What Is the Difference Between Overexposure and Underexposure in Photography?

By Ashley Black
Playing around with exposure levels can produce some very cool photos.

Anyone can take photographs, but it takes some level of skill and talent to be a good photographer. One aspect of being a good photographer involves knowing how to manipulate your photos to get different effects. You can toy with the exposure in your pictures to get varied effects. Most cameras contain a control system that automatically corrects for exposure, but can be changed manually to produce underexposed or overexposed photographs. (See Ref 1, 2, 3, 4)

Exposure Levels

Exposure refers to the amount of light allowed to act on a photograph. This depends on multiple factors, including shutter speed, aperture and the time of day during which photographs are being taken. Most cameras correct for exposure automatically based on these cues. However, you can alter the amount of exposure manually to get an underexposed or overexposed look for your photos. (See Ref 1, 2)


Overexposed photos are those with too much light. Through camera error or human manipulation, not enough light is filtered through the lens. The resulting photo appears washed out and bright. Colors in overexposed photos tend to look faded and sources of light included in the photo, like the sun or a lamp, appear completely white. (See Ref 1, 2)


Underexposure is the opposite of overexposure. In this case, the camera lets in too little light. An underexposed photo appears dark even when it was taken in broad daylight. Features that would appear detailed and clear in a photo with regular exposure are often black and lacking in detail. Sources of light included in underexposed photos also look dimmer than they would in regular photos. (See Ref 1, 2)

Uses of Different Exposures

Changing the exposure when taking photos can help you capture images and emotions that would not be present with regular exposure. For example, overexposing a photograph of the sunset or sunrise helps bring out the array of colors, which would usually be cast into darkness due to the sun’s brightness. Underexposing a photo of buildings or a human model brings out shadows and darkness that wouldn’t regularly be there, which can suggest depression or negativity. (See Ref 1, 2)