Better fishing pictures: Underexpose

Published Oct 16th 2006

Underexposure is a way of getting better colors and avoiding burnt out areas


Shiny - Shiny fish are a potential overexposure risk
Too much of a good thing - Bright, sunny days will cost you some sky and some silvery fish bellies
Too much of a good thing
This might sound like a strange piece of advice, but trust me: you generally want to underexpose your digital images. Almost every single one of them.
You want to do this because you want to avoid blown or burnt-out areas in your pictures. Blown out means no details, and is a point-of-no-return for any image. Very few images with large burnt-out areas will be really useful - unless the overexposure is a goal or a style in itself like in high key pictures.

The danger of blowing is usually worst in the light areas of an image: sky, water, sun streaks, clouds - anything light or white actually. Once these have been overexposed, there is nothing but white in these areas. But you can also blow dark areas. Pitch black and totally devoid of detail isn't particularly interesting if there was detail in there that you wanted to show.

As anglers we have to be particularly careful not to overexpose. Much of the scenery we shoot has glare, either from water, from wet surfaces or from fish. Bright fish are of course the biggest problem, but even fish with dull colors can reflect quite a bit of light from their wet skin.

Because of this I have both my digital SLR and my compact camera permanently set to underexpose all pictures 0.75 EV or three quarters of an aperture stop. This can be done with a menu setting or dial on most cameras. At the same time I have set the color saturation of the images on my compact camera to just a bit above average. This is also typically done in the camera's menu.

What I want to obtain with this is pictures, which are deeply saturated with color and have absolutely no light and featureless patches and are as close to guaranteed free of blown out spots as I can get. I prefer loss in the dark areas over loss in the light ones, but certainly try to avoid both.

Automatic - This picture was taken on an automatic program, but even though the overall impression is good, the fish and the sky to the right are washed out due to overexposure
Contrast - Even though this image is generally exposed under the norm, the contrast between the dark sea weed and the bright fish cheats the camera into overexposing the fish. It is a difficult scene to get properly exposed.
Sacrifice - Sometimes you must sacrifice something to get what you want. A nicely exposed angler and fish cost a blown out sky and water in the background
Sensitive fish - Silvery fish, like this baltic sea trout, are very sensitive to overexposure.There are no details left in the bright belly of this fish in spite of the rest of the picture being perfectly exposed
Sensitive fish

If you have a histogram function on your camera, learn to use it, and if there's a highlight and dark areas warning, turn it on. This function will make all featureless areas blink on the back of the display, and you can quickly assess a newly shot image and make necessary adjustments before shooting the next shot. Learn to master the over- and underexposure controls that are found on almost any camera, and learn how to quickly turn exposure down or up according to what you see on the display.

Difficult light - Shooting against the sun and with lots of water in the picture will always pose a problem. Underesposure may mean lost dark areas, but saves the picture anyway. Had the forest and the angler been well lit, the water and sky would have been ruined.
Difficult light
Into the sun - When you shoot into the sun like this, most cameras will get fooled into dramatic underexposure - mostly with great results. This scene was much brighter in reality, but the underexposure produced a black sihuette on a saturated background.
Into the sun
Evening - A picture such as has become much more intense by a slight underexposure. The camera would want to expose it as a daylight scene, rendering it too light.

With hightlights - The area to the right is blown out
With hightlights
Without highlight - By turning the camera to a vertical position, the highlight has simply been omitted from the picture
Without highlight

Before - The image is slightly underexposed, but the fish is perfectly lit with a fill flash
After - After a trip through a photo-editing program the dark areas have been lightned and enhanced a bit, while the sky and the fish are untouched.
The general result of underexposing is of course pictures that seem too dark when first opened in an editing program, but that can be dealt with. All programs have functions, which can lighten an image, and you can use such a function to bring the image back to a normal level.

You will be surprised how many pictures come out really good even though they are nominally underexposed. The underexposure will give denser and more colorful pictures, but should a picture come out too dark, you will usually be able to lift the levels in a photo-editing program and regain a normal light in the picture. Use functions such as "Levels", which can expand the tonal range of a picture, and "Curves", which can lift certain tones or color ranges. Using these tools, you will be able to bring out the light and colors, but not sacrifice the highlights.

