how to fix and underexposed photo
help for dark pictures

Need some help with an underexposed photo?

While it's much better to avoid taking an underexposed photo to start with, it does happen. Getting a good photo exposure is more desirable because it assures you of the best quality photo. If a picture is not too dark, you can often correct it to an acceptable level.

Fortunately, there is an abundance of software to help us when we do our photo editing. It's not too hard to fix a picture that is only slightly too dark. In this example illustration, the top photo was taken using an auto exposure setting on the camera.

Underexposed Snow Photo

Auto exposure assumes that the subject is an average scene with a mix of some light and dark areas. For the snow scene, most of the photos should be very bright, close to a pure white brightness.

If the camera had been set to overexpose an f-stop or 2, the photo would have actually been exposed properly.

The lower photo was adjusted for exposure and color temperature in Photoshop. You can see it is brighter and a more desirable color. Photo Editing software: Picasa is a free program that you can download from

Depending on how good it is, the software that came with your camera is usually simple to use and will do a good job in many situations. The only hard part of course may be learning more new software.

Many have an auto correct button that will analyze your dark photo and make adjustments with one click. I am not a big fan of them as I like complete control over highlights, shadows and mid-tones. Most people will have good success with these.

In the photo below, I really like the curtains as a background when photographing this high school senior at her grand mom's house.  There was very strong back-lighting coming through the curtains and very little other light in the room.

This fooled my auto-exposure and the result was a high contrast, under exposed photo.  I did this fix in PhotoShop raw software.

Before and after under exposed photo edit

I added about a half f-stop of exposure, adjusted the brightness tool upward, and added fill light to get the image where I wanted it.  I did have a large white reflector off camera to the right to help provide some fill light, but it was not enough and I needed to the adjustment tools in the software to help.

There are at least 3 common ways to adjust a dark photo in most of the traditional photo editing software programs:

3 ways to fix a dark photo with software

  • Exposure.  Exposure Sets the overall image brightness, with a greater effect in the higher values. Adjust the slider until the photo looks good and the whites are at the correct amount.
  • Brightness.  Brightness adjusts the image brightness mainly in the mid-tone levels. Set the overall tonal scale by setting Exposure. Then set the overall image brightness. Large brightness adjustments can affect shadow or highlights.
  • Contrast.  Contrast is the range of dark to light. Try a few combination of adjusting the exposure and contrast to get the desired effect.  The biggest editing mistake is adjusting contrast too much.

Getting the best photo exposure is the ideal thing to do. If our photographic image is not too far off from the desired brightness, we can use a variety of techniques to correct our underexposed photo.

avoid an underexposed photo

If you take a quick glance at your LCD screen after you make your exposure, you can usually tell right away that your camera has let you down or that you may have made a mistake in setting your camera.

The most common reason for an underexposed photo is that the flash was not bright enough to illuminate your subject or it simply didn't fire at all.  Built-in flashes in point and shoot cameras have a limited range and won't light up a subject that is too far from your camera.

1.  Make sure your flash is not blocked by anything when you shoot (like your finger).

2.  Adjust your camera to a higher ISO setting

3. Get closer to your subject

4.  If available use an exposure compensation button on your camera to add an f-stop or two to the exposure.

Using any one of these techniques may help you avoid getting an underexpose photo and you won't have to edit in software afterwards. 

Good Luck.

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