Photography has come a long way, baby! There were rules for properly exposing film. Then digital moved on the scene with new rules. Guess what? The rules have changed … again.

Photography with negative film

Negative film gave us quite a bit of exposure latitude. Overexposure, unless it was severe, wouldn’t totally lose all information. A print could still be made with a fair amount of overexposure of the negative.

Then came early digital capture.

Digital photography in the beginning

digital photography example for noise with different exposures
Screen capture of RAW files. Exposures two stops under to two stops over.

When we first started with digital photography it was absolutely imperative that we not overexpose. That warning came with explanation points! As a result, if you were to do so there was no recovery of the highlights. None. Highlights blown out pretty much negated having an image to share. It was akin to photographing with slide film. There was no room for error.

Because of this initial experience it has become ingrained that a photographer should never overexpose a frame. Times are changing. In order to get the best quality from your exposures I now suggest that it is time to ETTR. Expose to the right.

Improved digital chips and processing

I won’t go into deep detail as that is a whole tech article. Suffice it to say that technology has made it possible to capture more information in the highlight areas. It is also possible to recover highlights even if a couple channels of color are blown out. The reason it is so important is image quality and noise.

Most noise is in the shadow areas of the file. The best pixels reside in the three quarter tones. If you underexpose and try to bring back detail you end up with tons of noise. If you expose to the right (slightly overexpose) and build your shadows in post your file will be much cleaner.

Three files

In the above images, I used ISO 3200 to exacerbate the noise a bit to help illustrate my point. Click on each image above to view them at a larger size.

Three exposures were made. One shot includes the camera meter’s recommended exposure. One shot is two stops under, and the last is two stops over. You can see the difference in the RAW captures. All three files were processed for correct exposure and the difference in noise is visible.

Expose to the right

The best file by far is the one that was technically overexposed. The absolute worst is the underexposed frame. Even the properly exposed image is showing a fair amount of noise in the shadows and sky areas.

Next time

How far is too far when exposing to the right? I’ll let you know how to get the most from your files, without loosing needed information. Going to extremes can be bad for your photos. I’ll give some tips to keep from overdoing a good thing in another post. I’ll go into more detail but here is a post on ETTR from Juan A. Pons.

Yours in Creative Photography, Bob

P.S., no noise reduction software was used on these images.