Why are Modern Films and TV Shows Often Underexposed?

You may have noticed over the last few years that it is increasingly common for a film or show to have what looks to be unexposed shots. The question is: why?

The aesthetic of film and television meanders and evolves over the years. This is down to a number of reasons, from trends and themes, to visual and camera equipment. Video has been a fast-moving industry for some time and that has led to wholesale changes to the way most productions, large and small, are shot.

In this video, wolfcrow breaks down some of the potential reasons we are seeing more and more underexposed shots today. Just 10-15 years ago, they were far less common, but now it's seen more often than it isn't. A great example that wolfcrow uses to demonstrate the point is Ozark (an incredible show). Ozark pairs the underexposed look with some heavy colorization, particularly in the blue and teal families. However, there are a whole host of modern shows that expose so that even the brightest highlights have all their detail retained.

What do you think of wolfcrow's analysis and reasons for this trend? Do you like the underexposed look or are you tired of it? I'll admit, there have been shows that have taken it too far for my liking and ones that have received backlash for it, like Game of Thrones. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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15 Comments
Mark Smith's picture

This is exactly why I stopped watching "Invasion" on Apple tv: dark, dark, dark, gloomy and dark. Too much for my taste.

Sam Sims's picture

Just as bad as the 'everything out of focus' trend we've had over the last decade. Also thanks to modern TV's preferring to use a shiny screen (for better colours apparently) instead a of matte screen, we get to watch these dark shows staring at our own reflections and our surroundings on the TV, obscuring the series or film we're watching. Also, what's with the irritating blue colour tint used on so many shows and films too?

Deleted Account's picture

I think the analysis is correct. I stopped watching Ozark (and some others). For a while I had an extension installed that allowed me to turn up the brightness of the film playing. But that didn't really help. Ozark's colour grading is terrible. One of the worst I've ever seen.

And just as a side note, if you watch a film on a mobile device, you have to turn up the brightness, which results in shorter battery life.

Just expose properly and get the colours right. If I want a dull screen, I can turn down the brightness myself.

jim hughes's picture

For the same reason the music is too loud and half the dialog is buried - producers think they need to keep dialing up the "edginess".

David Guijarro's picture

I think everything is abused "stop-up", but I like the underexposed aesthetic and that "Astia" tone that explodes in blue.

Deleted Account's picture

I used to shoot landscape on Astia. That emulsion was sublime.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I don't have issues with underexposed shows, with the exception of one of the episodes of Games of Thrones. That one was ridiculously dark. But, Ozark, Invasion, etc, they look fine to me. Surely, I can't be the only one with a brightness adjustment.

Daniel L Miller's picture

I've thought a lot about this topic and personally believe it began as a technical issue and became a stylistic preference.

In cinematic luminosity grading a blocked up shadow is acceptable but a blown out highlight is not. DPs were sending a purposely under-exposed digital file to the colorist where the same mentality existed — do NOT let the highlights exceed 70 IRE. In the early days of digital we were told that was the way to look "cinematic/filmic."

In my memory it then moved from a technical path to a stylistic choice in commercials and then moved to features. A supporting reason is that DPs wanted their lighting to appear natural and not artificial to the viewer. The result is we no longer have three point lighting but a flatter 2D style of light.

Kenneth George's picture

As a late adopter of LED flat screens, I bought 2 Plasma screens the last year they were sold by LG. I think the underexposure prevents the perception that it was shot cheaply with video, what my daughter says looks like a "Tele-Novela," or Hispanic soap opera look. I hate that look as well. I flatten my contrast so it looks more natural to me on an LED screen. If you were watching Ozark on an old tube TV, it would look awful. So I believe part of the flatness and underexposure is to make it look better on what most folks watch it on. LED screens.

Kirk Darling's picture

This trend has been going on in still portraiture for perhaps the last 15 years as well.

Jon Williams's picture

Bad technique should never be considered to be a personal visual style. John Ford cinematography should be the standard.

Sam Sims's picture

I’ve heard the story about some film (video) students using a fairly shallow depth of field, focus tracking and clearly missing focus try to claim to the lecturer it was an artistic decision 🙄.

Roger Knief's picture

Comment Deleted

Edward Frank's picture

If I am paying to go see a movie or watching a TV show, I want to see what is happening rather than guessing what is happening based upon barely discernable shadows.

Fred Kelley's picture

The original CSI show (Vegas), which debuted in 2000, is one of the first shows that I remember being too dark. In the case of that show, I suppose it was stylistic, but it was also ridiculous when the actors would go into a dark room and stumble around with their flashlights instead of just TURNING ON THE STUPID LIGHTS! I nicknamed the show Can't See Inside.