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Tips & Tutorials >> All Tips & Tutorials

Over and Under: Get Creative with Exposure


Now that you’ve grasped the basics of correct exposure for your photos, it’s time to squeeze your creative juices. We’ll shed some light on when it’s okay (or in fact, encouraged!) to experiment with overexposing or underexposing your shots, which can lead to surprising and sometimes breathtaking results.

Evening Light by Matt Zhang/ EOS 600D/ EF-S18-135mm f/3.5–5.6 IS STM/ FL:18mm/f/4.5, 1/125sec/ ISO 200

But firstly, let’s talk about what exactly overexposure and underexposure are.

Eye of a crane fly by Photochem_PA/ EOS 7D/ EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

Overexposure is basically any image that has been shot more brightly than it should normally be. The excess brightness results in stronger-lit areas of the scene losing their detail to a whitewash of light.

Follow your thirst by Aftab Uzzman/ EOS 5D Mark II/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM/ FL; 400mm/ f/5.6, 1/4000sec/ ISO 200

Underexposure is the opposite. Underexposed photos have very little light, and are distinguished by significant portions of dimly-lit scenery and overall darkness.

For most of your photos, you’d want to stay clear of either extreme, especially if reproducing realistic scenes is your objective. However, we’d like to believe that photography does not have to be limited to the style of realistic representation – it’s also a reflection of how you view the world. This is where your creativity comes in, because in art, you determine what’s the right exposure for you.

Untitled by Premnath Thirumalaisamy/ EOS 550D/ EF50mm f/1.8 II/ f/2.8, 1/100sec/ ISO 100

Overexposure is often used to emphasis your subject’s expression, in a high-contrast, dramatic shot. It’s great for portraiture, especially when you want to avoid tone and texture, and instead focus on facial expressions themselves, which stand out on your subject’s palely-lit face.


Jo by Carl Gartland/ EOS 5D Mark II/ EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM/ FL: 145mm/ f/2.8, 1/4000sec/ ISO 100

You can also use it to create a soft, dreamy look like in this photo.

White Light by Wilson Au/ EOS 5D Mark III/ EF50mm, f/1.2L USM

Want an ethereal look and feel? Overexpose! Knock your exposure compensation up a couple of exposure steps to ensure that your skyline doesn’t end up looking dull gray.

What about underexposure? Can you get beautiful shots even when everything seems to be cloaked in darkness? Of course!

Torture in Spain by Oiluj Samal Zeid/ EOS 7D/ f/6.3, 1/15sec/ ISO 640

Underexposure is a often a safer bet when there’s a limited amount of light and time is of the essence, for example during concerts or when photographing sunsets.

Kal by Chad Gilchrist/ EOS 550D/ EF-S18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM/ FL: 34mm/ f/4.5, 1/80sec/ ISO 400

You may also want to underexpose because you simply like emphasising on the shadows and subtle tone differences in your photos. Think about what you’re trying to convey: sadness, mystery, fear, bleakness, calm; and how creating a darker scene might reinforce your message.

Grated Apple by Owen Benson/ EOS 400D/ EF50mm f/1.4 USM/ f/2.2, 1/200sec/ ISO 640

Underexposure is also a great way to experiment with saturation and contrast. Creative underexposure can bring out the deep tones in your photo, making for more intense colours and enhanced textures in your captured shot.