Exposing to the Right: How to Maximise Image Quality

By Geoff Harris

If you were able to view your camera’s sensor through a suitably powerful microscope you’d see that it was neatly divided up into millions and millions of tiny photosites. Light is comprised of packets of energy called photons. When a sensor is exposed to light each individual photosite on the sensor collects and stores the photons that fall into it, rather like a bucket collecting drips of water.

Exposing to the Right, How to maximise Image Quality, Exposure, Metering modes, Camera Metering

Lightening an underexposed image will increase the appearance of noise

Each photon represents information. The greater the number of photons collected the more information the camera will have to create the final photographic image. Restrict the number of photons reaching the sensor (either by using too small an aperture or too fast a shutter speed) and there is less information acquired. This is known as underexposure.

Conversely allow too many photons to reach the sensor (by using too large an aperture or too slow a shutter speed) and the individual photosites are flooded, resulting in overexposure. Generally somewhere between these two ideals is the desired outcome (a bit like Goldilocks’ porridge, neither too hot nor too cold). However, if you’re shooting Raw erring towards overexposure is preferable to underexposure.

Exposing to the Right, How to maximise Image Quality, Exposure, Metering modes, Camera Metering

Histogram of an image shot using ETTR

The reason why this should is explained by what happens after exposure. Once you’ve released the shutter button the camera immediately starts counting the number of photons in each photosite. The tally for each photosite is then converted into a digital scale.

In a 12-bit Raw file the number of photons is converted into one of 4,098 discrete tonal values. These tonal values range from 0 (when there are no recorded photons resulting in black) through to 4,097 (when the maximum number of photons are recorded resulting in white).

An average DSLR has a dynamic range of approximately 10 stops. However, half of the 4,098 tonal values (2048) are allocated to the brightest stop. Half of the remaining tonal values (1024) are used in the next brightest stop.

Half again for the next brightest stop (512) and so on until only 32 tonal values are left for allocation to the darkest part of the image.

The upshot is that there is far more useable image data found in the highlights of an image and far less in the shadows. This often results in ‘noisy’ shadows, particularly if you try to lighten them in postproduction.

Fortunately it’s possible maximise the information found in the shadows by using a technique known as ‘exposing to the right’ (or ETTR). When shooting ETTR you deliberately set the exposure so that the image is as light as possible without the highlights being burnt out (the histogram of an image shot this way is skewed to the right, hence the name).

Exposing to the Right, How to maximise Image Quality, Exposure, Metering modes, Camera Metering

An image shot using ETTR (top) and then adjusted in Lightroom (bottom).

Exposing ETTR images is made easier if your camera has a live view histogram (and is able to shoot Raw - the technique isn’t really suited to Jpeg shooting).

Adjust the exposure until the histogram is moved to the right as far as possible without clipping (by applying exposure compensation and then make the exposure. If your camera doesn’t have a live view histogram, shoot a test image and view the resulting histogram. Adjust the exposure if necessary and reshoot.

The final step is to import the Raw file into your conversion software and ‘normalise’ it. This can be done either by adjusting the exposure slider (making the image darker) or by using the levels or curves tool to adjust the tonal range and overall contrast. Some software also has an auto-exposure function and this can often work well.

ETTR is a very valuable technique that allows you to eke out the maximum amount of image quality from a Raw file. It’s one that I use when I can* even if it does mean an extra step in postproduction. However if a job’s worth doing, isn’t it worth doing it well?

But Remember! it’s not always possible to shoot ETTR when contrast is high and highlights are easily clipped.

If you would like to learn more about exposure, why not consider taking Nigel Hicks 4 week online course on Understanding Light & Exposure

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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