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Use Your Lens and Camera on Max: Creative Use of Underexposure
While properly lit and exposed image should be always goal of the good photographer, sometimes it is needed to be creative to achieve images you need, given conditions you got.
Underexposure (shooting in left, dark part of histogram) is same as overexposure considered bad. Of course it is, because you are using only part of sensitivity of your camera. Unlike overexposure where blown out lights damaging surrounding image and creates unrecoverable blow, underexposure is just decreasing sensitivity of your camera. However, this can be used creative way...

In one of previous articles I mentioned that shutter speed is something you cannot cheat, neither with vibration reduction, nor with tripod - when it comes to moving objects. What if there is another way besides higher ISO and lower aperture how to get twice or four times faster shutter?

Very often people depending on auto settings of the camera or trying to achieve perfect balanced histogram. It results very often in blury images captured at low shutter speed or at images with just few hightlights blowed. Underexposing of image can make you safe zone for very bright part of images and on other side, use in some extrems faster shutter than by simply putting ISO setting on maximum

All following images was captured with D300, 50mm/1.4 at F4 and ISO200. It was cloudy late winter afternoon.

Following image was captured at 1/250. On purpose there are no post processing added into this image. It is image as mettered by camera (which at this time have one of the best mettering of all DSLRs). Result is perfect, little blown out brightness in blue spectrum, but very good image to create perfect print using most sensitivity of the camera. Zoomed is 1:1 crop of the flower and stone behind.

Following image was taken at same place and conditions, twice so fast 1/500. Top part of the spectrum is there complete, we starting to lose some shadows, about 5% of darkes places are flat now.

This image was taken at 1/2000. It is 8 times faster than first image and you would need over ISO 1600 to achieve this speed. Depending on your camera, underexposing can produce better images than increasing ISO, not in this case, but you see how deep you can underexpose and yet get acceptable image.

Last image is was shot at 1:4000, 16 times faster than first image. You would need ISO over 3200 to achieve this. Such high ISO settings are not available on many cameras. On D300 for down sized images or images for web use, the underexposed image from ISO 200 or 400 have less noise than setting it to ISO 3200. There is no noise reduction applied.

Here is example image from simulated ISO 25600 on D300 (where maximum is 6400). Shot as underexposure at ISO6400. Sure it looks terrible, it is exagerated on purpose, but in some situation ISO 6400 and correct exposure might give you not worse looking print, still grainy and yet blurred. (Yet there is no noise reduction applied.)

ISO 6400 for comparison

When camera mettering fails

Under exposing of images is also safe way to work around few very bright spots on the image which camera metering ignores or you would consider to be "limitation of your camera".

In examples above we shown that you can safely underexpose two or three steps and yet get acceptable image. This means that setting higher aperture or speed (or both) can in cases where on scene are few very bright images still produce acceptable output. The effect being close to what HDR photo is. You need later to process the image in Photoshop or similar tool, but you get the maximum from your camera.
Following image was shot with direct look inside the sun. Aperture was maximum F16 and image would be blown all the way out if we would try to capture beach properly. If you underexpose the beach to have sun under control you can still raise up shadows of the image to get very HDR feel:

In this case, the most of the scene is underexposed in order to capture as many possible details from brightest (overexposed) areas. On right side is "as captured, at F16, 1/8000, ISO 100 with polarization filter. On left side, lifted shadows looks like captured in higher ISO, but are present.


1) On cameras with high definition sensor (12-14bit), under exposing image can be way to save the day full of blury sport images if your camera do not offer higher sensitivity settings or they look worse than slightly under exposed image.

2) Overexposing scene will create unrecoverable white spaces, lost information, while underexposing in controled level just losing details of dark areas. It is safe to underexpose most of the scene for few steps in order to keep bright areas as detailed as possible.

3) Underexposing of image have similar results as comparable ISO setting (no wonder it is very similar process), only more under your control and applying different sensitivity only to part of spectrum). In some cases it might produce better results with some Photoshop work added (noise reduction, etc) or if dark areas are not so important, depending also on your camera and amount of work you spend on image.
Posted on 22 Feb 2008 by fkh
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