When You Should Consider Underexposing Portraits

Depending on the capabilities of your camera, where you're shooting, and how you want the final image to look, you sometimes should consider underexposing a portrait slightly. This great video examines the benefits of underexposing a portrait and when you should think about trying it.

Coming to you from Manny Ortiz, this helpful video talks about the benefits of underexposing portraits. The idea is essentially that if you're shooting outside, the sky is often brighter than the subject, and if you expose for the subject, you'll sometimes end up blowing out the sky, and with digital sensors, there tends to be much more recovery latitude in the shadows than in the highlights. Of course, if you're shooting with strobes, you can light your subject and expose for the ambient and strobe in a way that balances the two, but if you're shooting natural light, depending on your camera's shadow recovery abilities and the difference in luminosity between the subject and the sky (if it's too big, you'll have issues boosting the exposure on your subject that much in post), you may want to consider this technique. It's certainly not something you should do all the time, and it really depends on the final look you're going for (for example, if you want that light, airy look, this isn't the way to shoot), but it can be very helpful in specific situations. 

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20 Comments

Rob Davis's picture

TL;DR:

Film: Expose for shadows.
Digital: Expose for highlights.

Rob Davis's picture

For me it always seems like highlights get clipped easier than shadows. Not to say the shadows look great if you're pulling a stop or two out of them, but it's better than getting nothing from blown highlights.

Deleted Account's picture

Doesn't *always* work. you can preserve the highlights and still clip a channel.

Benton Lam's picture

For most natural backgrounds, that's unlikely.
For snow sculptures lit with colour lights, that has happened plenty of times and ruined my shots.

Deleted Account's picture

I was thinking about portraits where the red channel in a "hot" area gets clipped. I've seen something similar to your experience, in shots from an ice sculpture museum in Chena, Alaska. I'm not going back anytime soon to reshoot. ;-)

John MacLean's picture

not for chrome film!

Rob Davis's picture

Ha. Well yeah then you're dealing with about 1/3 of a stop of latitude in either direction right? I was talking about color negative film.

John MacLean's picture

Sorry all I saw was “film”.

Terry Henson's picture

Hasn't Dani Diamond been preaching this for sometime?

Terry Henson's picture

Still a good video however with some great shots!

Kalpesh Modi's picture

You are right Terry. Dani Diamond is preaching this for long time. I really missed Dani's articles. Fstoppers should bring him back. His articles are original and full of information.

Mitch Stroup's picture

God, no they should not. All he wrote was click bait instagram crap

Doug Stringham's picture

I like to ETTR whenever possible. But there are times you underexpose for the reasons illustrated.

Matthias Kirk's picture

Underexposing the subject and ETTR are not mutually exclusive. In ETTR you go to the verge of clipping the highlights to maximize information. That can still leave you with an underexposed subject. Routinely underexposing the subject is a safe approach that leaves some room for error. Getting ETTR right in an outdoor portrait shoot is tough.

Bear in mind that some RAW formats offer lossy compression that will apply some lossy compression to the highlights, but lossless to shadow data (Nikon NEF, for example on lower-end and mid-range bodies). This technique favors those who use this specific setting as well.

Ed Sanford's picture

I would have found it extremely useful if you had shown how you would have retouched the two images with the light background. By my eye, they were well within range to have given the model just a tad more exposure. Just another opinion. Overall, good video.

Rex Larsen's picture

The suggested underexposure may work with Nikon or select camera sensors but I wouldn't recommend it for the Canon bodies I've used. My Canon files benefit from generous exposure in nearly all situations. I've shot in contrasty uneven light and carefully had to thread the needle with a mix of slight underexposure and slight overexposure so I could recover both in Photoshop.

Marcos Assis Santos's picture

tnks for share