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Home / Tips and Tricks / Are your smartphone photos too dark or too bright? Here’s why

Are your smartphone photos too dark or too bright? Here’s why



A dark photo of a lamp and a bright photo of a case sitting on a windowsill.
Harry Guinness

Have you ever taken a photo of something with your smartphone that gets too dark or light? Or, maybe some parts of the image look good, but others have no details. Here̵

7;s what’s going on and how to fix it.

How exposure works in photography

In photography, the exposure is how dark or light a photo is. A natural photograph – or at least one that looks like the photographer intended – is said to be correctly exposed. But one that is too dark is underexposed and one that is too light is overexposed.

Exposure is controlled by shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings on a camera. You do not have to stress about these (if you do not want to) because your smartphone takes care of everything.

Within a single photo, there is a limit to the exposure value (so-called stops) that can be taken. The width of the dynamic range depends on the camera you are using. DSLR and professional cameras can capture more than smartphone cameras. There is also a limit to the value range that can be displayed on a screen or recorded in a single image file.

Silhouettes of people walking on the beach at sunset.
Harry Guinness

What is important (for our purposes, however) is that the range between the darkest and brightest colors that your smartphone can capture or display is narrower than the eye can see. This is why you can see people clearly at sunset, but your iPhone records them as silhouettes to properly expose the sunset, as shown in the image above.

Because your smartphone cannot capture everything in one photo, it must decide what to prioritize each time you press the shutter button. For the most part, it works really well, but some things can throw it away.

Before you take a photo, your smartphone measures how light or dark the scene is and then guesses which exposure settings to use. However, this always presupposes that everything is medium gray.

This is actually a pretty good assumption – especially when backed up by machine learning algorithms that recognize a wider range of situations, but which can still get confusing.

This may seem a little too technical, but it will troubleshoot why your photos will not be as you want much easier.

RELATED: What is exposure compensation in photography?

You’re shooting something really dark

An overexposed image of a Beats case.
Harry Guinness

If you take a photo of something dark – especially if it is prominent in the frame – your smartphone is likely to overcompensate. In other words, it will shine too much and overexpose the photo.

In the physical world, Powerbeat’s headphone case in the picture above is black. But in the picture it looks like it is a muted gray tone. The iPhone overexposed the image because it did not think it was photographing something so dark.

You shoot something really bright

An underexposed image of a lamp.
Harry Guinness

If you try to take a photo of something that is really bright, you get the opposite of the above result, which is an underexposed photo.

In the picture above, the iPhone assumed that the light bulb was not as bright as it really is and darkened the rest of the photo afterwards. It did not turn out so bad in this case, but it can be a problem when you shoot things against a light background.

Your smartphone measures from that error

A group of deer under a tree in a missed exposure.
Harry Guinness

Your smartphone’s camera uses a light meter that tries to define the correct exposure settings, but it does not always measure from the entire image. In fact, it has different measurement modes that prioritize things in the center of the image or objects that seem important.

Sometimes it has to be measured from the wrong thing. For example, if the subject of your photo is close to the edge of the image, your smartphone can be measured from the brighter center. The result is an underexposed image.

On most smartphones, you can tap the screen to focus and tell the camera from where to measure it. Accidentally tapping a light or dark area on the frame can ruin your pictures.

RELATED: What are the different measurement modes on my camera and when should I use them?

There is not much light

A completely dark photo.
Harry Guinness

Smartphone cameras have very small image sensors, which makes them so compact. But it also means that they struggle to gather enough light at the best of times.

Your eyes work much better in low light. So even if you can see clearly, there may not be enough light for your smartphone’s camera. If you take pictures in low light, there is a good chance that they will come out too dark.

It’s too dark when you print it

Sometimes you can have what looks like a good photo on your smartphone, but when you print, the same image looks faint and dull. There are a few things that can happen here, but a big part of it is that your smartphone’s screen is backlit, but not paper. This means that each photo will look brighter on your phone than when it is printed.

For some tips on how to solve the problem, check out our guide on the subject.

RELATED: Why do photos look different when I print them?

How to nail the exposure every time

bing the dog on a rock
Harry Guinness

No matter why your photos are exposed incorrectly, there are some things you can do to prevent that from happening. Understanding why this happens will help you figure out the best solution.

Here are some things to consider or try:

  • Think about the photo you are trying to take: Smartphone cameras are better than ever, but they are not perfect. They can still destroy when left entirely to their own devices. If you are trying to capture a shot that is particularly dark or light, just pay a little more attention.
  • Touch the object you want the camera to measure: On almost all smartphones, you can tap the screen to focus on your topic. It also adjusts the exposure accordingly. If you want to make sure something is properly exposed, tap it!
  • Use the exposure controls: Each smartphone camera also has some built-in basic exposure controls. Some even have more advanced options. Normally you just press what you want to focus on and then drag your thumb up to increase the exposure or down to decrease it. Do this to get the best possible exposure before taking your photo.
  • Use HDR (High Dynamic Range): This merges different exposures into one image. iPhones now take HDR photos by default when shooting in high contrast lighting. On most other phones, there should be an HDR setting that you can enable in the Camera app. It may not always look good, but in some cases you get the best possible shots.
  • Take more pictures: Give your smartphone more than one opportunity to get it right. If you miss your first try, re-measure and go again.
  • Fix things in the post: Most digital photos benefit from a little editing. If your photo is just a little under- or overexposed, fix it in your favorite editing app – Instagram will do it too!




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