Purposeful Underexposure

As photographers we sometimes execute a purposeful underexposure in order to create a special mood or artistic interpretation in our images.  This article discusses this approach and provide a few sample images.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/4, 1/40, full frame capture, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 515 mm

When photographing individual blossoms a purposeful underexposure can be very effective to help create subject separation, add contrast, and help accentuate details.

If your camera has the capability to identify exposure issues such as blown out highlights or blocked-in shadows it is a good idea to engage this function. This helps you fine tune your exposure in real time which can significantly reduce the effort needed with a photograph in post.

When doing a purposeful underexposure it is key to have a clear idea in your mind of how you want your completed photograph to look. Every image can be different, but I tend to focus on the subject blossom to ensure that my exposure has good amount of details in the highlights.

Depending on how dark the background is I may underexposure the image further to help create a black background. Or, as close to black as I can get. If the blossom looks a bit too dark at this point it seldom concerns me as I can lift it in post.

Adjusting the overall exposure in post for this type of photograph is usually counterproductive, especially when trying to lighten the exposure in order to brighten a blossom. Instead I often will add black, and sometimes deepen shadows, to darken the background further.

To bring more details out and brighten up the blossom I’ll then lift highlights and add some brightness with the white slider. Using individual sliders rather than trying to adjust the overall exposure provides more precise control of the  photograph. I don’t usually do any burning or dodging with my images in post.

The flower image above was captured handheld using the in-camera focus stacking technology in my E-M1X, and the M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro lens.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/1600, ISO-320, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 4604 pixels on the width, subject distance 37.9 metres

Folks who enjoy bird and nature photography will often underexpose an image of a predominantly white bird like the swan above, to help capture feather detail. You can see in the EXIF data that the image was captured using -0.7 EV exposure compensation. This helped to ensure a good level of detail in the white feathers. It also served to darken the background which helped with subject separation.

We can change the mood of the photograph and further enhance the subject bird by pushing things in post. Darkening shadows and adding black helps create more contrast and drama. Lifting highlight, mid-tone and white sliders can help brighten a subject bird, without having to adjust the overall exposure of the photograph.

The resulting image can look like it was captured in low light conditions during late day or early morning. In reality, you may create an image like the one above during a fairly bright part of the day. If you look at the shadow cast by the swan’s head in the photograph above you can tell that the sun was reasonably strong.

The key for this type of purposeful underexposure is to see the subject bird against a black background in your mind. Then think through how you can achieve the image in your mind’s eye, using a two-stage process. The first stage is a purposeful underexposure. We need to be careful not to underexpose too dramatically. The second step is to further accentuate the underexposure in post by using individual sliders like black, white, shadows, mid-tones and highlights.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 64 mm, efov 172.8 mm, f/5.6, 1/5, ISO-800

We need to be constantly aware of opportunities to use a purposeful underexposure. This can expand our creativity as we imagine photographs in our mind’s eye that would not otherwise be apparent to us in the moment.

For example, I noticed the series of hanging lights in the photograph above while sitting at a table in a small bistro in Italy. The background was actually a dull grey, soiled ceiling. As you can imagine the subject matter was not particularly photogenic. The lights were fairly bright as this area of the bistro was in shade. This increased the risk of blown out highlights. From an advantage perspective the brightness of the lights created a good opportunity to use a purposeful underexposure.

As I studied the lights more closely I pictured them up against a black background. I thought this could create an interesting and somewhat abstract image. Then, by using a longer focal length with my zoom lens I experimented with how I could create a strong feeling of compression. I as played around darkening my exposure the lights took on a surreal glow. Doing a purposeful underexposure was the ideal technique to bring the image in my mind’s eye to life.

I knew from experience that the slowest handheld shutter speed I could use with my 1 Nikon 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 zoom was about 1/5 of a second. My focal length locked in my minimum aperture to f/5.6, so I adjusted my ISO value to arrive at the right level of purposeful underexposure.

This ended up being one of my favourite images from our trip to Italy. How we individually react to a photograph is subjective. My wife considers this image as “another one of your weird photos.”

Technical Note:

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced using my standard process.  This is the 1,106  article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

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6 thoughts on “Purposeful Underexposure”

    1. Hi Jack,

      This doesn’t work in all situations. It can be very effective when the subject is in bright light and is positioned against a darker background. I regularly look for these types of shooting angles and compositions to leverage this technique.


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