Cheeta at ISO 12800

Why Expose to the Right? (Podcast 381)

Today I'm going to go into detail on why I expose to the right, as I get asked about this a lot. Exposing to the right means adjusting your exposure so that the image data we see in the histogram falls as close to the right shoulder as possible. I've...

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Martin Bailey
Martin Bailey is a nature and wildlife photographer and educator based in Tokyo. He's a pioneering Podcaster and blogger, and an X-Rite Coloratti member.
46 Comments
  • RammellPhotography
    Posted at 18:57h, 29 July Reply

    Excellent post Martin, as always.

    It’s funny that you’ve written a post about ETTR, I was having a conversation with someone on a Private Facebook group only last week about this technique.

    Since I started doing it’s certainly given me better results (less noise).

    Thanks for sharing

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 19:30h, 29 July Reply

      Thanks Michael! Iโ€™ve been touching on this long enough, I thought it was about time I put something together.

  • Angappan Thirumalai
    Posted at 19:58h, 29 July Reply

    i like your photo style too much…………………….

  • Graeme Nattress (@gnattress)
    Posted at 20:15h, 29 July Reply

    Actually, the linear quantization of the light by the AtoD is not why the image is noisier in the darker regions. If the AtoD has enough bit depth (so that it’s quantization is less that the read noise) noise in the darker regions (read noise predominates here), then the noise in the darker regions is the limiting factor, not the quantization of the AtoD. ETTR is good in so much as it exposes the shadows brightly enough so as to reduce read noise. The performance improvements are not due to using more of the AtoD range. Because it’s wasteful (in power requirements and complexity/expense) to have better AtoD performance than your sensor noise, the AtoD will be “just” good enough that it’s not the limiting factor in the design of the system. In that respect it may “look” like the recorded amount of code values per stop tracks directly relates to noise in the image and thus is causal, but as you can see, the relationship is actually the other way around, with sensor noise being the factor at work and the AtoD just doing enough that it doesn’t make image noise worse.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 20:22h, 29 July Reply

      Ha haa! I thought about you this afternoon as I wrote this out Graeme! Nice to hear from you. I almost knew you’d post this if you were still following the Podcast.

      The result of my explanation is “good enough” too, so I’m not too worried about the discrepancy. Thanks for the clarification though!

      • Graeme Nattress (@gnattress)
        Posted at 03:28h, 30 July Reply

        Thanks Martin!

        So yes, the reason we do this is to reduce noise, and the way we do that is to ETTR. That is all absolutely correct and valid.

  • Si Young
    Posted at 20:30h, 29 July Reply

    How do test images shot at 2 iso stops apart compare if you use the same aperture and shutter settings and keep both exposures within the recording capability of the camera? Also, what happens to the hues if you overexpose by more than half a stop?

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 20:37h, 29 July Reply

      Si, if you want to test, you can shoot one image in dark conditions shooting to the right, then decrease the ISO by two or three stops, then increase the Exposure of the darker image to match the right exposed image in Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW. Depending on your camera and the scene itself, you may not see a lot of difference, but quite often it’s better to shoot to the right with a higher ISO, until of course you reach ISOs that are simply unusable on your camera.

      If you actually overexpose, i.e. go to pure white, then there is no color detail left. If you mean what happens when you increase the exposure by shooting to the right, the hues can look a little lighter or even washed out, but as long as you don’t overexpose them, they will come back as you reduce the exposure in post.

  • Dan cook
    Posted at 22:09h, 29 July Reply

    Hi Martin, great article and clear arguments for this practice. I have always understood it in simple terms than you are capturing digital data and the more light you allow in (up to clipping point) the more data you record. When I do on occasion bracket I often select images based on file size with largest file size assuming no clipping as it has the most data therefore least noise. Once thing you mentioned was regarding turning down brightness on your monitor for calibration, is this in relation to self-printing calibration or something recommended for lab printing as well to get best results?

