Why are my pictures so dark? -Photography Tip

Why are my pictures so dark? Find the answer to good exposure settings for your camera.
This photograph is straight out of camera, taken with the settings that my camera suggested. As you can see, this is far too dark. Because of the white background, the camera’s light meter was fooled, leading the camera to underexpose the photograph.

Taking photographs of your jewelry and beads can be very frustrating. Great small product photography is very important for getting sales on Etsy, Artfire or other online venues. Even if you aren’t selling your work, you likely still want attractive photos to share on your Facebook page. Getting good photography results can be elusive, no matter how much you try. In this and in upcoming posts I’ll try to share some of the most common problems and discuss possible solutions from the perspective of the budget-conscious among us who might not have space for a large setup or funds for equipment. First up, I’ll answer the most common one I see with jewelry sellers. Why are my pictures so dark? I’m using enough light. Help!

Why You Need Good Photographs

If you’re selling your work online, photographs are the only way you can present your artwork to your potential customer. If your photo is dark and unattractive, it won’t stand out from the others on the page and therefore your product, even if it’s a fantastic product, will have a harder time attracting a buyer. In other words, your product is only as good as its picture.

When I’m looking for artwork to feature on my Facebook page or items to include in an Etsy treasury, I will skip over anything with a poor photograph. And sometimes it pains me greatly because I will see a wonderfully creative piece of jewelry with beauty that, unfortunately, isn’t reflected in its photography.

Shooting your products on a white background on is a very common trend right now. A white background doesn’t compete with your item, it gives a uniform look to all the photos in your shop, and some people argue that it gives you a better chance of your item being featured in a treasury and even being featured on Etsy’s front page.

White Background. Check. But why are my pictures so dark?

So you’re using a white or light background and your pictures are too dark. You’ve tried everything. Nothing works. Do you need a new camera? Actually, likely not. Sometimes, and some cameras have more trouble than others, when you are shooting against a white background the camera gets confused and gives you a dark picture. The problem has to do with things like algorithms and software. (Complicated, yet magical words to most of us.) But once you know what is going on, you can easily fix it.

It’s all about 18% Gray. Really.

Every digital camera has a light meter inside of it that measures the amount of light in the scene. The camera’s software then adjusts its exposure (how long the shutter stays open) to make the photograph just right based on the information from the light meter. This works fine most of the time. But not so good on white backgrounds. Here’s why.

If you take a piece of vellum or tracing paper and hold it up in front of a typical scene, like a room or your backyard, the vellum looks sort of light gray, right? That’s because on average the amount of white and black, minus the color, in a typical scene averages out to be about 18% gray. Because of this fact, digital cameras always assume that whatever you’re taking a picture of is going to be 18% gray.

So your camera’s algorithms and software tell the camera to adjust the shutter speed (exposure) so that the scene will come out to be 18% gray. In most cases this works perfectly (like for your backyard or your living room). But it doesn’t work well when you’re taking a photograph of a small item on a white background. Because that scene really isn’t 18% gray. It’s more like 10% or 7%. And the camera tries to make it 18%. So what does your camera’s software tell it to do? It tries to compensate by decreasing the exposure to make it darker. So your photograph comes out way too dark.

How to Fix the Problem

Okay, now we know what causes our photographs to be too dark when taken on a white background. But what to do about it? First off, you’ve got to be using enough light. I read this great article recently about using some foam core and white paper to use a bright window to get fantastic even, bright light. (See, great solutions don’t have to be complicated or expensive!)

If your camera has a full manual setting, then this is the time to use it. By manual I mean that you are the one setting both the aperture (f-stop) and the exposure (shutter speed). By shooting manual, you can ignore what the light meter is telling you and decide for yourself how to expose the scene. Very few point and shoot cameras have this. (If you have a DSLR, there will be a setting for M on the dial. Keep increasing the exposure or decreasing the f-stop until your results look good. Voila!)

