Proper Exposure – Purposely Under or Over-Exposing Your Photos

Do you rely on your in-camera light meter to toggle 0 (center) and tell you when your settings are going to produce a perfectly exposed photo? I used to. As my comfort level in shooting in manual mode grew, my ability to play with light when it’s uneven, extra bright, or seemingly not enough to make a great photo grew too. I want to help you see how you can create extraordinary images by purposely over-exposing or under-exposing your photos.

Reading Light in Photography for Perfect Exposure

I thought everything had to be exposed perfectly. I’d carry the already near-perfect SOOC (straight-out-of-camera) into Photoshop and take down the highlights or lighten the shadows until just about the entire thing in the entire frame was perfectly exposed.

What do I mean by perfect exposure? Let’s break it down…

An Over-Exposed Photo (Too Bright)

You can see the highlights (the brights parts of the image) lose detail. The skin tone is nearly lost.

An Under-Exposed Photo (Too Dark)

The shadows (the darkest parts of the image) are almost too dark and detail is lost. The photo overall looks a bit muddy.

Perfectly Exposed Photo (Just Right)

Every bit of the image – the highlights, the shadows, and the mid-tones are all perfectly exposed. Color is spot on and you can see clear detail throughout.


How Open, Even Light Impacts Exposure

I think many new photographers seek open, even light before anything else. At least, I did. This is the beautiful, catch-light producing light that makes everything in your image evenly lit, just like this image below. It’s safe. This is the light you find most-often in portrait work. Here’s an example:


Open Light


Notice how every bit of the photo has just about the same amount of light? This means it’s evenly lit. The light was almost dusk, when the sun was below the trees, and the overall light was open – bouncing all around.

If you’re anything like I was, you find yourself craving this light. You’ll to make it happen in Photoshop even when the scene wasn’t truly open light. The next thing you know, you’re over-editing and missing out on some killer lighting scenarios. One day I realized I was losing skin tones (making skin appear white and losing pigment) and adding noise to my photos that didn’t need to be there. This was happening by trying to bring up my shadows (lighten them) when they were “too dark.” By noise, I don’t mean grain. I am talking about background noise… clutter.

There are many, many times when open, even light creates a stunning image, but I’m here to tell you to dare to step away from this light and start playing with uneven light.


How Un-Even Light Can Impact the Context of Your Photo

Just below is an example using an old photo of my daughter sitting on my husband’s hideous speaker at our old home. See all the junk in the background in the bottom left photo? The top left photo is the SOOC version. My camera meter told me I was over-exposed if I metered her skin, but under-exposed if I metered the cat or background to the right of her. I couldn’t increase exposure or her skin would look white.

I included how I edited this 18 months ago on the bottom left, because I thought it would be fun to show you how styles and perception change over time. The first time I edited this, I pulled it into Photoshop and tried to lighten the darks. The thought of darkening the shadows even more felt wrong. What I didn’t know is that, sometimes, losing detail that doesn’t aid in telling the story in your photo can be a great thing!

The truth is, a wide variety of lighting scenarios will add mood or help give your viewer a clear path to the core of the story you’re shooting. So learn how to shoot in any light scenario! Not only can uneven light create magic, but it will give your portfolio some variety.

photo exposure tutorial


You may be thinking, “But HOW do I shoot in uneven light so the photo makes sense?!” Let’s talk about that…



How to Shoot in Un-Even Light

First – Embrace it!

You can shoot in the available light by first understanding where it’s coming from and how it lands on your subject. This takes time and practice to see on the fly, but once you do, you’ll be an unstoppable force to reckon with using light as a character in your images! Here are some examples of the magic you can create in un-even lighting situations. See how the light pulls you into the core of the moment.

uneven light rim light direct sunlight pocket of light


Now that you’ve seen some examples, let’s talk about the how. We’ll talk about 2 primary ways of shooting in uneven light: purposely under-exposing and purposely over-exposing when shooting.

Under-Exposing on Purpose 

I have a crush on light that hits my subject and quickly falls off leaving the background to be nearly non-existent. I find that this type of light draws me into the photo to allow me to feel the emotion captured. I can read the photo with all 5 senses in this delicious light. When photographing a subject in this kind of pocket of light, I like to underexpose 1 – 1.5 stops. I shoot with both Canon and Nikon and find this to be true with both brands. By underexposing a subject that is pretty much in a spotlight, you can keep their beautiful skin tones and the background fades away. It’s delicious!

Backlighting from a flash, the sun, or even a lamp can give you a rim of light around your subject when you underexpose. I love nothing more than to capture a dancing bride and groom or a child’s laughter by highlighting the emotion or motion with light.

Here are four variations of light where I have under-exposed in camera so that your eyes are drawn to where the light touches and the rest fades away:

under exposed photo


Over-Exposing on Purpose

On the flip side, sometimes you can be in super bright light with very little shadows. I don’t shoot like this very often as my own personal style is on the darker side, however, over-exposing can be impactful too. In both of the examples below, we were surrounded by light. In the top photo of Kendall, the light was hitting her from the left. I exposed for her face, which was technically in a shadow. The shadow wasn’t all that dark to begin with, it’s just that the sunlight hitting her was super powerful. You can see I’ve lost my background and even her hair where the light touches.

But do you see what happened? All is lost except for that deep soulful, stare. Your eyes are forced to look right back into her eyes. If this was evenly lit, the photo wouldn’t have the same power.

over exposed portrait


Similarily in this next photo, we were headed outside for formal photos. The background was a parking lot of cars. Had I exposed this properly (according to my camera meter), the bride’s face and the shadows in the foreground (her mother-in-law and doorway) would be very dark. You would see more detail in the background (the cars). I overexposed not caring that I’d lose detail including her hair. Why? Because I only wanted that soft, delicate expression on her face. Her expression is what makes the photo and would have been nothing special had the rest of the photos been exposed. Your eyes wouldn’t be drawn to her face.

over exposed photo


Now, it’s your turn.

Practice under and over exposing with purpose.

Start by taking an object like a kids toy or your BFF and put them in various lighting scenarios. See what happens when the sun hits them from behind and you meter their face. See what happens when you turn them so the light then is hitting them from the left side.

Put that baby doll about 5 ft from a window and see what you can create by under or over exposing.

Just have fun and play with the light. Then come back and show me! Add those photos above to your favorite pin boards for a quick lighting reference or pin the quick pinnable below:

light tutorial


Need more inspiration? Get lost in these posts:

Master Light Guide for Storytelling Photographers

Documenting Reality: Nightlife of a Parent

Cozy Campfire Photos – Marie Masse


Author: MarieMasse
I help client documentary photographers fine-tune their workflow + marketing game, so their work is filled with sessions that represent their voice + client values while earning a living. I shoot undirected, off-beat stories that aren’t preserved often enough (like the story of couples before starting a fam or becoming empty-nesters – a dream project of mine), so my clients’ old box of photos is a meaningful, visual diary of their life + legacy to leave behind.

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