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 22:19h, 29 July Reply

      Thanks for reading/listening Dan!

      With regards to the brightness, if you turn on the option to adjust brightness of the monitor when calibrating a monitor, it will generally turn (or ask you to turn) the monitor brightness down to around 50% or less. My MacBookPro is always around 50% and my external Eizo monitor around 18% of their full brightness. This is regardless of whether you print or not, but if you do print, they come out of the printer looking very close to the screen.

      • Dan cook
        Posted at 23:06h, 29 July Reply

        Thanks for the reply Martin. One thing I’ve never thought of before but is the Histogram a good indicator of exposure for print brightness i.e. a balanced histogram = ‘s good print brightness or does the histogram only reflect data on that particular sensor ?

        • Martin Bailey
          Posted at 23:35h, 29 July Reply

          I don’t use the histogram as a tool for good prints as such. Most of the time I just shoot to the right, and leave the images there. I reduced exposure of some of my Namibia shots, such as the sand dunes and Deadvlei, as I showed here, but that’s not that common. Because I have full control of my calibration and monitor brightness, and expose to the right, it all just works. I don’t use the histogram again with regards to printing, and I don’t really try to attain a balanced histogram.

          I think the idea of a histogram with all the data nicely in the middle, if that’s what you mean by a balanced histogram, is one of the main reasons peoples’ images and prints are often too dark. It was how we were told to do it by the manufacturers etc in the early days of digital, and they still support this with their 18% grey metering that is so outdated now it just ain’t funny.

          I might be a bit of a lone-wolf on this, or at least in the minority, but I just know how easy my digital workflow is, from capture to print, and how beautifully clean my images are, so I would just love to see more people working this way.

  • @stevesayskanpai
    Posted at 17:59h, 30 July Reply

    Hi Martin,

    Just a quick question and forgive me if I’m not understanding ETTR correctly! As I don’t shoot nature and rarely shoot in snow, most of my shots contain a mixture of tones. As such, they often tend to lie in the middle of the histogram.

    My question is whether ETTR makes a substantial difference if tested under controlled conditions where you shoot two shots:

    1. Exposed to the middle of the histogram

    2. ETTR and then reduce exposure in Lightroom until the histogram resembles that in 1)

    These two shots should now have a similar level of exposure, but, according to your podcast, 2) should contain more information as you have originally exposed to the right (where there are more ‘bits’ of information).

    Will this therefore result in a higher quality image with less noise in 2), and will this difference be noticeable?

    Many thanks and keep up the great work!

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 18:07h, 30 July Reply

      That’s exactly what will happen Steve. Unless you hit your ISO performance ceiling, which would have to be really noisy, 2 above will produce better quality images. The difference will be noticeable more as you get into the higher ISO, because lower ISOs are less noisy to start with. I literally use this method all the time though, and actually rarely reduce the exposure of my images. Everyone thinks I shoot high-key of course, but they look fine on my calibrated (and darkened down to calibrated levels) monitor.

      • @stevesayskanpai
        Posted at 18:10h, 30 July Reply

        Great, thanks for the clarification Martin! I think step one is to reduce my monitor brightness down to 30/40% or so, as you have suggested in the past.

      • stevesayskanpai
        Posted at 20:42h, 01 August Reply

        I’m still not convinced by this method. Have you got any test data to back up the claim? I did a bit of preliminary testing myself, comparing 1 shot ETTR and darkened versus 1 shot ETTMiddle and couldn’t see any difference, even at higher ISOs.

        • Martin Bailey
          Posted at 20:48h, 01 August Reply

          I don’t have any test shots as such, but I’ve been shooting like this for almost ten years. I see how clear my shots are every day, so I’ve never felt the need to test this. Note though that I don’t do this just for high ISO performance. It’s a way of shooting that makes your work cleaner and your entire workflow easier.

