Tutorial: Give "Overexposure" A Try!

September 30, 2009

in Photography Tips, Photography Tutorials, Susan Keller

Give “Overexposure” A Try!
Written by:
Susan Keller

Goal of this tutorial:

1. For those of you who are already exposing manually … to encourage you to experiment with intentionally overexposing some of your images.

2. For those of you who are still exposing using “full auto” … to encourage you to dust off your camera manuals and learn how to manually expose or use EV +1 +2 (exposure value adjustment) … in order to encourage you to experiment with intentionally overexposing some of your images. 🙂

Ok. First things first. If you’re not shooting/exposing manually, I highly recommend that you play around and experiment with shooting manually (why not? you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain – it’s the digital age – there are no high costs of developing to discourage you from making mistakes and learning from them!!). Or at the very least, you should learn how to choose EV +/- 1 or 2 when you want to override some “auto” choices. Dig out that camera manual. Read. Experiment. Toss the losers; keep the winners. Learn. Grow. Enjoy. 🙂

And in the process of learning, be sure to experiment with overexposure. Intentionally “overexpose” an image and then peek at the results on the back of your camera. Read your histogram to see if you’ve lost too much important information. Don’t know how to read your histogram? Awhile back our own Jodi at MCP Actions posted a really wonderful 3 part video tutorial by John Mireles on how to read/understand the histogram.

When is a good time to try overexposure? At the risk of sounding simplistic, any time you want to expose for faces when the light is behind your subject (back lighting) might be a good time to play around with overexposure.

Here is a series of photos (SOOC) that I took on our recent vacation. We were at a park early in the morning, so the sun was somewhat low to the horizon. I took this first photo of my youngest son *facing* the sun. Not so pretty! (ugly shadows, harsh lighting).


So I moved to the other side of him, putting the sun *behind* him (back lighting). I intentionally overexposed to compensate for the bright sky, knowing I would be blowing out sky detail and lighting. Guess what? I didn’t overexpose *enough*. See how his face is still too dark? But you can see from the histogram that some of the detail is spilling off the right side (evidence of “blown” or lost detail). The parts that are showing as RED on the photo below are illuminating the parts of the image that are blown.

overexposure tutorial example 5-2

Here’s the next image, where I overexposed even more than I did originally. Now my son’s face is nicely illuminated, though I have lost quite a bit more detail. (by the way, did you know that many cameras have an info setting that will similarly show you blown areas? usually a white flashing lighted area…)

overexposure tutorial example 1

To give you an idea what your camera thinks is an ideal exposure … Here’s the first picture I took of my eldest son. It’s slightly overexposed because I regularly-intentionally-slightly-overexpose everything (you can see the bulk of the detail is on the right side of the histogram), but there is little to no detail that is lost – see how none of the data spills off the right side of the histogram? And there’s only a tiny bit of detail blown on the edge of his shirt. But. His face is not at all illuminated. So while it might be a “proper” exposure, it doesn’t accomplish my goal of capturing my son’s expression.

overexposure tutorial example 2

Here’s another exposure example with my middle son. The first image is overexposed, but not *enough* overexposed. The second image is better/brighter exposed for his face.

overexposure tutorial example 3

overexposure tutorial example 4

You can see that I’ve lost a bit of “important” detail on his cheek. That’s probably a photographic no-no, but it doesn’t bother me too much (LR can recover some of that detail).

And now that I’ve shown all of you my soft underbelly of SOOC images (smirk), here’s how one of my overexposed images “cleaned up” with a little help from LR and PS.


You can see the rest of my edited park pictures at my Orange County Portrait Photographer blog…

So I’m hoping that I’ve made a compelling case for why you might want to learn how to override occasionally (and maybe forever) the “proper” settings that your camera prefers.

Now go forth and overexpose a little … or a lot! 🙂

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

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Christopher Johnston September 3, 2012

I did notice that all of those images were .jpg. You can recover more details in an overexposed image if you shoot in RAW. When I’m shooting family stuff or just random snapshots I will occasionally shoot in JPG but if I’m getting paid it’t always in RAW.


Inge May 21, 2012


I was wondering what kind of light metering you use when you choose to overexpose.
Suppose you’re using spot metering, and you do a light metering on the subject ‘s face, do you then need to overexpose as well?



Rosa Guerra November 10, 2011

Wow! You have made an impact with these visuals.. I tend to read, read and read about overexposing, but I learn best when I have a visual. THank you SO much for this tutorial, I know now, that seeing my photos blown out in the background is not a so bad thing as long as I get the exposure to my liking on faces 🙂


Edward Songco July 27, 2010

Hi I was very curious on how you edit your photos using photoshop and lightroom. do you have a preferred workflow for this? i noticed that your pictures were slightly overexposed at the same time contrast and detail are still intact. how do you do these? thanks!


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