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11 February 2013

One Method for Adjusting an Underexposed Photo

A GIMP 2.8 Quick Tutorial

I was perusing my zebra photos one day and came across one showing a zebra running away from me at full tilt. The photo was really underexposed, but I liked the dynamics of the image, so I loaded it into GIMP and started playing around with it.

What follows is a description of how I created this image:

Runaway Zebra Final

from this image:

Runaway Zebra Original

Step 1

I used the Rectangle Select Tool [1] to crop the photo. I tried a couple of variations until I settled on this roughly Rule of Thirds [2] version.

Crop Photo - Rule of Thirds

Step 2

To brighten up the image, I selected Colors > Levels... [3] and pushed the Auto button [4]. Sometimes automatic level adjustment results in a nice image; other times it can make some of the colors look funky. In this case I was generally happy with the result, but the image still looked rather dark and dull.

Adjust Color Levels

Step 3

I decided to make some manual adjustments, so I selected Colors > Brightness-Contrast... [5] and turned both brightness and contrast up by 20 [6].

Turning contrast up darkens the picture, which is why you usually have to turn brightness up at the same time, while being careful not to turn brightness up so much that it blows out the light colors in the image. The two adjustments do not have to be equal. You need to use your artistic eye to decide what looks best to you.

Adjust Brightness and Contrast

Step 4

The grass still looked pretty dull, so I selected Colors > Hue-Saturation... [7] and turned saturation up by 50 [8].

Saturation is another adjustment determined by your artistic eye. I tend to like slightly strong colors, but not so strong that they look unnatural.

I'm very happy with the final image, which is quite an improvement over the original shot, and just goes to show that you shouldn't necessarily toss any underexposed photographs.


  1. Hi Debi. Bart here. Nice tutorial. The one biggest disappointment I have with screen vs print images is the vibrancy in print is usually disappointing. I end up wasting photo-grade paper making multiple copies until I'm happy.

  2. Yes, I can believe it. The medium you print on can really affect the
    image quality, not to mention whether all your equipment is calibrated the same way. I had an image that looked really nice on my monitor, but when I
    had it printed on a pillow, the colors were all washed out and it came
    out orange instead of brown. I've had pretty good luck printing on
    glossy photo paper, though. I wonder if it's possible to calibrate your monitor and printer so that they do colors the same way.

  3. Bart, what amount of pixels are you operating with? I print my creations at 300dpi, which you can access at the Image/Scale Image drop down. GIMP automatically can bring up your image at 72dpi, which is ok for posters (because most poster places save money that way) but not for 8x10's or so. Wasn't sure if you were aware of that. The posters I get from PosterBrain look grainy at 72 from close up but not from farther back. The 300's I print from Walgreens look superb. I don't have my own high grade printer.

  4. I find it interesting that you create a new image from visible, I don't usually go that route unless I don't want to destroy what I have already made. Sometimes when I work on a project I wind up with more than one version because I like the effect I got off one filter but it doesn't quite fulfill the look I want. Have you ever tried G'MIC?

  5. I use "New from Visible" a lot, depending on what I'm doing. Once I've level-adjusted an image, I make a copy in case I mess it up or want to try several variations. I generally try to keep all changes for an image in one .xcf file. Yes, I've used G'MIC occasionally. It has lots of cool filters, though I don't understand why I would want to use most of them. It would be nice if someone who understands G'MIC filters wrote some tutorials about why and how to use them.

  6. I agree demonstration of the filters would be nice. I had a version of G'MIC that had many very good filters but lost it in a computer crash. The one I have now is missing many of those filters. I think most folks are writing for Linux and they never get converted to Windows.