Why you should Expose To The Right – Part 1

Every so often, earnest letters from my readers land in my inbox inquiring about the reasoning behind “expose to the right,” also referred to as ETTR. Do I practice it, and does it make any difference in the quality of my photographs?

Yes, I do. And, yes, it does.

First, let me explain that the following article is likely to be the most technical one you will ever see from me. Although I frequently write about the creative aspects of photography, it is important to understand technical fundamentals as well so that you can get on with creating better, more artistically compelling images.

Now, what is ETTR, you may ask?

The term refers to the diagram of the histogram you can view on your camera’s LCD screen and in digital photo raw processing software. The histogram is an approximate visual representation of the exposure of an image. It looks like this.

Tonal distribution of any given image is graphically represented by its histogram. The dark tones are on the left side of the graph, the mid-tones are in the middle, and the highlights are on the right side. To “expose to the right” means to expose your image so that the lightest tones are pushed to the right side of the histogram — the highlight side — just to the point before clipping or blowing out the highlights occurs. Clipping refers to loss of either highlights or shadows by either over- or under-exposing the image. A photo that is “clipped” will have data points touching the far left or far right of the edge of its histogram. That’s not what you want. The goal of ETTR is to expose the image so that the data points are pushed as far to the right as possible without actually touching the side of the binding box, and — for most images — away from the left edge. You can do this either by using the manual mode for exposing, or using exposure compensation.

The histogram on the left has been exposed according to the camera’s light meter. The exposure on the right has been exposed to the right (ETTR).

With practice, you can learn to read the histogram properly and control exposure without overexposing or underexposing the image, regardless of your camera’s light meter readings.

So, why should you consider ETTR?

An image like this one is all about texture and detail. ETTR not only ensures that the detail is there in the shadow area, but, if controlled properly, the detail in the hot, yellow areas can also be retained. ISO 100, f/16, .3 sec., Canon 5DsR, 70-200mm f/2.8L lens.

Tones in Highlights & Shadows

Tones are not recorded equally across the entire range of dark to light on digital sensors. When your digital camera records image data, the brightest part of the photograph (or highest stop) uses half of all the tonal values in the entire image. That is because a one-stop difference represents a doubling or halving of the exposure, and therefore a doubling or halving the tonal values recorded. The next highest stop uses half again of the remaining values, the next uses half of what is left and so on, such that the lowest (or darkest) stop uses only a small fraction of the tonal values available, as shown in the diagram below.

It’s all about the details.

Cameras still cannot record as much dynamic range in a scene as the human eye can detect. And, furthermore, there are situations where the scene’s contrast range is lower than your camera’s sensor dynamic range. So, in order to maximize detail from your images, you need to ensure that your camera’s sensor is collecting as much information as possible. That is the driving force behind ETTR. By using deliberate ETTR (exposing the image as light as possible without clipping the highlights), and then normalizing the exposure in post-processing, the maximum amount of information and detail is retained.

For the type of work that I do, I want to ensure that all the fine detail of my photograph draws the viewer deeper into the image. That means I need to make sure I have properly exposed in the field using ETTR principles.

 

To be continued…Why you should “Expose To The Right” – Part 2

About Author Charlotte Gibb

Charlotte Gibb is a contemporary fine art photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in landscapes of the Western United States. Her images are often taken in familiar places for the well-versed landscape photographer, but she prides herself on her keen an eye toward the subtle and sometimes overlooked beauty of the natural world. Charlotte earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and has exhibited her work in several solo shows throughout California. Her darkroom, long gone now, has been replaced with digital darkroom tools, and her style has evolved from a somewhat journalistic approach, to one that pays tribute to the natural world.

  • Sam Hunsberger

    Thanks for the article Charlotte. I’m always interested in people’s thoughts on this subject. I understand where you’re coming from when you recommend shooting to the right but I have a another point of view. I’ve learned that shooting to the left often leaves me with better chances of getting a shot in a scene with a large dynamic range because I can recover the lost shadows easier than if the lights are blown out. I understand shooting to the right if you have time to set up and analyze the histogram for one specific shot, that makes sense for sure. When I’m in a situation where the needed exposure is constantly changing would you agree that shooting to the left might be a better idea? I’m interested in your thoughts on this.

    • Thanks for your question, Sam! In Part Two of this article, I discuss a caveat to when NOT to expose to the right (ETTR). The goal is to make an exposure as light as possible WITHOUT blowing out the highlights. This can be difficult in certain situations, especially if you are a street or event photographer. In those cases, I agree it is better not to risk overexposing to the point where you cannot recover the highlights. In landscape photography, it makes sense to ETTR because, as you suggest, there is more time to set up and analyze the histogram. Some camera sensors are more forgiving than others when it comes to recovering shadow detail. My Sony a7RII lets me get away with darker exposures than my Canon 5DsR, for example. That why I suggest testing your specific camera for noise tolerance and then choose how you want to expose according to your own style and equipment limitations. Make sense?

  • buddywheels

    Possibly the best and clearest explanation of ETTR I have ever read. In fact the best compliment I can give is that the article is “written to the right”. Thank you.

    • Gosh, thanks! Writing technical articles is always tricky because one can’t know how much the reader already understands about the topic. I’m glad you found the article helpful and I didn’t bore you to death!