          I don’t have time to set up any specific tests right now, but in the meantime, how about sending me your test photos, just web size is fine. I want to see the sort of scene you are testing etc. I might be able to comment just based on that. If you mail me via the contact button above, I’ll mail you my address.

          • Martin Bailey
            Posted at 21:34h, 01 August Reply

            Thanks for sending the photos Steve. First of all, you only separated the exposure by 1.3 stops, and the ISO was not extremely high by todays standards, so I wouldn’t expect to see a difference grain wise. They both look great.

            What you did gain though, is more detail in your shadows. Go to the Develop model in Lightroom, zoom in on the pens, and click on the little triangle in the top left of the histogram. This will make your plugged up shadows show blue. Unless this is down to the JPEG conversion, which I doubt very much, you’ll see that you have more detail in the shadows in the higher ISO shot. You can also see this without the blue-highlighting.

            You’ll benefit more from this particular trick when shooting in lower light, but again, I don’t shoot like this just for the high-ISO benefits. You can see from your quick test that you have more detail in the shadows. It’s totally up to you, but if you try this in your work for a while, I guarantee you will start to appreciate the benefits.

            • stevesayskanpai
              Posted at 22:36h, 01 August Reply

              Hi Martin,

              Thanks a lot for taking the time to look at my test pictures. I agree with you that there is a clear and noticeable difference. I have just done a second test, at ISO 6400 and there is a startling difference between the two shots – I will post them up on my blog later today and provide a link, if you have the time pop on over and see what you think!

              Thanks again,

              Steve

  • Zoran
    Posted at 20:02h, 30 July Reply

    Hi Martin, long time no chat, this would make a great video podcast have you thought about doing something like that?

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 20:06h, 30 July Reply

      Hi Zoran,

      Sorry, but I can’t really think of how a video podcast would help to explain this. Which part do you think would benefit from video?

      Cheers,
      Martin.

  • terrybabij
    Posted at 23:07h, 01 August Reply

    Thank you so much for your detailed explanation. Your examples provided great visual verification. Always enjoy your podcasts, now I have to listen to twice with the enhanced versions since much of my podcast consumption is in the car and not a good idea to share attention 3 ways:)

    Cheers
    Terry

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 23:31h, 01 August Reply

      Thanks for listening Terry! I’m pleased you found this useful too.

      Yeah, be careful when driving. Some people listen, and look at images at stop lights etc. but any more than that is definitely not advisable.

  • Justin Cooksey
    Posted at 18:27h, 04 August Reply

    Martin, thanks for another great podcast, I’ve been listening to them for some time now, usually on the way to or from work. I had to read this one from the blog though to give it my full attention.

    Thanks,
    Justin

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 18:32h, 04 August Reply

      You’re welcome Justin! Thanks for listening/reading! I’m pleased this was useful.

  • stephanie
    Posted at 19:46h, 05 August Reply

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge, I have always expose to the left and never too happy with my images, will try exposing to the right.

  • Cathy
    Posted at 19:08h, 19 August Reply

    Martin,

    Thanks so much for such a clear and concise explanation of a complex topic. The little extra bit of info on what the histogram looks like in LR was really useful too. I thought that I may have been under-exposing slightly based on the LR histogram and it turns out that this is not the case. My understanding is that PS gives you even more wiggle room than LR – is that your experience?

    Cathy

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 19:45h, 19 August Reply

      I’m pleased this was useful Cathy!

      LR and Photoshop both use the same Adobe Camera RAW engine, making them identical. The only difference is a slightly different user interface layout.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • alin
    Posted at 09:03h, 11 September Reply

    funny thing about the features that you want to see in cameras, seems the MagicLantern community has build that, or something very similar http://www.magiclantern.fm/forum/index.php?topic=5693.0

    Just thought you may be interested to know about it.

