6 Ways To Fix Too Bright and Too Dark Photos

Another email I received this week was from Mark Jones. Mark writes:

I would like some advice on the attached picture. I tried to photograph my band playing a gig in a pub and the light was shining through the window meaning the drummer/guitarist was in almost complete dark, how? why? What should I have the camera set to?

This unfortunate circumstance occurs because the camera cannot see as well as human eyes. We would look at this scene in a pub and would be able to make out both the band, and the scene outside. A camera can’t do as well.

6 Ways To Fix Too Bright and Too Dark PhotosScenes like the band photo, and the photo of the child to the right have what is called a high dynamic range. That is, they have bright sunlight and dark shadows. With current technology, it is impossible to expose both sides of a photo.

Although you cannot eliminate the problem completely, there are some things you can do to minimize the problem.

Recompose The Photo

This is probably the simplest solution. When taking a photo of a scene with very bright and very dark parts, move your camera to eliminate one of the extremes. In the case of the band, I would have either closed the curtains for the shot, or recomposed completely and photographed from the window looking at the band, and the crowd behind.

Use Exposure Lock

If you can’t recompose the photograph, instead tell the camera what part of the image you would like to see. While the rest of your photo will be over- or under-exposed (too dark or too bright), you will still see your subject. You can dothis by placing the center of the image at your subject; half depressing the shutter to lock the focus and exposure; move the camera to re-compose the image; and fully depressing the shutter.

In the band image, the camera chose to correctly expose the scene outside, but even if the band member had been correctly exposed, the window would have ended up being over exposed and you would just have seen white.

You can adjust the exposure of the area you want to use with a feature called spot metering. This setting can be enabled on your camera before you apply the technique.

Use Fill In Flash

If your scene has a sunny background, but your subject is in the shade (or has a hat on), turn on the flash (as I explained way back in tip number 9 – Using Flash During The Day). Although it may sound absurd, it is actually possible! Your subject will appear brighter than the background if you use the flash. This technique would have been great for the child in the photo above.

High Dynamic Range Imaging

This technique is not for the faintof hearted. It requires a subject that does not move; a good camera with the capability to set the exposure and output RAW images. A tripod and image editing software like Photoshop CS3 are also needed.

High Dynamic Range Imaging (or HDR for short) is a technique for placing both very dark and very light areas in the same photo. You will need to take multiple photos of the same scene with different exposures. The recommended settings of the camera are used to take the shot. Then, in manual mode and keeping the aperture at the same value as the first shot, take a sequence of shots – each shot having a different shutter speed (above and below the original). You will have five to nine shots of the exact same scene in different exposures.

6 Ways To Fix Too Bright and Too Dark Photos6 Ways To Fix Too Bright and Too Dark Photos(*6*) Merging the three images to the left creates the HDR image below. The images were provided by Photomatix.

6 Ways To Fix Too Bright and Too Dark PhotosNow you can import them into your favorite paint program. Photoshop is my preferred program, but you could also use Photomatix, which is a more affordable program for HDR photos. Follow the HDR directions and the paint program will merge these images into one great looking shot!

Use a Filter

If your scene is of a brightsky and a dark ground (for instance at sunset, or on a cloudy day), you can use a graduated neutral density filter. This filter removes some of the light from the sky. This will correctly expose the ground and the sky without needing to use HDR. This filter can be difficult to set up, so I don’t recommend it for beginners.

Fix The Original Photo in an Image Editing Program

6 Ways To Fix Too Bright and Too Dark PhotosFinally, if you can’t take another shot at the same location, you can fix the original image by changing the levels using a paint program. This technique works best when the subject is darker than the rest of your photo. Over-bright areas can cause cameras to lose detail. I’ve brightened the band member in the top image using this technique and while it looks okay in thissmall shot, this technique can tend to amplify any noise in the image. The more difficult it will be to fix the image, the darker the subject.

In lesson 2, I will show you how to use this technique. I have a tutorial for Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Paint Shop Pro and the free Google Picassa.

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