Exposing to the right, or ETTR as it is sometimes called, describes an approach to photographic exposure where you deliberately overexpose the scene in the viewfinder, making it as bright as possible without blowing out the highlights. Then, in post-processing, you adjust the image exposure to your liking.
The term ‘to the right’ refers to the movement of the histogram when this technique is employed.
You can see this in the illustration below. The histogram for the correctly exposed image is shown on the top. The histogram on the bottom shows the result of ‘exposing to the right’, with the peaks and valleys that represent the tonal values in the image pushed to right side of the graph.
Exposing to the right attempts to take advantage of a basic limitation in digital sensors. Camera sensors gather data in a linear fashion. As a result, less data is collected in the darker areas of a scene. Increasing image exposure can counter some of these effects, allowing the sensor to capture more detail in the shadows with less noise.
To illustrate the effects of exposing to the right, I shot the two raw images below. Both of these photos are as they were taken directly out of the camera. The one on the left used the exposure settings suggested by my camera’s exposure meter. The one on the right was overexposed by 2 stops.
I took the photos above and processed them (with consistent settings) using Lightroom. The exposures have been set to be equivalent.
If we look at the two images up close at 300% magnification, we can see some differences.
The normal exposure image has significantly more noise. Overall, the overexposed photo is cleaner and less noisy.
The image shot by exposing to the right looked better at 300% magnification than the one shot using normal, “correct” exposure. Is it a big enough difference to start shooting by exposing to the right?
You’ll have to answer that for yourself. I can tell you that ETTR is a source of controversy in the photography world .Some people swear by it. Others think it’s much ado over nothing.
As for me, I’m probably someplace in the middle. I see the value in exposing to the right, but I also don’t want to chance missing a good shot because I’m fiddling with the exposure controls.
Given that, here’s my approach.
I always shoot Raw and I bracket for exposure whenever possible. That usually gives me an image that works as ETTR and that leaves my options open. And it always ensures that I get one image using normal exposure.
By the way, here’s an important thing to keep in mind. Shooting using ETTR requires that you shoot in the raw format. JPEGs have a limited dynamic range so that you don’t have the give flexibility to make drastic changes to exposure in post production. That’s why it’s important to get the exposure as accurate as possible when shooting JPEGs.
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f you are just getting started in photography, exposure is one of the first things you need learn.
But even beyond that, getting a good handle on exposure and how the different components of exposure work together is essential if you want to take control of your photography and the images that you are creating.