’s known as the exposure triangle.
How do they all work together? Knowing this, is the best preventative against unwanted overexposed photos.
How to prevent overexposure
If you’re in a well-lit room using a wider aperture (say for a different reason like wanting a shallow depth of field), you’ll likely need to use a faster shutter speed so too much light doesn’t overexpose your shot. Because ISO controls brightness or light sensitivity, you’ll also want to keep this at a lower setting.
Perhaps you’re in a dim-lit space, and you want a really deep depth of field for a sharp and clear image, you’ll need a narrower aperture here--but what about the light? In this situation, a higher ISO setting and slower shutter speed would work best.
Remedying Blown Out Photography
How to fix overexposed photos
First things first. Learn how to take a properly exposed photo. No matter how well you know how to use programs like Lightroom or similar, having a strong understanding of how the exposure triangle works, eliminates your problems.
Manual mode gives you more control over your photos than auto modes. Learning manual, means learning how to properly expose your shots.
If your scene is too bright, then either your ISO needs to decrease, or your shutter speed needs to speed up, and/or your aperture needs to open wider.
Mess around with this until you’re comfortable. A great way to practice is with bracketing.
Bracketing means taking two extra photos with different settings so you have three all together, with more opportunities to get a properly exposed shot.
The two extra photos are +1 and -1 exposure value than the shot you originally took, or what you deemed as best.
So if you’re shooting in manual mode, test this out.
Take your shot with the settings that you believe work. And then raise and lower one of the settings we discussed in the exposure triangle.
So let’s try this. Your settings are ISO 200 with an aperture of f/5.6, and a shutter speed of 1/500th. That’s the photo you took. Now for the second photo, pick one setting to change. And let’s do the -1 value first. We’ll change the shutter speed to 1/1000th. And then for the +1 value, we’ll change it to 1/250th.
Most cameras do this automatically with internal settings, but you can of course do this manually. If you choose to do this manually, make sure you’re on a tripod to get the identical composition of your initial shot.
Now in post, you can blend these three images together to create that perfectly exposed image.
You can also do +-2 or +-3 values. HDR or high dynamic range is a technique that reproduces a greater range of luminosity than what’s possible with standard photography. Stacking photos that are +-3 tis considered HDR.
*Don’t forget that the shutter speed doesn’t just affect light. It affects the movement of the object. And aperture will affect your depth of field and the sharpness of the foreground and background. Change the setting that makes most for your scene.
Knowing how to fix overexposure in post-processing in programs like Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom is essential.
The Exposure slider adjusts the overall brightness of your image. The numbers on these are the number of stops you can increase or decrease. Remember that this affects your entire photo, so go slow. It’s a good place to start but isn’t best for those final details. More local details or exposure changes, you can use the Adjustment Mask.
Whites and Highlights Sliders
The Whites slider adjusts the mid-tones in your image. The mid-tones hold a ton of contrast. Be careful not to go too far, as you can remove the majority of detail from a lit area.
Highlight sliders adjust the brightest areas of your photos and can help remedy any details you need to pull out.
Overexposing with Purpose
Overexposure in films (that work)
Now that we’ve got the fundamentals out of the way, we can talk bending those fundamentals. Like everything else, once you know the rules, you can break them. And overexposing your shots with purpose and intention goes a long way, not only for the shots themselves but sometimes for the film as a whole.
In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, blindingly bright spaceship lights completely light up the shot and here, overexposure makes sense! It fits the scene but more also creates tension.
Both major motion pictures and obscure indie films, sometimes use overexposure to complement the story.
It works well in dream sequences like in Run Lola Run...
Other instances when overexposure could work would be characters “seeing the light,” some representation of “Heaven,” or even films with ghosts and paranormal beings.
And of course other times, overexposure has more to do with how the scene is lit.
You can go much deeper into lighting considerations, but one type that is prone to overexposure is called High Key lighting. High Key lighting is virtually shadowless and is often produced with front lighting.
Movies that use High Key in shots, can run the risk of being overexposed. Below is an example from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.
Whether you’re an aspiring cinematographer or beginner-enthusiast photographer, understanding the dynamics of light and how to harness and control that light, is a requirement for consistency, creativity, and well, “correctness”!
Okay, fine. It’s the opposite. I know you get it. But is that all? What are some unique examples of underexposure in photos and film that really work? We’ll get into them next.