easy fix for dark or underexposed photos | simple photo edit

how to fix dark or underexposed photos - easy!

It’s such a disappointment to upload photos to your computer and realize they’re dark and underexposed. This happens often when you shoot on AUTO – today’s cameras do a pretty good job with exposure, but even the smartest camera can get confused. It doesn’t know whether the person you’re photographing is supposed to have a light or dark skin tone, so photos of lighter skinned people often end up too dark. And when there’s a lot of light behind your subject you’re almost guaranteed a dark, underexposed image. To make matters worse, photos look even darker when printed than they do on our bright computer screens (turn down your monitor’s brightness to help fix this discrepancy).

Luckily, it’s pretty simple to fix dark or underexposed photos in just a few steps. Once you’re used to the process you can complete the entire thing in less than a minute, which is worth it to make a dramatic improvement like this one:

how to fix dark or underexposed photos - easy!

The boys’ eyes are still a little dark in the final photo (the day was very overcast), but the improvement is still pretty huge. Here’s another example of a dark photo that was saved with a little brightening:

how to fix dark or underexposed photos - easy!

You’ll notice the photos I’m showing are labeled SOOC (straight out of camera), brightened, and vivid. I’m going to show you how to easily brighten your photos (using a method that will work in a variety of photo editing applications), and then point you to my favorite Photoshop action for making them even more vivid. The Photoshop action is very helpful for saving photos that are super dark, but if you don’t have Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, just brightening your photos will still make a huge difference.

how to fix dark or underexposed photos - easy!

Even photos that aren’t obviously dark can often benefit from some brightening. I think that almost all photos taken on AUTO end up a little bit dark, even though you might not notice it until you see how much better it looks a little brighter. This next one’s a great example of that. (NOTE: if the after photos in this post look too bright to you, there’s a good chance your monitor’s brightness is up all the way – turn it down for a better representation of what they’ll look like when printed.)

how to fix dark or underexposed photos - easy!

Ok, so now that you can see what a difference a little brightening can make, I’ll show you how to do it!

Some photo editing applications (like PicMonkey) just let you move a slider to lighten a photo, but I think the best way to fix a dark or underexposed photo is through the photo’s histogram. You can get to it in Photoshop Elements by hitting ctrl-L. You can access it in iPhoto under edit-adjust.


The histogram looks a bit like a mountain range. The left side of the mountains represents the dark in your photo (shadows) and the right side represents the light (highlights). A picture that’s well exposed that has a good variety of light it in will have a histogram that shows the “mountains” extending all the way from the left to the right, like the example up above. However, often your histogram may show the “mountains” all bunched up in the middle, or bunched up near the left side, like this:


I needed a new headshot, and I liked how this one turned out, except it’s super dark, so there are no mountains on the right side of the histogram. Just beneath the histogram you’ll see three triangular sliders – these are what we’ll use to add brightness to the photo.

Start by grabbing the rightmost slider, which is for highlights, and pull it toward the left, until it hits the slope of the mountain (yellow arrow in the example photo below). This will brighten your highlights. Grab the middle slider (for midtones) and pull it to the left as well, until skin tones look bright (green arrow). Dont’ worry if the dark portions of your photo start to look washed out at this point – simply grab the leftmost slider and pull it back to the right until it hits the mountain on this side (magenta arrow). This will darken the shadows and add contrast back into the photo.


Hey look – you can see my eyes now! My skin doesn’t look so dark and dull, either. Big improvement!

Now, if you want to take things a step further, you can use a color boost action in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. I love the free Vivid 2 Action from The Coffeeshop Blog. It’s easy to use and very customizable. I generally stick with the “soft” option at a low opacity, which just adds a bit of a glow without making the photo look “photoshopped”. Find installation and use instructions (as well as tons of other free actions) at The Coffeshop Blog.

Here’s the side-by-side:


Worth a few minutes of work, right? Once you practice a few times it will go super quickly.

One caution as you start playing with this: when you’re pulling the highlights slider (the one on the right) in toward your mountains, be careful about bringing it past where the mountains start – if you do you’ll be overexposing the brightest parts of your photo which might look even worse. Just pay attention to that as you play around.

