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 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 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 Beads Course 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, and Canva. 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?

20 thoughts on “Why are my pictures so dark? -Photography Tip”

  1. Thanks so much for revealing the E/V setting! I kept adding more light but the white poster board background in my jewelry photos always stayed stubbornly gray. Just tried it out and noticed a huge difference. Can’t wait to start using this trick on my next photo shoot. Thanks again.

  2. WOW WOW WOW, 5 years with my Rebel, just learned how to fuzz background and NOW, you just tought me something that has been hindering me for years, making me edit my photos, constantly! THANK YOU SO MUCH, you saved my life in a such simple way!

    1. Thank you Nilma, I’m so glad the article helped you. It was one of those “duh” moments for me when I realized this. No matter how much light I used, the pictures still came out dark. Nowadays I shoot manual (so I don’t use EV), but I find I have to decrease the shutter speed quite a lot more than the meter would suggest.

  3. Ginger, thank you so much for your helpful info. I’ve been struggling mightily to take decent pictures with my camera phone (Android) and a point & shoot camera that I got just for the purpose, but still not getting great results. I made the adjustment you talk about to my phone camera & would try it now, but it’s dark & rainy. Meanwhile, would you be kind enough to check out my etsy shop & give me some constructive feedback? I’m in the process right now of implementing your steps to improve social media marketing. Any feedback you’d care to give would be greatly appreciated. I love working with polymer clay and am basically working from books & online tutorials. Thank you again for your generous counsel
    http://chrisfrancisco.etsy.com or http://www.etsy.com/shop/chrisfrancisco

    1. Hi Chris, Sorry, I’ve been busy with my head inside of the accounting for the last week (yay, it finally balances!) so forgive me for not getting back to you. Your polymer work is very good. I’ll convo you from Etsy with some more specific thoughts about your Etsy shop. In the meantime, there is wonderful help and support on the Etsy Success forum. There are some basics that they always talk about there which really help, like tags and titles.

      1. Thanks again Ginger! I will begin accessing the Etsy Success forum, especially for tags & titles ideas.

  4. Pingback: FotoFuze ~ Create White Background on pictures

  5. I agree that Fotofuze is a great way to fix a dark photograph. But I like to get pictures as close as I can in the camera. Yesterday I took 120 photographs for my Etsy shop update. I shoot RAW so I had to process them in software anyway, doing a crop and spot removal and fixing the color profile. Because I knew how to set my camera I didn’t also have to deal with brightening up the whole thing. In fact, when I have to lift the photo too much, it really compromises quality. But for the average user, I still say that knowing how to use their +/- button is really important!

  6. Hi Ginger!! Well, you taught this old dog a new trick – THANKS!! I pulled out my little point and click and it does have a EV setting and now I know what it does!! I do shoot my photos on white or gray background and could never understand why, even with bright light, I still get a dark picture and have to adjust the exposure in my photo editing program. You are awesome and I look forward to reading more of your posts 🙂 I still struggle with my photos and while there is an excellent one on Voila I would LOVE to take, alas I don’t have the budget to spend anything on a class, so you ROCK GIRL for your generous sharing.

    1. Oh good, I’m glad it’s working for you. I’ve got a few more tricks to share, too. All those years taking daily photographs with my little point and shoot taught me a few things, LOL. Thank you for the kind words, and thank you for sharing my website on FB, too. It’s so great knowing that people like you are really enjoying what I write.

  7. That was SO well explained, Ginger! Now I know why the photos on my beat up brown desk come out better lit than the ones in my fancy little white photography tent. Thank you for the help. 🙂

    1. You know, the funny thing is that I’ve experienced this many times and looked for help on the professional photography forums for it. There are so many articles about little white tents and using reflectors and how to get good lighting. I have good lighting! And they’re still dark! None of these articles ever tell you to increase your exposure. But one day, on an article about something else, I read some casual mention of the phenomenon and it made perfect sense. I asked around a bit and yes…it’s all about the 18% gray that the camera thinks the world should be. And it changed things, not just on my jewelry photography. All of my photography got better once I learned to ignore the darned light meter because it’s usually wrong!

  8. This was a really useful post – thank you so much for sharing your experience/knowledge. I look forward to your other photography tips because, as you so rightly say, a bad photo can diminish a great piece of work. Many thanks again.

    1. I’m glad it was helpful. I’ll definitely be writing more. I see so many people who are frustrated with their photographs and really don’t know where to turn. If I can help, then I will try!

  9. Fantastic!! Loved this article…I sort my photos out in picmonkey, but will be giving this a go for sure! Thank you so much!

    1. I’d always heard of PicMonkey, but didn’t try it until I was writing this article. Ooh…it looks like fun. I love all those funky filters.

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