5 tips for beautifully deliberate underexposure

5 tips for beautifully deliberate underexposure

This month, we’re going to experiment with exposures that are significantly deeper than you’d normally select. Be adventurous and bold. Go beyond your comfort zone. Take what you know of “proper” exposure, and go deeper … not a third of a stop or even a full stop — but a couple of stops. See what happens! Shift your “Zones” or push your histogram towards the left. How does it affect the mood? Do you notice any new details in the darker version that you didn’t notice in the standard exposure? How do you feel about the details or elements that may now be cloaked in shadow? How does it change the visual balance or business of the scene?

deliberate underexposure tutorial


deliberate underexposure tutorial


A few tips:

1. Distinguish between deliberate underexposure and low light shooting.

Creative underexposures may indeed be very dark, but they aren’t necessarily effective only in low light scenarios. Indeed, some of the most compelling creative underexposure is accomplished in extremely bright scenes; after all, transforming a scene that is very bright to the naked eye with a very deep exposure can be a fantastic way to present the world in a way that people uncommonly perceive it. It can also bring forth details and textures that would appear unremarkably sunwashed in a standard exposure. Chimp as you shoot to begin to appreciate the deep richness of these darker captures.

deliberate underexposure tutorial


deliberate underexposure tutorial


2. Seek Out High Dynamic Range.

Think of scenes in which you’d normally have to blow out some aspect of the subject or scene in order to properly expose your primary subject, and consider whether you can instead construct your composition in a way that draws details out of these very bright areas. For example – bright skies at noon, a window in a fully illuminated setting, or an extraordinarily bright spot in the yard where the sun is beating down. How can you incorporate your subject differently while rendering a darker version of these scenes? Will some elements in the frame now be rendered in silhouette or just have slivers of form highlighted now?

deliberate underexposure tutorial


deliberate underexposure tutorial


3. Build your composition around a particular mood or story.

Visualize a darker-than-normal version of your scene and the way it affects the possible stories you might tell or atmosphere you might convey. Does a darker scene suggest drama? Sadness? Serenity? Mystery? Fear? How can you adjust your inclusion of the subject or the way you approach the scene with those feelings in mind?

deliberate underexposure tutorial


deliberate underexposure tutorial


4. Deepen after the fact.

As long as you have not blown any of your RGB channels, you can deepen your exposure during post processing with absolutely no loss in quality. This is a good way to begin getting comfortable with these exposures. How does the atmosphere or story change when you view the various exposures? Play around with some of the images already in your portfolio, dragging your exposure down to -1, -2, or even -3 in Lightroom or ACR. Working in Photoshop? Add a curves adjustment layer and simply change the blend mode to Multiply (repeat with several more such layers to go even darker, if you wish! I much prefer this effect to simply pulling down on the curve itself when deepening tonality).

deliberate underexposure tutorial


deliberate underexposure tutorial


5. Enhance saturation and contrast.

The drama of creative underexposure frequently works well in monochrome, but one of my favorite aspects of deliberate underexposure is the way it intensifies color hues and brings forth deep, rich jewel tones. Enhance those colors even more with selective saturation to maximize the effect of vibrant hues against the darkness. Dodge and burn to increase contrast, enhance emerging textures, and add additional profundity to your newly atmospheric image.

deliberate underexposure tutorial


deliberate underexposure tutorial


deliberate underexposure tutorial


deliberate underexposure tutorial


deliberate underexposure tutorial


What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!

Clickin Moms editors choice award

And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted “Visual Rhythm.” We’d love to see your work!

Sign up for a risk-free membership!

About the Author:

Sarah Wilkerson is the CEO of Click & Company and also provides mentoring services, teaches advanced Click Photo School courses on composition & creativity, and authors the “Why It Works” series in CLICK magazine. She specializes in low light photography, everyday documentary, and tilt-shift work. A former attorney and Duke graduate, Sarah resides in northern Virginia with her Army JAG husband, four children, and three dogs. Visit Sarah Wilkerson online.


  1. Melina Nov 21 2013 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    Beautiful ladies!!! Gorgeous images!! <3

  2. Tara Nov 21 2013 at 5:34 pm - Reply

    I love lighting like this and seeing what I can do with it! This was taken last week of my new kitten who found a sunny spot on the floor to lay in. I secretly thought “this would look stunning in bw with all her contrast”.

  3. Jessica Nov 21 2013 at 6:09 pm - Reply

    Gorgeous images! Thanks for including mine with them 😀

  4. Kristin Dokoza Nov 21 2013 at 6:26 pm - Reply

    Oh the drama! LOVE them all – beautiful work. I’m honored to have my image included as well.

  5. Laurie Nov 22 2013 at 9:18 am - Reply

    Yay! Thanks for including me with all of those gorgeous images 🙂 I’m honored 🙂

  6. Melissa Nov 22 2013 at 3:31 pm - Reply

    Wow!!! So inspiring!!

  7. Liz Nov 22 2013 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    Fabulous tutorial! Honored to be featured with these other awesome shots!

  8. Jodi Nov 25 2013 at 8:28 am - Reply

    these are so creative… i keep scrolling up to take in all the beautiful work!

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