Yesterday's Light

Images in Space and Time

Out of the Photographic Closet

Sunrise, in the Windows area of Arches NP

One of the things that’s always bothered me about digital photography is the “ETTR” (Expose to the Right) mantra.  A number of respected professional photographers have been saying for years that this is the right way to do things.  Technically, it would seem to make sense.  The data that any sensor collects during an exposure is heavily weighted toward the highlight side.  Far more “stuff” exists there than in the shadow areas.  And, of course, most noise resides in those murky dark areas.  So if you push your exposures to the right – hopefully without blowing out any highlights – you’re golden.  All you have to do in post-processing is dial the exposure back to where you want it.

In a word, slightly overexposed is better than underexposed.

But is it?  Personally, I was never sure.  Sometimes it seemed to work, but many times it didn’t.  The problem was color.  “Dialing back” the exposure in PS or Lightroom often left the color in what seemed to be the wrong place.  It was OK, I guess, but not as rich and vibrant as it would have been if the exposure had been reduced in the camera.  So I said the hell with ETTR and exposed my digital images much like I would have exposed slide film.

And now vindication seems to be at hand.  Within the last few days, I’ve seen two articles that say much the same thing.  That is, forget ETTR.  It’s not a particularly good idea.  One article, called “The Dark Secret of Digital Photography” appears in the November issue of “Outdoor Photographer”.  Written by Rob Sheppard, it mainly talks about dealing with dark areas in images, but Sheppard also takes a shot at ETTR, saying that subtle colors are often lost and cannot be brought back.

The second article just appeared on TOP.  In this article, Ctein goes much further and basically says that ETTR was never a good idea.  Not for any images.  Noise, he says, can be easily handled and both color and black and white images will generally come through post-processing looking better.

I think I agree.  This image, for example, was purposely underexposed.  If I’d done the ETTR thing, I think the color gradations in the image would have changed.  It would look more like a shot taken during mid-morning than a shot taken a few minutes after sunrise.  I’ll also say that this is much the way it actually looked.  The red rock (and even the dirt) almost turns bright orange when the sun first appears.  It doesn’t last long, but it’s very dramatic while it’s there.  But the orange tends to become washed out or muted if the image is overexposed.

So I guess I’ll continue to purposely underexpose.  Keep the highlights in check and let the shadows go wherever they want to go.  I’ll deal with them in the computer.  And ETTR?  I’ll let the technophiles worry about it.


10 Responses to “Out of the Photographic Closet”

  1. Cedric

    I agree with your conclusion Paul. Instead of ETTR I tend to ELOC (expose left of centre) which often has me underexposing by half or one full stop and I do so for exactly the reasons you mention; to keep the colours true.

    BTW I’ve enjoyed your road trip, the photographs and the posts. Most enjoyable.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Cedric. Actually, my “standard” exposure is much like yours. I set the camera to expose at -2/3 from what the meter says (using evaluative metering). Sometimes I take multiple shots, varying the exposure, but very often it’s just the one. If I have to add “exposure” or “brightness” later, I will. Seems to work most of the time.

  2. John

    I’ve always heard the ETTR mantra as well, but whenever I’d try it I was inevitably disappointed with the results (blown highlights were way too easy to have). So, I decided to go the old Kodachrome route (or was it Ektachrome? I’ve lost those brain cells) and slightly underexpose. Both on my Nikon D80 and D7000 I’ve been much more pleased with the results if I keep them at -1/3 EV. Noise is not that big of a deal in most cases…

    I love the photos from the desert SW. Need to get to Moab soon!


    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, John. I can’t add much to what you’ve said about exposure – it would be interesting to do a poll and find out what percentage of photographers actually adhere to the ETTR “school”. I’ll bet it’s not as many as some might guess.

      Yes, definitely head for Moab! I think you said you’ve lived in Denver for 30 years? And you haven’t been to Utah? The Rockies are great, but you’re so close to the “good stuff”. We actually stayed in Denver (well, Golden) on our return this year. Usually, we just zip right through the place on I-70. We stayed at a Hampton Inn that I think had the smallest bathroom in the world…….downright claustrophobic.

  3. Juha Haataja

    I need to join the club, as my standard setting is also -2/3 EV. And I thought I had a dark worldview…

    I love the way the delicate blue sky and orange/yellow play with each other in the photograph.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Juha. As I implied to John, I think the “club” might be larger than we all think. It’s also interesting that some of the ETTR folks also are big on recommending bracketed exposures. If they do that conscientiously themselves, I wonder which exposure they pick?

  4. ken bello

    That whole ETTR stuff seemed like nonsense to me. I always underexposed (slightly) my chrome films and overexposed (slightly) B&W films on my fairly accurate in camera meter and I continue to do so with digital. Nikon metering hasn’t changed much in years as far as accuracy is concerned. And if you use in camera meters, it’s probably best to start with test series to see how it works in various light conditions. As for myself, I believe in insurance, so I sometimes bracket. Very nice shot, by the way.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Ken. I’ve never done any kind of formal “testing” with my cameras with respect to exposure (you’d think that a statistician might, right?), but I have learned through experience what to expect. And on images that I really want to get right, I certainly will bracket. Like in Lower Antelope Canyon, for instance. There wasn’t going to be a return visit, so it had to be right. Interestingly, down there in those passageways, once I got the best exposure it really never changed. I didn’t know it for sure at the time, but the “best” exposure stayed pretty much constant.

  5. Paul

    Hey, Paul, I’ll chime in too. I’ve never followed the ETTR ‘rule’. Preferring to slightly underexpose to hold in the highlights, rarely are the shadows a problem, if ever, especially with the new sensors. They are quite good.

    I’ve enjoyed your travels as well. Thanks for taking us along.

    • Paul Maxim

      Thanks, Paul. As far as those “travels” are concerned, I wish I was still out there. Based on the forecast for later this week around here, winter’s getting awfully close.

      You’re right about the newer sensors – the noise in the shadows is minimal and easy to fix.


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