But all is not lost when using an automatic camera. Luckily, camera manufactures have given you a tool just for this purpose. It’s your secret weapon. It’s called EV, which means Exposure Value. And what that means is you use this tool to increase the exposure of the scene. The EV setting tells the camera’s software to take its light meter reading, figure out the exposure, and ADD some more exposure on top of that. It’s like reverse sunglasses for your camera.

You might have to refer to the manual for your camera to find out how to use the EV feature correctly. But in most cameras it’s very straightforward. Look on your camera for a little button that says +/-. Go ahead and turn on your camera and start to take a picture. Now push the button. You’ll probably notice that as you push on the button there will be a number on the screen that goes either up or down each time you push the button. It’s usually in increments, like 0.3 or 0.5, and it’ll typically go up to 2.0. You will use this button (sometimes it’s a button and a wheel) to increase the EV value to a point where the exposure for your pictures comes out right. It’s very much a trial and error process, but it’s easy to do.

You’ll notice the numbers also go down, too, with a – sign in front of the number. That’s for decreasing the EV. Because sometimes you need to decrease the exposure on your camera, too. Like putting on sunglasses at the beach. This also works for the opposite of the problem in this article, such as when taking photographs of an object on a black background and they’re coming out too light.

If you don’t have your camera’s manual anymore, you can usually find it online with a simple Google search.

Well exposed photograph of necklace.
This picture is also taken straight out of camera, but I ignored the camera’s suggestions and increased the exposure to the proper levels, giving a well-exposed photograph. (Necklace made with sari silk, my own Rustic Bead, vintage brass, and a beautiful blue and green glass accent bead by Numinosity Beads by Kimberly Rogers.)

When +/- EV doesn’t fix the problem

Some cameras are better than others at reading the amount of light in a scene and being able to compensate with the proper exposure settings. And some cameras are just plain wrong. Do the best you can “in camera”. But sometimes you’ll have to do the rest with software. Manipulating your photographs with software after they’re out of the camera is called “post processing”. It’s always best to take the best possible photograph with your camera, but sometimes you have to fix things in post processing.

While professional photographers typically use expensive and really powerful software like Lightroom and Photoshop, you can do most of the common fixes with the software that came with your camera.  Or you can use any of several online picture processing websites such as PicMonkey, BeFunky, iPiccy, pixlr Express, Canva, and Thumba. Google’s photo integration software, Picasa, does have some photo editing facilities.  There is also a full-featured free open source photo and drawing package called Gimp, but I’ve heard it has a steep learning curve. The online alternatives are so full-featured now it would be hard to make me find much love for Gimp.

One more thing. I’ve heard so many people complain about their photographs and conclude that they have to buy a new camera. Not necessarily. Learn how to use the camera that you have, first. The knowledge will help you later if you do decide to buy another camera. The +/-EV button, the white balance setting, and the macro setting are the most relevant tools for the crafter to learn how to use. Also, people in the market for a camera often want to buy a DSLR. But having a DSLR doesn’t solve these problems and introduces quite a few more. I shoot with a 6 year old Nikon D40X which was a hand-me-down from my husband. And while it’s nice in some regards, it certainly doesn’t solve the exposure problems. The light meter always reads way low and I have to increase my exposure settings to get a good photograph. And I always have to adjust the photo in post processing, too.

So now you know the secret weapon. You can get bright, clean, clear photographs with your current camera by knowing how to use the +/-EV setting and using post-processing software.

Necklace featuring a Rustic Focal bead by The Blue Bottle Tree and a glass accent bead by Numinosity Beads.
The same well-exposed photograph as before, but now it’s been processed. I changed the levels, brought out the shadows, adjusted the color, removed blemishes from the background, and sharpened the photograph. Software, properly used, can make a good photograph even better.

Did you know that I write polymer clay tutorials?

Faux Glass Tutorial for Polymer Clay
Rustic Beads and Components Tutorial for Polymer Clay
Holo Effect Tutorial for Polymer Clay

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