Ruined - This slide is a lost case. The angler, the grass and even the mountains in the background may be well exposed, but the sky is totally ruined due to too much light
Perfect sky - This is the same scene as the picture with the very bright sky. Here the angler may just be a silhuette, but the sky and the clouds - and their reflections - makes the image fine anyway. All obtained through underexposure.
Perfect sky

When using flash you may be even more prone to blowing light areas, and if it's possible, experiment with underexposing your flash, especially when using it in darkness.

Too much flash - Filling with flash can give a good effect, but must be well controlled when the main subject is close
Too much flash
Controlled flash - In this image the flash was better controlled and the balance between ambient light and flash was close to perfect
Controlled flash

Many modern digital cameras control the exposure very well, and are able to cope with even quite difficult lighting situations. They offer you a chance to see the picture after exposure, and many even have a histogram function, that gives very detailed information about the exposure. In many cases you can turn on a function, which will blink over- and under-exposed areas of the image, and by quickly checking the image, you can make sure that your picture is not ruined by the predominance of such areas. Once these areas blink, the camera tells you that they lack detail, and are a clean white, which will come out as very brightly lit areas on print or on the screen.

If you want more details about using a historgram, your can check this histogram article on

On the image to the right you can see an example of a histogram and the blinking function offered by many digital cameras. The more the histogram shifts to the right, the more danger of an overexposed picture. And the blinking areas indicate the parts of the picture, which have no details and are pure white.

Strike of light, strike of luck - Thanks to the variation in the light in this scene, the camera decided to expose to an average, which was perfect for the difficult subject
Strike of light, strike of luck

A series
These are all the articles in our series about better fly fishing photography. Read this series and you will learn a lot ebout getting better pictures while fishing. General outdoors pohotographers may also pick up a thing or two...
Better fly-fishing pictures

User comments
From: Nancy · prod3odc·at·  Link
Submitted December 7th 2006

Amazing pictures! Thank you for sharing them!
I found this online video tutorial @ colorbalancecoach.blogspot dot com on how to read the photographic histogram, I hope that it can add to this article, and can help you as much as it did for me!

From: Limpe · w.iven·at·  Link
Submitted October 19th 2006

Once again, a great article on photography !
I think that with a little experimenting on where to point a camera to determine the exposure a better picture can be made in certain situations.
As we know most digital slr's have the choice on how the exposure is measured, spot, partial or matrix, most compacts do not have this choice, although the average fisherman will carry a compact..
When taking landscape or even portrait pictures under difficult light situations it might be helpfull to point the camera on the darker or lighter area, keeping the shutter lightly depressed and then compose the picture, you will get a sharp image and can play some with the exposure. Of course, it all depends on the conditions, but with a little practice the photographing-fisherman will get better results.

Really like the way you explain stuff !
Greetings, Limpe

From: hookeye · jakub·at·  Link
Submitted October 18th 2006

Excelent article and fantastic pictures.
The best advice is to use the histogram function. In general you want to shoot in such a way that the histogram is as far to the right as possible without blowing the highlights. This will preserve most of the dynamic range.
Also whenever possible shoot raw which records the information directly as recorder by the sensor in the camera. This is equivalent to undeveloped film and allows for the adjustment of up to 2 fstops in post processing. Unfortunately most compacts only support jpeg (for marketing reasons).

From: Dave Cook · djcook·at·  Link
Submitted October 18th 2006

Excellent advice Martin. The handbook you get with your camera can seem a bit daunting at first but the info is there for a good reason. Must try it soon.

Comment to an image
From: tobsucht · tobsucht·at·  Link
Submitted October 19th 2007

nice svelet torpedo. great!

Comment to an image
Submitted January 12th 2007


Want to comment this page? Fill out the form below.
Only comments
in English
are accepted!

Comentarios en Ingles
solamente, por favor!

Your name Your email
Anonymize my information. Name and email will not be shown with comment.
Notify me on new comments to this article on the above email-address.
You don't have to comment to start or stop notifications.

All comments will be screened by the GFF staff before publication.
No HTML, images, ads or links, please - we do not publish such comments...
And only English language comments will be published.
Name and email is optional but recommended.
The email will be shown in a disguised form in the final comment to protect you against spam
You can see other public comments on this page