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.