Why Your Photos Are Dark And What You Can Do About It :: Digital Photo Secrets

Why Your Photos Are Dark And What You Can Do About It

by David Peterson 10 comments

How many times have you taken a picture near sunset or twilight, only to get back a much darker image than the one you originally envisioned? It’s so common that I thought I’d a share a photo from a fellow reader with the same problem. Jimmie Lee wonders why his Fujifilm camera keeps giving him dark sunsets. The photo below in particular lacked the colors that were present when Jimmy took the photo. Let’s have a look at some of things that cause underexposure, and how Adobe Photoshop Elements can help us get the photo we see in our mind’s eye.

A gorgeous sunset tainted by underexposure.

The cause of dark pictures

Jimmie took this photo using the shutter priority mode on his camera. Shutter priority mode allows the user to adjust the shutter speed while the camera automatically picks a corresponding aperture value, so it is still an automatic mode.

Why did the camera take a dark shot when using automatic mode? Simply - because it was tricked! Your camera does the best job it can in working out an exposure that won't result in too many parts of the image with too many very dark and too many very bright spots. The sun is always very bright, so the camera darkens the whole image to compensate.

The solution is to let more light in. There are two well known ways of doing this. You can either slow down the shutter speed, or you can widen the aperture. Both camera adjustments put more light on the sensor while it is being exposed. Because Jimmie was using an automatic mode, he can do the same thing by increasing the exposure value setting, effectively forcing the camera to allow more light in.

The other option is spot metering. By default, the camera takes its light readings by averaging the light in the scene being presented to it. When you switch over to spot metering, the camera will only take the light reading from a single location you pick. Just point the lens to a part of the scene that you want to be correctly exposed (not at the sun, or at very dark spots) and hold the shutter button halfway down to get the reading. Then, while continuing to hold down the shutter button, frame the image the way you want, and press the shutter button all the way down. The result will be a correct exposure.

The Photoshop fix

So, what can Jimmie do to fix this picture? Actually, there's lots. And Photoshop Elements makes it easy. With a few simple adjustments, his photo won’t be so dark. Here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Add a levels adjustment layer

We’re going to bring back an old Photoshop Elements trick we’ve used in a previous tutorial. When you add a levels adjustment layer, and you use the “screen” blend mode, it fixes the darkness right away.

Go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels

When the small dialog box shows up, pick “screen” from the menu and click OK:

Step 2: Add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer

If you followed the above steps, you will already have noticed that your image is much brighter. Here is the result I got with Jimmie’s photo:

Already on the way. It’s much brighter.

We can still do better. By adding a hue/saturation layer, we can make some of those colors pop out a lore more. Let’s get to work.

Go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation

Click “okay” on the dialog box that pops up. You should see no change in the image.

Now have a look at the adjustments menu that just opened up on the lower right hand corner of your screen:

You’ll notice that I dragged the saturation bar to the right. Doing so makes the colors pop a little more. Depending on how much color you’ve already got, you can pick any range of settings. It’s really up to personal preference.

Here’s the final result after both adjustments:

Now that’s more like it! What a difference a few Photoshop adjustments can make.

Dark images happen when the shutter speed is too fast or the aperture isn’t open enough. Be careful of your camera’s automatic settings. Most cameras tend not to pick the right ones by default. If your camera creates an image that is too dark, use EV to bump up the brightness. You can also use Manual Mode to manually change the settings.

But even if you do mess up, there’s a good chance you can fix it with Photoshop. It certainly made a big difference in Jimmie’s case.

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Carol says:

    Photos on this page are broken links! Annoying, can you fix?

    • David Peterson says:

      All the photos show fine for me. Can you try refreshing the page?


  2. maria says:

    I have a Nikon D50. I only know how to use it on automatic mode, but I've gotten some great pictures that way. The problem isI lend it to a friend and the setting have changed and automatic mode now takes VERY DARK PICTURE with a tint of pink. Someone helped me "reformat" the camera, but it's still not the same.
    A friend has helped me to change some setting to use it under "P" mode, and that helped but I would really love to get my Automatic mode back to how it used to be and take fast easy pictures.
    Any suggestions?
    Please help!!!
    Thank you.

  3. Mitchell says:

    Thank you for all the e-mails that you send me about photography.
    They really answer alot of my questions.

    Thank you,

  4. Geoff says:

    Yes Amar,I to was hesitant about expensive programes and yes they can be hard to master.But if I was you,go for Lightroom as you can also process raw files.As you get into photgraphy you will find this very handy.Daunting as some of these programes are they can save many a photo that you would delete.The trick is play around,you'll get the hang of it.Just work on a copy rather than the original.After awhile these programes can be fun to use.

  5. Umberto says:

    I keep looking at the histogram and adjust acordantly. It as become an habit.

  6. Janine Dinkelmann says:

    Would love to take better pics!

  7. Ari says:

    OK Amar you'r a beginner we all were once. Try a freebie download called Picassa simply type in Picassa on the internet & download it. Use it for a while & then spend your money if you feel you need to.
    Open your picture & click on "I'm Feeling Lucky" & Wow you have done almost the same as elements, the average amateur would probably not notice any difference than the results of elements. (There is a difference BUT)

    Picassa is free.................try it. Elements is not.

    Also flip from spot metering to matrix, you will be surprised. Another thing to try is look at the AUTO settings your camera has chosen. Set the same in manual then open up a stop.
    New to photography...........understand your camera, learn what does what & check out the highest ISO that that gives little or no noise.

    Thank-you Peter lots of good stuff.
    Elements ? far too expensive. Put your money towards a good lens instead and always try to get the exposure correct. Practice practice practice.


  8. Charles Mohapel says:

    I believe I can tell you why "Jimmie Lee wonders why his Fujifilm camera keeps giving him dark sunsets." Speaking to the technical people at Fujifilm, I learned that Fujifilm has deliberately made the display in the electronic viewfinder (EVF) brighter than the actual subject, meaning you can compose images in relatively low light, but you need to understand that what you see is NOT what you get.

  9. Amar says:

    I am a beginner, I am wondering about the Photoshop elements and other expensive programs. I am hesitant to invest in these program thinking thay are al so 'HI FI ' It would be beyond me to comprehend and end up not using them. Please advise

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