Greetings and welcome to Hohenfels Volks, THE place for our place! Beautiful weather and some great photo ops made for a wonderful day here in Hohenfels.
Today, we’re doing just a short post on the concept of ETTR, or expose to the right. This seems to be popular with most digital photographers today, so we’re going to discuss it here. Before we begin though, let me make it clear that I’m not taking sides. My opinion, while favoring other methods, is of no consequence. If ETTR works for you, and you’re happy with your photos, keep shooting that way! Our goal here is to enjoy photography and make images we like. If you haven't tried it out, I suggest you do so. Becoming familiar with various techniques and tools allows you to increase your abilities, and improve your images by allowing you to discover what works for you and what doesn't.
Basically, ETTR says you should always expose your image so that all your information in the histogram is as far right as it can go without blowing the highlights. The stated reason for this is that half the bits are in the highlights, and as we progress down the range of exposure for your sensor, each lower level only has half the remaining depth. By using this technique, you keep more information and detail in the maximum part of the range. It also keeps noise from the shadows, or at least partly mitigates it.
It sounds simple enough; deliberately overexpose the large part of your scene to maximize your available information. On the surface, this seems to make sense. Especially when you’re told it also reduces noise, and helps eliminate posterization. Posterization is the abrupt banding you get in the transition between smooth levels in an image. If you do it with an eye toward balancing the elements of your exposure, it can be quite useful. Just remember to allow for reducing exposure in your RAW conversion.
But, we need to mention the major pitfalls associated with ETTR. It only works with RAW format images. ETTR was conceptualized when sensors had lower ranges and bit depths than we do today. JPEGs can’t have their exposure changed after being fixed into this format. Based on my own experience, ETTR leads to washed out images, with blown highlights. It also doesn’t allow for crafting your image, or for artistic images. Even worse, it prevents creativity from flowing during the capture process. When you are shooting bright scenes or those that contain wide ranges of values, ETTR will usually blow your highlights, and even some of midtones.
Certainly, detail in shadows is very important. However, we often forget that true and near blacks add depth and mood to an image. They also provide places wherein we differentiate areas and ideas within a scene. When we create an expressive image, part of the process is determining value placement. There is the possibility that your chosen placements will result in an image that is not exposed to the right, but entirely below the midline on your histogram. Of course, high key images often need to be exposed right of center in their entirety.
Most beginners allow the camera to do everything. Further along, they begin memorizing little statements like always expose to the right. They follow it religiously. After some time, they may progress to a type of crafter. They use their tools exactly as they say, for instance always using a gray card and any placements go out the window.
Always following one way or another without question or investigation leads to stagnation. All the techniques have a valuable place in our tool kit. For instance, shooting my daughter at play means getting the exposure right for her, and getting a fast enough shutter speed. By placing her at M+1 for the majority of the light she's playing in, I get a better image. A long exposure landscape means taking the time to meter the elements and determine where my placements will best match my vision. When you begin to make your expressive photograph, determining which way you wish to meter or expose your scene, and what tools to use, is part of the creative process and should not be overlooked. Just know the limitations of each method before committing to one.
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