For more example photos check out how I brightened black and white photos in this post. Good luck!

how to fix dark or underexposed photos with brightening


  1. 10


    Thank you so much! This is very helpful. I’ve mainly been using my iphone because It feels like too much work to download pictures from the camera. I really should start using my DSLR, but I hadn’t because I wasn’t sure how to edit them to fix the darkness. This, of course gives me an idea on how to fix my iphone pics too. I have already been brightening, but I love the tip on adding the vivid glow. Visiting from Ahalogy 😉

  2. 11


    WOW! Found this on Pinterest and have used it for a bunch of photos that I thought were useless – now I love them! Thanks so much for the easy tutorial. :]

  3. 12


    You have no idea how much helpful it is! I actually forgot about doing this, all those disappointment hahaha.
    Thank you!

  4. 13


    Perfect timing! I really needed this for some pics that I just took recently. I have Photoshop and never tried “actions” before. Thank you for the introduction.

  5. 14

    Mark says

    I found a really quick way in Photoshop is to duplicate layer, then set that layer to “screen”.

  6. 15

    Julie R. says

    Thank you so much for these wonderful photography posts! I don’t have a DSLR, just a point and shoot, and so I never tried to take portraits of my children, thinking that I couldn’t get them to look nice enough. But now I feel that I have the knowledge necessary to start trying. Thanks so much for your help!

  7. 16


    Thank you so much, I had no idea you could add actions! I really appreciate you helping me! I hate when pictures are dark, I normally junk them, now I know I can revive them!

  8. 17


    THANK YOU SO MUCh for this tutorial. I just recently bought a new camera and have been struggling with this issue. I also just got PSE12 and I’ve been using the “auto smart tone” to help remedy this problem, but I love that this is more controllable. I will never be a fabulous photographer or PSE user, but this helps so much! Thank you again!

    • 19

      autumn says

      Hey, Courtney, sorry to be slow in getting back to you on this. Overexposed photos are a lot harder to fix because the camera didn’t capture any info in the blown out (super white) areas (unless you shot in RAW). You can try pulling the middle slider toward the right to made the mid tones darker, but you’re not going to get back much detail in the very bright areas.

  9. 20

    Deanna Bushman says

    Idk if it’s been mentioned yet, but to help avoid under exposure in the first place, you can use your flash, esp. for pictures like the one with the little girl in front of the sun. It’ll brighten her face without letting that beautiful halo effect on her hair become washed out.

    It seems silly to say, but I think there are more than a few photographers who forget they have a flash. Imo it’s not desirable to use in the controlled conditions you have when shooting food or stuff like that, but when you’re taking pictures of your kids outside, it can be a huge boon.

    • 21

      autumn says

      Thanks, Deanna – great tip! I get so used to never using my flash indoors that I sometimes forget to pop it up outside in backlit situations.

    • 24

      autumn says

      the levels adjustment doesn’t work in PSE13? That seems really strange – it’s a feature that hasn’t changed in any of the previous versions. I don’t have 13 yet so I can’t try it out – I wonder if anyone else has tried it in 13? Anyway, sorry I’m no help there!

  10. 27

    Jessica says

    Thank you so much for all your tutorials and the link to the photoshop action. I’ve been on photoshop for hours and getting nowhere. I finally have a good looking edit!

  11. 29

    Linda Shea says

    Does anybody know if there’s a way to take away the sunburned face look in portraits. I have photoshop Elements.

  12. 32

    Rara says

    Love your tutorial but I although I’ve downloaded “vivid 2” Idon’t know how to use it!
    Could you add instructions on your tutorial ?
    Because I’m new and I don’t understand coffee shop’s instructions.

  13. 35

    Renee Janssen says

    Thank you so much for this! I have been so terrified to try anything in Photoshop Elements – I’ve just followed these instructions and it worked really well! I’m printing photos of my granddaughters to post overseas to their great grandparents! Great tutorial!

  14. 36

    manda says

    Thanks so much for this was having difficulty with a pic and managed to adjust it in paint.net (free) as I dont have photoshop.

  15. 37

    Jessica says

    This post was so helpful. I had a crappy phone camera and all of the Halloween photos from last year turned out like dark blurs. By using this I was at least able to salvage them (they still aren’t great, but the phone had no flash). Thank you!


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