    Keep up the good work, amazing podcast as always

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 12:10h, 24 September Reply

      Yeah, I’m aware of MagicLantern Alin, and might give it a try one day. There are a few features that I think would be useful. I wish Canon would just add them to their products from the start though! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Markus Hofstaetter (@poolaroids)
    Posted at 15:46h, 23 September Reply

    Hi Martin,

    I just started with podcasts and where listening to this on my way to a shooting. I’m a self taught photographer and started to realize some years ago, that shooting to the right gives me more quality when I stop it down post. I did not think much about it and because the quality got better, I started shooting to the right. I explained to others to rather use high iso and stop it down, but most people are so scared to use high iso and thought I was crazyโ€ฆ.I do big print sometimes and with them I could proof to others that Iโ€™m right with my thesis.
    And now after your podcast, I was like โ€œIโ€™m not the only one how works like thatโ€ ๐Ÿ˜‰
    (I n ever read something about overexposing beforeโ€ฆ)
    I really enjoyed listening to your podcast and looking forward to the next ones.

    Thanks so much.
    Markus

    Ps: Now I have a link, to link to if somebody is scared to shoot with high iso ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 12:11h, 24 September Reply

      Glad to have been of help Markus. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Daniel
    Posted at 22:53h, 12 March Reply

    ETTR is very well handled by Magic Lantern (firmware “upgrade” for Canon cameras). You can further bracket the ettr-ed shot.
    And many other useful features for landscape photos.

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 08:33h, 13 March Reply

      That’s one more reason that I should finally try Magic Lantern. Thanks for letting me know Daniel! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Fraser
    Posted at 02:52h, 23 May Reply

    Hi Martin, really enjoying your podcasts, and shooting to the right has really clicked with me…never considered it before. Now I’m shooting at iso 6400 all over the place! Thank you so much, the noise difference is really noticeable. Great stuff ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 09:12h, 23 May Reply

      That’s great! Thanks for letting me know, and for listening to the podcasts Fraser!

  • Rui Costa
    Posted at 02:20h, 12 January Reply

    Hi Martin. Awesome article! I think your reference to 14 bit as a 65536 tonal range is wrong though. I think it should be 16384 tones (2^14 tones). Just being a bit picky, I know ๐Ÿ˜€

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 15:40h, 24 January Reply

      Picky? Maybe, but correct you are. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I don’t recall why or how I got to that number, but that is 16 bit, and 14 bit is as you 16384 as you point out.

      Thanks for bringing that to my attention Rui!

  • Petter
    Posted at 06:21h, 02 January Reply

    Love your images and the podcast/blog! Just got myself into printing and quickly finding out what a great resource you are on the topic. Just bought Making the print as well, looking forward to dig in.

    Regarding this topic, does it make any difference if you shoot with a camera with iso invariance (which I think is the correct term for it). I’m shooting with Fuji cameras, mainly X-T2 and X70. If I understand it correctly, with a camera turning up the ISO in camera has the exact same effect as brighting the image with the exposure slider in e.g. Lightroom?

    • Martin Bailey
      Posted at 09:24h, 02 January Reply

      Hi Petter,

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m pleased you are enjoying your printing and that my content is helping with that.

      You are correct about ISO Invariance. I covered this here: https://mbp.ac/520

      In practice, you can bump up the ISO after the event, but there are a number of things to keep in mind, and I do recommend that you do some tests similar to those that I did, so that you can get a good idea of the limits of ISO Invariance with your camera.

      Having said that, I have found that I have continued to shoot to the right, and I’m still enjoying the results more this way. I find it a pain to think about the cutoff point, and you would have to modify exposure on almost every photo anyway, so the benefits of not using ETTR are tiny in my opinion.

      How it has changed my photography though, is that when there simply isn’t enough light to get a fast enough shutter speed, I am now not worrying about that as much as I used to, and am more comfortable with falling back on increasing Exposure in post than I was. That’s about it though.

      I hope that helps.

      Happy New Year!

      Regards,
      Martin.

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