Exposing to the Right May Not Be as Right as Sensors Improve

Exposing to the right” is a well-known rule of thumb for maximizing image quality by pushing exposure to avoid noise, but the equation is changing as the quality of image sensors continues to improve. Ctein over at The Online Photographer writes,

In theory, you can still use the dubious right-hand rule. Just be careful to never blow out any pixels.

[…] Unless you’re sure you’re dealing with a low contrast subject, pushing your exposure to the high side makes it likely you’ll blow highlights. If you’re trying to improve your odds of getting a good exposure, pulling away from the right is a much smarter thing to do. If you know your subject is really high in contrast, pull far, far away from the right. Keep those highlights under control and let the shadows go where they may.

[…] Just, whatever you do, don’t expose to the right unless you’re absolutely positive there are no highlights to get blown. It was a questionable rule to begin with; these days I call it downright dangerous.

‘Expose to the Right’ is a Bunch of Bull [The Online Photographer]

Image credit: Out and about again by c@rljones

  • Thomhsu

    Yes, I’ve been trying to tell people this!  Once upon a time, film had the opposite problem – if you didn’t expose for the shadows, there was simply no detail there, no matter how much you up exposure during print.  Now you can shoot in RAW and recover massive amounts of detail in the shadows, but if there’s no information in the blown-out highlights, there’s no information there, no matter how much you bring down exposure in post process.  It’s been a fun transition.

  • ron b

    It’s important, however, to understand that the data shown on the back of your camera is NOT accurate to what’s in the RAW file.  Highlights that look blown out on the camera back may be totally recoverable.  More here:

  • Aydensgrace

    I think people should take into account their own style. I always expose for the shadows and let the highlights fall where they may because that’s my style and I enjoy it. However, it’ll be interesting to see how sensor improve on capturing detail back from the highlights in the future.

  • Thomhsu

    Yeah, there are different priorities for different types of shots too.  I think increasing the dynamic range is the next frontier of digital cameras, being able to raise that highlight ceiling.

  • Osmosisstudios

    I expose to the right, but only until I get clipped highlights.  Unless Im doing it for effect, I usually back off 1/3 stop from there.

  • Daniel

    Careful with that idea. Image sensors work linearly, so the brightest stop has incredibly fine nuances while the darkest stop has a very limited numerical accuracy. Just think about it – in a 12 bit sensor the brightest value that is not blown out is 4094 (2^12-2). One stop less (half the light intensity) falls at 2044, so the brightest stop has over 2000 numerical “steps”. If we assume a dynamic range of 10 stops, the lowest stop has only 4 (2^[12-10]) different numerical “steps” left! And this is without taking noise into account.

    In the end, sure, clipping highlights is bad. But in many images, it’s very ok to have some nice bloom that clips a little if that means that the skin tones fall into a numeric range where the sensor has more discreet values at its disposal (i.e. more steps to work with).

  • Gabi Helfert

    I never heard of this rule, and I fail to see its point. In case of high-contrast situations, I tend to rather underexpose – as far as -1EV. This also often results in a lower ISO, since the required exposure time goes down, particularly in situations where motion blur is undesired. Recovering blown-out highlights is practically impossible in post – even if you have a great RAW editor. I rather do with some noise that results from upping the shadows.

  • Brian

    So far everyone seems to be misunderstanding ETTR.  It is not acceptable to blow highlights in ETTR.

    Everybody stop commenting until you’ve read Schewe’s Undebunking ETTR.  Look at the examples.  Think about how you can maximize your signal in low-contrast scenes. importantly, regarding blowing highlights:”But, what about the “risk” that by increasing your exposure you may blow out your highlights? While it’s certainly true that highlights can be clipped and loose all detail if you over expose, that’s not what is being advocated here. If the scene contrast range is lower than the dynamic range of the sensor, increasing the exposure just short of clipping won’t put your image at risk. And, if there is any question, you can bracket–if the shot you are doing will give you enough time.”

  • Masden

    Totally agree with ron b. IN RAW you can and you should slighly expose to the right ! by 1/3 stops or +1 stop only. Then you’ll be able to recover highlight in post (most of) and you’ll limite the noise in the shadows. This the best advice i can give for lifestyle of wedding pictures. for the other style it depend fo your taste.

  • Anthony Burokas

    ETTR will fall away as sensors get better about integrating HDR capabilities on the chip (Like Arri Alexa) and giving us more stops, and softer top & bottom edges. Sure, you can expose an image way dark and try to pull something out of the muck at the expense of the overall image noise and banding or, for those shots that just have too much contrast, shoot HDR and merge. Or, if it’s happening too fast, know that you can’t capture every single shade of the fibers on black felt AND the subtle layers in the sundrenched cloud at the same time. The felt was black. The cloud was white. Get over it. :)

  • Dnguyen

    You can’t expose to the right black paper. Just saying.

  • kendon

    driving a car is dangerous, you could drive against a wall.

  • shamb

    Can any ‘shoot to the right’ fan tell me why manufacturers don’t expose to the right by default?

    Because you lose something very important: colour accuracy (because sensor response to colour channels are not linear with exposure, especially if you over expose in-camera and underexpose in post)

    You also make use of the extra information *only* if you post process, and then only for certain operations.

    Finally, the camera sensitivity to brighter scenes that shooting to the right utilizes is there because of the human eye’s sensitivity to brighter scenes – if you brighten a scene, you reduce signal to noise, but because the eye is actually more sensitive to noise in bright scenes, there is actually no *perceptive difference* – you might as well shoot to the left, because although then there is more signal to noise, the eye sees less of it! Better still, don’t shoot to the left or right – shoot for the dominant tone.

    I wrote a blog post about it some time ago:

  • Arnold Newman

    Thank you. Finally. Someone who understands the purpose and technique of ETTR. As long as image sensors record in a linear manner, even low contrasts subjects benefit from ETTR, even if you have to reduce the exposure level in post.

  • Arnold Newman

    ETTR does not espouse clipping. The point of it is to place as much of your image in the data-rich stops at the right end of the histogram. Properly done, ETTR moves the exposure as far to the right as possible WITHOUT clipping.

  • Arnold Newman

    OK, so I just commented on a story that is 2.5 years old. Oops…