Exposure Problems

Exposure problems were as annoying and pervasive back in the day of film cameras as they are with modern digital cameras.

Anyone who worked in a wet darkroom back in the day knows just how onerous it was to fix an under/over exposed image.  Early in one's darkroom career it was pretty much guess work and with more experience it became easier to make an educated guess.

Luckily, this is one of the photo challenges that really is easy to resolve in the digital darkroom with Adobe Photoshop.


Early on in my digital darkroom days I typically tried to fix an exposure problem using what seemed to be the all powerful adjustment - Brightness Contrast.  Sadly this adjustment doesn't work particularly well but that didn't stop me from showing off my work.

Now I've learned many different techniques that will deal with exposure problems and they include ...
  • Levels
  • Curves
  • Shadows/Highlights
  • Blend Modes
  • Dodging and Burning
If you look around the site you will find most of these topics have been covered in detail, however let's look at two Blend Modes that do a fabulous job fixing exposure problems.

Blend Modes

Using blend modes to fix problems is a good plan when the overall shot is either under or over exposed.

If only one portion of a shot is too light or too dark then there are better and more effective methods than using the blend modes - with the best being dodging and burning.

Here's the recipe ...

Under exposure (overall the picture is too dark) - change blend mode to Screen

Over exposure (overall the picture is too light) - change the blend mode to Multiply

The steps to follow are ...
  1. Duplicate the Background Layer.
  2. Change the Blend Mode of the new layer to Multiply (if the image is too light) or Screen (if the image is too dark).
  3. Duplicate the new layer if more adjustment is needed and then modify the Opacity to taste.

Brightening Under Exposed Images

Here's a shot I recently took that's under exposed ...

exposure problems under exposed

Following the earlier prescription ...

exposure problems under
exposure problems under 1
Layers Palette
Top Layer Blend Mode
Set To Screen
First Adjustment

It's still a bit dark - sooo - duplicate the top layer ...

exposure problems under
exposure problems under 2
Layers Palette
Top Layer Duplicated
Second Adjustment

The entrance to the theater is still a bit dark and this can be remedied with a Soft Light Dodge and Burn layer.

Another Example

I took this shot in a downtown mall a couple of days after Kate and William were married in late April of 2011.  As you would expect, there was unending hype surrounding their wedding including over-the-top decorations and memorabilia available.

this was a shot that just needed taking but it was kind of dark so I propped my camera on a railing and took the shot.

The camera settings were f 8.0 (Aperture Priority) at 1/30 of a second at an ISO of 100.  The result - underexposure.

I really did want to use an f stop that would give me some depth of field and anything smaller would have been pushing my ability to hand hold the camera even with the assistance of the railing

exposure problems eaton centre

The Raw editor in Photoshop can be used to change the Exposure but this is a tutorial using Blend Modes (and other things) to modify Exposure so we'll carry on in that vein.

The initial steps are simple - duplicate the Background Layer and change the Blend Mode of the top layer to Screen.  Here's the result ....

exposure problems screen blend mode

Much better, however the glass ceiling and the top part of the mall is now a bit too light plus the foreground is just a tad too dark.  It's time for a Soft Light layer.

Soft Light Layer

I've gotta say this is one of my favorite techniques especially for burning or dodging small areas that desperately need some work.  In this situation it's not small areas that need some work but large areas uniformly from top to bottom.

What about a black to white linear gradient?

Glad you asked - that'll work perfectly!

The steps are ....

  1. Add a new Soft Light Layer to the top of the layer stack.
  2. Set black and white as the default colors (hit the D key).
  3. Select the Linear Gradient and drag the gradient from the top to the bottom of the new Soft Light layer.   If the wrong part becomes darker and lighter just undo the Gradient, hit the X key and re-draw the Gradient.
  4. Now adjust the Opacity of the Soft Light layer to get everything the way you want it.

under exposure soft light layer

Exposure Problems layers palette
Some balancing needed to be done by lowering the Opacity of the top layer - it was lowered to 85%.

Here is the final layers palette - one layer as a copy changed to Screen Blend Mode and a final Soft Light layer with a black to white gradient.

You can, in fact, see the Gradient in the Soft Light Layer as well as the Blend Mode and the Opacity of the top layer.

Darkening Over Exposed Images

This black and white shot that I scanned is over exposed by quite a bit ...

exposure problems over exposed

Now using the Multiply Blend Mode ...

exposure problems over
exposure problems under 1
Layers Palette
Top Layer Blend Mode
Set To Multiply
First Adjustment

Not bad and copying the top layer with darken it up just a bit more...

exposure problems over
exposure problems multiply
Layers Palette
Top Layer Duplicated
Second Adjustment

Much better than the original print and it was really easy to do!

Find some exposure problems and give these techniques a try!

Page Links


Blend Modes

Under Exposure
Over Exposure

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