6 Ways To Fix Too Bright and Too Dark Photos :: Digital Photo Secrets

6 Ways To Fix Too Bright and Too Dark Photos

by David Peterson 16 comments

Another email I received this week was from Mark Jones. Mark writes:

I would like some advice on the attached picture. I tried to photograph my band playing a gig in a pub and the light was shining through the window meaning the drummer/guitarist was in almost complete dark, how?why? What should i have had the camera set to?

This unfortunate situation happens because the camera can't see as well as our human eyes can. We would look at this scene in a pub and would be able to make out both the band, and the scene outside. A camera can't do as well.

Scenes like the band photo, and the photo of the child to the right have what is called a high dynamic range. That is, they have bright sunlight and dark shadows. It is impossible with current technology to have both parts of the photo correctly exposed.

While you can't eliminate the problem entirely, there are a couple of choices you can make to minimze the problem.

Recompose The Photo

This is probably the simplest solution. When taking a photo of a scene with very bright and very dark parts, move your camera to eliminate one of the extremes. In the case of the band, I would have either closed the curtains for the shot, or recomposed completely and photographed from the window looking at the band, and the crowd behind.

Use Exposure Lock

If you can't recompose the photograph, instead tell the camera what part of the image you would like to see. The rest of the photo will be either over or under exposed (too bright or too dark) but at least you will see your subject. You can dothis by placing the center of the image at your subject; half depressing the shutter to lock the focus and exposure; move the camera to re-compose the image; and fully depressing the shutter.

In the band image, the camera chose to correctly expose the scene outside, but even if the band member had been correctly exposed, the window would have ended up being over exposed and you would just have seen white.

Some cameras have an option called 'spot metering' to set the part of the image you'd like to be correctly exposed. If your camera has this setting, enable it before using the technique above.

Use Fill In Flash

If your scene has a sunny background, but your subject is in the shade (or has a hat on), turn on the flash (as I explained way back in tip number 9 - Using Flash During The Day). I know it seems wrong but it really does work! By using the flash, your subject will look as bright as the background. This would have worked well for the child shot above.

High Dynamic Range Imaging

This technique is not for the faintof hearted. It requires a subject that does not move; a good camera with the capability to set the exposure and output RAW images. A tripod and image editing software like Photoshop CS3 are also needed.

High Dynamic Range Imaging (or HDR for short) is a technique for placing both very dark and very light areas in the same photo. It requires you to take a number of photographs of thesame scene - each with a different exposure. First take the shot using the camera's recommended settings. Then, in manual mode and keeping the aperture at the same value as the first shot, take a sequence of shots - each shot having a different shutter speed (above and below the original). You'll have 5-9 shots of the same scene all in different exposures.

Merging the three images to the left creates the HDR image below. Thanks to Photomatix for the images.

Now import these into your favorite paint program. I use Photoshop, but you can as easily use a cheaper program designed specifically for HDR photos like Photomatix. Follow the HDR directions and the paint program will merge these images into one great looking shot!

Use a Filter

If your scene is of a brightsky and a dark ground (for instance at sunset, or on a cloudy day), you can use a graduated neutral density filter. This filter cuts out someof the light from one part of the photo (the sky). This will correctly expose the ground and the sky without needing to use HDR. These filterscan be complex to setup, so I don't usually recommend them for beginners.

Fix The Original Photo in an Image Editing Program

Finally, if you can't take another shot at the same location, you can fix the original image by changing the levels using a paint program. This works best when your subject is darker than the rest of the photo (because cameras lose detail in over-bright areas). I've brightened the band member in the top image using this technique and while it looks okay in thissmall shot, this technique can tend to amplify any noise in the image. The darker the subject, the harder time you will have fixing the image.

I discuss exactly how to use this technique in lesson 2 of my free Image Editing Secrets course. I have a tutorial for Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Paint Shop Pro and the free Google Picassa.

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  1. Dee says:

    Hi David,

    I was in Jamaica for a destination wedding this past week. Someone else used my DSLR Ti2 Canon camera to take some photos with myself and others. She did not use the flash. The photos are very dark. I do not have Photoshop. I use Picassa. I have been trying to save the photos but is unable to. Any suggestions would be very much appreciated.

    Thank you.

    Dee Gangabissoon

  2. J. Brownie says:

    Photos gotten taken with my Cannon EOS 60 D on the wrong setting by accident?
    It was on the TV setting everyone came out very light. I am sick over it. Is there anything I can do to save these photos? Thank you very much

    • David Peterson says:


      Try some of the techniques in the article I mention.

      However, you're probably not going to be able to recover most of the detail in your images - too-bright photos can get 'clipped' (which means there are areas that are all-white) and you can't recover those areas.

      Good luck.


  3. aviana odah says:

    Thank you so so so so so so so very much I needed this

  4. Photography Courses in Rawalpindi, Pakistan says:

    Thank you David, your tips and tricks are very helpful to ALL shutterbug bitten photographers. These are wonderfully paced guides (for beginners) and an archive (for seasoned photographers) to revert back to as a 'refresher'.

    All the very best and keep up the good work :-)

  5. James says:

    You could try openng the image in Photoshop, creating a new explosure layer, correcting the exposure of the foreground, inverting the layer, select the brush, paint the new exposure onto the foreground. This takes a while but it works beautifully. Alternatively, use Adobe Lightroom to do the same thing if you are unsure of how to use Photoshop. Hope this helps!

  6. ellerandi says:


    I was just got register in your webpage from a friend recomendation, and this one was the first tip I read that answer my $100 question, because I've been in this situation several without any answer.
    Thanks a lot.

    Ed Llerandi

  7. Hans says:

    I would very much support Alex's approach using HDR. I've had good success recovering exposure problems even if no RAW file is available. Normally I use Photoshop to make an under-exposed and an over-exposed copy of the original JPG (say +/- 2EV). Then load all 3 into the HDR software and let it work its magic. Some experimantation is required to get the degree of over and under-exposure right for a good result.

  8. Alex says:

    You don't need RAWs to make a HDR image. Three jpegs with different exposures work really well. With RAWs you can even make a HDR out off one picture. This is because RAW files have a pretty wide dynamic range that allows for eposure corrections in the RAW converter. This way you can make three differently exposed jpegs out of one RAW. Witg this technique you do not necessarily need a tripod and you can even capture scenes in motion as HDR images.

    One last thing: The final image of the HDR process is a "tonemapped image" - it is not the HDR image itself! The dynamic range of a HDr image is so high that it can neither be correctly displayed on screen nor printed. To make a HDR viewable the wide range of tones needs to be mapped or be compressed to the narrow range that monitors and printers can handle. Thus we always see tonemapped HDRs as end results. Tge HDR itself is a purely technical step inbetween the process.

  9. Patrick says:

    RE:the problem with the Band Player and Bright Light from the Background Window

    I often have this problem when photographing inside of houses as I am in the real estate Game. Both yours and the other suggestions are noted.

    However, my solution (for most cases) is to select the "P" Program setting which automatically reduces the effects of the outside light from the window and allows the fill-in flash to illuminate everything inside of the window (you may then even capture detail from outside the window which otherwise was a bright blur).

  10. Eugene says:

    Turn up your exposure value, that should help offset the dark shadows. Alternatively, use a flash to bounce it off the ceiling. If you're using a normal digicam, you could try to bounce it off using a piece of foil but it would take practice.

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