A perfectly exposed photo is the goal of many photographers, but it can be tricky to achieve with an iPhone. Because it is difficult to capture the lightest and darkest areas of a scene with the iPhone’s small sensor, you often get photos that are either underexposed or overexposed. We’ve got a few tips for creating perfectly exposed photos with your iPhone. Plus, we’ll share some tips for fixing underexposure or overexposure with your favorite editing app.
Understanding overexposure and underexposure
Usually, when you take a photo, you are trying to capture the scene the way your eyes see it. But your iPhone camera isn’t quite a sophisticated as the human eye. Often, you end up with photos that have washed-out highlights or shadows that look like dark blobs. It’s not always possible to create a perfectly exposed photo with a tap of the shutter, but by following a few tips and editing creatively, you can get close.
It’s also worth noting that some photographers choose to intentionally overexpose or underexpose an image to portray their own vision of the scene. Dark and moody photos are meant to be underexposed, and bright and airy photos are overexposed to tell a different story.
What is overexposure in photography?
An overexposed photo is one that doesn’t retain details in the lightest part of your image. When you are trying to capture an image with dark shadows and bright highlights, you often have to choose which details are more important. In the photo below, the sky was very bright and the shadows very dark, so the photographer chose to overexposure the image.
What is underexposure?
An underexposed image is one where the details in the darkest part of the image aren’t as easy to see. Below, you will see the same image, but now it is underexposed. The details within the bright sky have been retained, but the foreground is in shadow. Which do you prefer?
Why do you get an overexposed or underexposed photo?
Your iPhone camera is equipped with a sensor. And when the light from the scene you’re trying to capture hits the sensor, your iPhone captures the image. With every new model of iPhone, this sensor gets better and able to capture images more accurately. The biggest challenge for the sensor, however, is the ability to capture both the very light and very dark parts of a scene, also known as the dynamic range.
If you are trying to capture a scene with very dark and very light areas, you will often have to choose which area is more important because your camera won’t capture the details in all areas.
Is it better to overexpose or underexpose?
There isn’t a right or wrong answer here, and the way you choose to expose a photo will depend on the scene you’re trying to capture. When faced with a scene that includes bright lights and dark shadows, ask yourself which details are more important to you. If you want to retain your bright highlights, hold your finger down on the brightest part of the image to expose for the bright area before tapping the shutter. And if you want to retain more details in the dark area, hold your finger down on the darker part of the image before tapping the shutter.
If you can’t decide between overexposure or underexposure, it’s better to create a photo that’s slightly underexposed, because underexposure is easier to adjust with photo editing software.
How to nail your exposure when shooting on iPhone
If your goal is to take a perfectly exposed photo with your iPhone, there are a few tips you can try. If you still end up with an underexposed or overexposed photo, skip to the next section to learn how to fix the issue with your favorite photo editing app.
Tip 1. Learn how to use the autoexposure feature on iPhone
We mentioned above that you can set your autoexposure by holding your finger down on the part of the scene that you want to be properly exposed. Because the screen on your iPhone shows you exactly how your photo will look when you tap the shutter, it’s quite easy to experiment with different exposures to see what works best. When you hold your finger on your screen, you will see a yellow square over the part of the photo that the exposure is set for. There is also a small yellow sun next to the box. Slide this up with your finger to increase the brightness, or slide it down to make the photo darker.
Tip 2. When shooting a portrait, expose the face properly
When shooting a portrait with your iPhone, the most important thing is to make sure you can see the details in your subject’s face. No matter how bright or dark the surrounding scene is, you should always ensure that your subject’s face is exposed properly. Simply hold down your finger on the screen over your subject’s face before tapping the shutter.
Tip 3. When in doubt, expose for the brightest areas of your photo
It’s much easier to make shadows lighter than it is to recover blown-out highlights, so if you can’t decide how to set the exposure on your iPhone, hold your finger on the lightest part of the image. Those highlights will be retained, and the dark shadows will appear very dark. Don’t worry, you can make adjustments to this later. This rule also applies when shooting fireworks photography and other night photos.
Tip 4. Change your shooting angle to avoid overexposure
Finally, if you don’t want to rely on your iPhone’s sensor to ensure that your image is properly exposed, change your camera angle. The biggest culprit of overexposed or underexposed photos is the sun. When shooting in bright or harsh light, your camera will struggle to capture the image accurately. Change your camera angle so that you aren’t shooting directly into the sun. You can point your camera down slightly or hide the sun behind another object. Play around with your composition until the differences between the light and dark areas aren’t so pronounced.
How to fix an overexposed or underexposed photo on iPhone
If you find yourself with an image that is overexposed or underexposed, you’ve got options. Open the photo in your favorite editing app and make some adjustments. Here are a few tips using Photoshop Express, but most photo editing apps will have similar controls.
Tip 1. Use an HDR filter
Photoshop Express has a variety of presets that you can apply overtop of your photos to get the look you’re after. Find it under Looks in the menu at the bottom of the screen. These HDR filters are meant to retain details in the light and dark parts of your image, and you can choose from 20 different filters. The HDR effect in the Snapseed app also does a great job of properly exposing images.
Tip 2. Increase the shadows for an underexposed image
We recommend creating images that are slightly underexposed if you don’t have a choice. To make the details in the dark areas stand out, you can use the Shadow slider in your editing app. In Photoshop Express, you have the option of making adjustments to the whole image, the main subject, or the background. Under Adjustments and Light, tap Shadows and move the slider to the right. This will add some light back to those underexposed areas.
Tip 3. Use the Exposure or Brightness slider for overexposed photos
If you end up with an overexposed photo, the best way to adjust it is with the exposure slider. Keep in mind that in some photo editing apps, this is the brightness slider. In Photoshop Express, tap Adjustments and Light. Now, move the exposure slider to the left. You may also be able to find more detail in the highlights by moving the Highlight slider to the left as well.
How do you fix too much flash in a photo?
Using your iPhone’s flash when taking a photo can have all kinds of weird effects. One of the most common problems is when the area hit by the flash is overexposed while the rest is underexposed. In most circumstances, we don’t recommend using the flash on your iPhone because it’s just too unpredictable.
If you do use the flash and end up with a photo that is underexposed and overexposed, try using both Shadows and Highlights sliders. Increase the shadows by moving the Shadow slider to the right. And decrease the highlights by moving the Highlight slider to the left. Still not satisfied? Use the Exposure/Brightness slider to make further adjustments.
Overexposure and underexposure can be useful tools for expert photographers — or stumbling blocks for novices. But by following the tips above, you can nail the exposure on your iPhone images. Practice and experiment while taking photos and while editing shots for perfectly exposed photos every time.