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Fixing an Overexposed Photo

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Overexposed photos are a bane for photographers all around, and can occur from a number of reasons. It may be that you did not read the light correctly, or maybe it’s your camera that’s acting up. Our eyes are so used to compensating for lightness and darkness that we often forget to accommodate for the fact that cameras are just not as capable at doing the same.

Example of Overexposure

When, for instance, you look at a building on a sunny day, and the façade is hidden by the shady area, and the sky and ground are well lit to boot, you wouldn’t notice much difference from looking at the whole scene. The eyes are much more capable of picking out detail in the areas that are in shade, as well as doing the same in the well-lit areas. Cameras lack the brain to do that kind of hard work, and so the shaded areas could end up looking three or four stops darker in a shutter snap.


While your camera lacks the brain for this sort of thing, it does have a means to tell you when over-exposure occurs—the histogram. Used a lot in real estate photo editing services, this is a graph which displays the exposed scene’s tonal range, and which has three equal parts: Light tones, mid-tones, and Dark tones. Under the last you have shadows and blacks, while light tones are split into whites and highlights.

Reading a Histogram

Your ability to read a histogram lets you understand when your images are getting overexposed. With a look at which of the three tones the colored pixels fall under, it is possible to see the types of light present in the image. Most of the pixels falling toward the left show the darker areas, and with the more of these pixels you have, the darker the area will be. It follows that stronger and larger areas of white would give you more pixels to the right side of the histogram. There are two main ways to fix a photo if it is overexposed. One is using a graduated filter, while the other makes use of a technique called bracketing.

Graduated Filter

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Lightroom has a Graduated Filter tool, which acts in much the same way that you see with the Graduated Neutral Density filter used by landscape photographers. The underlying idea is to throw in a darkness gradient to some part of your image. This is kept graduated so that it can blend better into the image. When applied rightly, this tool brings detail in the sky portion of the above example.

To use this, you need to head to Develop module in Lightroom. There, under Histogram, you will see six tiny icons. Out of these, you need to pick the one that’s fourth from left. Clicking selects it, and then on the image, you need click, hold, and drag downward, because the top is the most affected. Assuming this is a simple landscape where the sky covers the top, you would be clicking at the frame’s top and then dragging that toward the horizon. After that, you can change the settings the way you need to, and while you do this, you’ll see a responsive preview that lets you judge on when to stop.


One of the pre-op ways photographers get beyond overexposure in photos is through the use of bracketing. In this, they take two extra snaps of the scene where one has a +1 exposure value over best, while the other has a -1 exposure value. There are totally three chances of getting the perfect shot, which is why this technique used to be a favorite among film photographers who were unsure of the exposure they were taking on in a scene.

First, the camera mode needs to be set to manual. Then you take a shot based on what you think is the best exposure, and then lower and raise the exposure triangle settings. That should give you the -1 and +1 exposures as brackets. For instance, in a scene where the settings are ISO 100, Aperture f/5.6, and Speed 1/1000th, that should be captured first. Then, perhaps, you could alter the shutter speed to make it 1/500th for the higher bracket, and 1/2000th for the lower one.

You do need to remember, however, that each time you change the shutter speed, it affects how the camera captures scenes with movement in them. Moving the aperture is one option, but this can affect the depth of field. At the end of the day, just like with image clipping, you need to choose based on what you think is best. You could go for -3 and +3 exposures, which would give you what they call high dynamic range, which is popular among a huge number of photographers these days.