ETTR (Expose to the right)

A recent forum post on the subject of “exposing to the right” attracted much comment and sparked my short article on the subject.

My photography started almost 60 years ago (no I’m not past it yet but definitely nearing my sell by date). For most of those years I shot slide film. ETTR was irrelevant, get it right in camera was what mattered. Fail in that and the image was lost forever. Then digital came along and improved and improved; that didn’t stop the ignorant bleating for 14 stop capability sensors. I wonder why? For almost two centuries now photographers have made perfectly good images with half that; anyway I digress.

Expose to the right is a perfectly valid way of making photographs PROVIDING you do not clip the highlights but if your shadows are blocked up then you risk having noise if you try to recover shadow detail. Why is this?

A camera’s sensor records the amount of light falling on it. Across the range from highlight to shadows the highlights will have over 100 times more “information” that the shadows, result = noise. Despite that, on a modern camera sensor the shadows will generally stand more recovery than will the highlights just don’t try to push it too far. Get used to what your camera can accommodate, check the histogram on the camera screen to do so, and re-shoot if necessary while there. With practice you will get a better understanding of when your camera can cope and when it can’t and if it cannot cope then bracket to gather the information you need and blend the two shots when you process later.

If you expose to the right you will gain more signal information in those shadow areas but you will need to process all the images to correct the overexposure and regain the saturation of colour lost in the process of overexposing. If you are confident that the luminance range for a scene can be handled correctly by your sensor then get it right in camera, there will be no need to expose to the right.

A tranquil dawn on the River Thurne in the Norfolk Broads. Manual exposure.
A tranquil dawn on the River Thurne in the Norfolk Broads. Manual exposure.
View of Thurne mill on a frosty morning. Aperture priority + 2 EV.
View of Thurne mill on a frosty morning. Aperture priority + 2 EV.

If, like me you are a landscape photographer then do get some graduated neutral density filters. They will improve the balance of your exposures beyond measure.

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