Wish you knew how to fix underexposed photos?
It happens to everyone at some point.
You take that perfect photo, then move on to the next thing without checking to see how it came out.
When you open it later, you realize it’s way too dark or underexposed.
This might seem like the end of the story, but it doesn’t have to be. Because there are ways to fix underexposed photos!
Read on to learn pro fixes with Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, and super easy fixes with free tools you may already have on your computer or phone!
Disclosure: Some links below may be affiliate links, which means I may earn a commission if you choose to purchase.
Why are my pictures dark?
Before we talk about how to fix underexposed photos, let’s take a moment to think about why it happened in the first place.
Here are some of the most common reasons.
For casual snapshots, you often run into a situation where the subject of your photo has their back to the strongest light source.
But it’s a great shot! Or a memory you need to save. So you snap it anyway.
When you check later, your friend is almost a black silhouette, and no one but you even knows who it is.
No worries. Easy fix!
I corrected the one below right in the Instagram app. Easy peasy!
The tutorial for this fix is towards the end of this article.
It’s best to avoid taking photos in strong sunlight, as you’ll get parts of the image that are too bright, and others in heavy shadow.
Incorrect camera settings
Perhaps you’re in a bit of a hurry and forgot to change the exposure, or picked the wrong one.
If you used the flash, it might not have fired at the right moment, or it was on the wrong setting.
And then there’s metering mode. In this situation, if the image has very dark darks or very light bright areas, the camera’s sensors can give an incorrect reading.
That’s why learning how to fix underexposed photos is so important!
How do you fix a picture that’s too dark?
There are a few ways to fix a picture that’s too dark and underexposed. The exact route you take depends on the software you’re using, and how bad the problem is.
Let’s look at how to fix the issue on the top photo editors to give you some examples.
There are also three questions to ask before you start editing dark photos:
- Is the entire image dark?
- Is it just that certain parts of the photo are too dark?
- Or it is a combination of both?
These will help you pick which route you need to take when editing the photo.
Our tutorial starts with the pro tool Adobe Lightroom directly below.
Prefer Photoshop? Jump to learn how to fix underexposed photos in Photoshop.
PicMonkey users can learn how to fix photos with PicMonkey.
If these tools are above your head (or budget!) you can skip right to the quick and easy photo fixes.
How to fix an underexposed photo in Adobe Lightroom
To start with, if you want to brighten a dark photo in Adobe Lightroom, you can use the exposure slider.
Move it to the right to lighten the whole photo.
If you just want to lighten parts of the photo, then there are a few options to play with to achieve this.
Basic pane sliders: shadows and blacks
The shadows and blacks sliders are the most effective for brightening parts of an underexposed image.
By moving either to the right, the light and highlight areas aren’t affected.
The tone curve is great if you have an idea about what range of tones you need to adjust.
Say the brightness is needed in the mid tones, then simply click the middle, and drag up so the curve bows slightly.
This is a little more complex than the first option but is worth trying. You can always undo the action if it doesn’t seem right!
Luminance slider (in the Lightroom HSL panel)
The luminance settings help to brighten particular colours in a photo.
Again, you need to have an idea about what colour you want to adjust. But you can always test different ones to see what works.
Just watch the bright areas as this impacts them too, and can make them look a little odd.
Tools that adjust a selected local area
There are a couple of tools that can allow you to select and adjust a local area. Examples include:
- Graduated filter: brighten a section from one of the sides.
- Radial filter: ideal to brighten faces.
- Adjustment brush: great for lightening (dodging) specific parts with a ‘brush’ on the screen.
Try these out when you want a more specific area lightened.
Learn more in our free Adobe Lightroom for beginners tutorials.
How to fix an underexposed photo in Adobe Photoshop
As with Lightroom, there are several ways to fix underexposed photos in Photoshop.
You’ll find these under the Image > Adjustment menu as shown below, or by using an Adjustment Layer.
The first option is to go to Image > Adjustment > Brightness/Contrast or use an Adjustment Layer.
This is a good simple way to handle an image that is too dark overall.
Brightness adjusts the midtones while leaving the darkest and lightest areas alone.
You might need to adjust the contrast a little to compensate after using it.
Next is the Exposure setting – which might seem like it is just for exposure. but isn’t.
You can use it to increase or decrease the tonal values in an image.
This means light areas will get lighter and dark areas will also get lighter. Or darker if you use it that way.
It works best for RAW files and to correct camera errors. Or just to make very minor adjustments.
In Photoshop, go to Image > Adjustments > Shadow/Highlights or make an Adjustment Layer.
Now you can use the Shadows slider to brighten the darkest parts of the image.
The Highlights slider will darken the lightest parts of the image. Try both to see if they help fix the photo.
While the first three settings let you change a photo based on what you see, the next ones use the Histogram.
With Levels, you can control the tonal range and colors in the image.
It opens with CTRL+L (Cmd + L on Mac) or as an Adjustment Layer.
There’s the histogram with three sliders under it.
For brightening dark photos, the middle slider is best as this adjusts the midtones.
You can also use the right-hand slider to adjust the brighter parts of the image if they are showing as underexposed.
Finally, there’s Curves, which works in a similar way to Levels but has more precise control.
This is something most often used by professional photographers who need to make minute adjustments to their photos.
It opens with CTRL+M (Cmd+M) or an Adjustment Layer.
Again, it uses the histogram and there’s a diagonal line to manipulate to change the photo.
Not sure if you want to use Photoshop or Lightroom to edit your photos? Adobe offers them both for one low price.
How to fix an underexposed photo in PicMonkey
PicMonkey is a great tool for graphic design, and also includes some top-notch photo editing options. This includes settings that work to adjust an underexposed photo.
First, you can deal with underexposed images with the Auto Adjust Exposure setting.
Go to the Edits tab on the left toolbar and select Exposure.
Click the Auto Adjust Exposure to lighten the photo.
You can then use settings such as Brightness, Highlights, Shadows and Contrast to tweak the photo further.
In the video below, Beryl Ann Young shows you how to rescue an underexposed photo from the throwaway pile, by making exposure adjustments in PicMonkey.
Presto! Another photo saved – in under a minute.
Quick fixes for underexposed photos
While the 3 above are the pro-level options when it comes to photo editing software, there are a few options for quick and easy fixes, too.
Mac Photos app
If you have an iPhone or a Mac computer, you can use the Photos app to make some basic adjustments. Quite honestly, I use this a lot since I’m already in the app perusing my photos!
There are options to adjust the light, color, or black and white points within the app.
There’s also an easy one-click auto correct button! Test it and see how your photo comes out. Sometimes that’s all you need.
You can also adjust the white balance, curves, or levels in similar ways to Photoshop for more advanced fixes.
Microsoft Picture Manager
Windows users have Picture Manager on their device. This lets you adjust the brightness and contrast of a photo.
It isn’t always available on newer devices, so you may need one of the other options here.
Canva is great for almost any graphic design task, but photo editing isn’t its strong suit.
However, if you’re already a Canva user, you can enhance images with a couple of settings inside the app.
You can lighten images with the brightness slider.
Simply click the ‘edit image’ option above a photo within a design, and the edit settings will appear.
You can also adjust the contrast and saturation if they look like they need it.
Plus, there are filters to try if you just can’t get the image to look as you want it.
Can you fix underexposed photos inside Instagram?
If you start to add your photo to Instagram and find that it’s underexposed, you can use the editing features built into the app. They really help!
Once you’ve uploaded a photo, you can tap Next, then Edit, at the bottom of the screen.
There are features such as Adjust, Brightness, and Contrast that can help lighten a dark photo.
You can also adjust the warmth of a photo to change the tone of the color.
Highlights and Shadows work on the bright and dark areas.
Finally, you can Sharpen photos to make them clearer.
Here’s a walk-through of how I made the dramatic change in that underexposed photo of my daughter. Follow along with the images. You may vary the settings you use on some of the steps – but this gives you a good starting point.
You can always go back and undo or adjust anything, up until you post (or save) the image.
If you wish to save your image at a higher resolution than the Instagram image size of 1080 pixels wide, be sure you have Save Original Photos turned ON in your settings.
1 | Open photo in Instagram. Below, you’ll see the original shot.
2 | Adjust cropping: A great spot for your subject is at one of the grid cross points, taking advantage of the rule of thirds.
Just touch and slide your photo into the position you like.
3 | Add Rise filter: I’ve found this to be the ultimate for raising your exposure.
4 | Add Lux: For MOST photos, it adds detail in both shadows and highlights. If you think it makes your photo look worse, skip it!
5 | Add Warmth: Shadows are usually very “cool.” Try adding Warmth +50.
6 | Open Shadows: How much depends on how heavily shadowed your photo is. I cranked it!
7 | Add Saturation: Your colors are now faded, so add some pop with Saturation. Even +10 will help!
8 | Sharpen: I always Sharpen my photos, unless it’s a facial portrait, where sharpening may emphasize unwanted lines and blemishes.
Here I used 100%! See what looks best to you.
You can also check out how to use Instagram’s structure tool to add detail.
You can pin the infographic at the end of this article to Pinterest as a reminder of these steps.
Don’t ditch those dark photos
As you can see, there are a lot of ways to edit your photos, even when they come out underexposed.
So don’t give up on those too-dark pictures. Instead, spend a little time fixing them.
But watch your camera and settings too. Avoid those common errors so you don’t need to edit as much.
For the moments that you can’t, now you know how to fix underexposed photos!