ETTR Uses and Technique

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon3 Comments

Jeff Harmon is joined at the round table by Connor Hibbs to talk about exposing to the right (ETTR) as a technique to get the very best image quality possible out of your digital camera

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Introduction

Welcome to the Master Photography Roundtable part of the Master Photography Podcast Network!  You are joined by thousands of photographers listening to this show who are all on the same journey to master their photography.  I am Jeff Harmon, the host for this episode and joining me at the roundtable is portrait photographer phenom Connor Hibbs. How are you Connor?  

Right off the top here I have to brag about the other podcast does with Erica Kay on our network called Portrait Session.  The Portrait Session Podcast was profiled in an fstoppers.com article here in late September 2018 with a lot of praise for helping portrait photographers.  So Congratulations to you and Erica on getting some well deserved recognition for your show. So glad to have you part of the Master Photography team!

Connor, besides adding to the conversation here wherever you want to jump in I also need your help to make sure I don’t dive too deep into the super technical.  Our topic is one that sounds very technical right off the bat with a 4 letter acronym and I could go off the rails so I need you to be the voice of reason and bring back if I go there.

Today we are going to do the discussion we talked about a few episodes back and talk about expose to the right or ETTR technique.  Conner, based on previous discussions I think you and I may seem to be on different sides of this technique where it is something I swear by and you avoid so I am excited to kind of have this discussion because I think we represent the listeners well.

Brief Explanation of ETTR

To start things off I want to as briefly as I can explain what it means to expose to the right.  Connor, this is where you have to make sure you check me because I could go 30 minutes on that alone and I don’t want to do that in this episode.  In fact, I already have done this in a Photo Taco episode called “How To ETTR” and we will put a link in the show notes for that for those who are interested.

I would imagine that most listeners of the podcast are familiar with the light meter exposure scale that helps them get the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO right for proper exposure.  You can see it as you put your eye up to the viewfinder and in live view. Goes from -3 to +3 on most cameras.

Most of the time your objective using that exposure scale is to get the exposure in the dead center at 0.  If the light meter puts the exposure indicator on the left side of center then you are under exposing. If it is to the right you are over exposing.  You use aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to move that indicator on the scale until you get to the center.

Pretty basic stuff there, but I remember how hard it was for me to figure out how to move that exposure indicator to the middle and still create the shot I wanted.  Do I make the aperture number bigger or smaller? Can I slow the shutter down even more? It was hard for me to remember and for a time I made a little piece of paper so that I could decide what to do more quickly.

If that is where you are with your photography, don’t play around with ETTR.  Keep working on nailing exposure dead in the center until it happens almost without thinking.  In fact, before trying to play with ETTR, learn about metering modes to help you get better information in different lighting situations.  I have a couple Photo Taco episodes on metering modes I will put in the show notes if you need to learn more about that.

With that kind of warning to my fellow beginning photographers, because I still count myself very much there, for those who feel ready to give this a try the simplest way to explain what you do with ETTR is deliberately making the decision to over expose your photo.  It is called expose to the right because you are going to make sure that exposure indicator on that exposure scale is to the right of the middle.

You can do that using any of the three exposure settings of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.  Which I think through in that order by the way. I think aperture is the most important of those three things and you need to decide on that first, then shutter speed, and last ISO.

Connor, anything else you would add to this really brief explanation of ETTR?

Why ETTR?

With that super brief explanation of ETTR, let’s talk about why anyone would want to do ETTR because right off I am sure there are listeners wondering why in the world when we are all trying so hard to get properly exposed photos would anyone want to over expose?  Especially because there are things that can be done to recover an image that is underexposed. Today you can underexpose an image by 3 to 5 stops and still end up with something useable.

There is a line of no return on over exposed images.  We call it blowing out the highlights and it is such a bad thing that for many years camera makers have put into the cameras the ability to turn on a feature that shows you blinking pixels on the photo where things are pure white.  Most photographers call this enabling the “blinkies” because each camera maker calls the feature a different name. Super useful feature that you should check out how to enable if you are going to play with ETTR.

There is a danger line there then that if you over expose your image by too much you can’t do anything in post to bring it back.  Really this is true of under exposed as well, but there is a lot more room for error there. Given that then, why would anyone want to flirt with over exposing their image?

Here is why.  The way the sensors work and the way the data is saved off to your memory card means that the brighter the photo can be the more detail can be captured at higher quality.  I don’t want to go through all of the technical details of that, so trust me there, but that is why ETTR is a technique many photographers use and it is something that has dramatically improved the images I can get out of my crop sensor camera.

Connor, there is a MASSIVE caveat to this, but before we go into that caveat I wanted to have you walk through why it is you are not on team ETTR.

ETTR Technique

I am fully on team ETTR.  I am absolutely convinced ETTR has enabled me to get more out of my crop sensor camera than many photographers.  May be part of the reason I have said many times that I do not feel my images are being limited by my use of a crop sensor camera.  Part of that is my skill, still very much learning things. But I seriously think part of it is ETTR.

I use ETTR in every shot I take and have for years now.  However, I have learned how to use it appropriately, and that is what I really wanted to share in this episode.  I described ETTR very simply at the top of the show as getting that exposure indicator over to the right side. However, that is over simplified and can so easily leave a photographer shooting images with huge portions of the photo completely blown out with no way to recover by reducing exposure.

The caveat with ETTR is that you have to be super careful not to go beyond the line where you blowout the highlights.  At least not for huge portions of your image. That will produce a much worse result than if you underexposed the image.  That will make your photo completely unusable.

You have to know enough about your camera and the lighting conditions for the photo you are making to understand where that line is for that photo.  I can’t give you exact numbers because it is going to be unique with each shot. Again,the goal of ETTR is to get the exposure as bright as you possibly can without crossing over that line of blowing out the highlights so that you can get an image with the highest possible quality within the capabilities of your camera.

There are a few things photographers have to consider as they are using ETTR so that they can avoid this problem.  I have a list of things I go through with my camera that I will walk through, but it may not be the same list you need with your camera.  Cameras have different strengths and weaknesses. To do ETTR you really have to know how to use all of the tools available to you so that you don’t cross that line and ruin your image with ETTR.

Let’s go through the list I have and then Connor I am interested in hearing if you have other things you think should be considered.

  1. Don’t Rely on LCD For Exposure.  You absolutely cannot trust what the LCD screen on the back of the camera is telling you about the exposure of your image.  Well, except for when you have enabled blinkies on your camera and then that is really helpful information – though even blinkies are not the entire truth as I will explain.
  2. User Your Light Meter.  We have talked about the light meter and how it will show you that exposure indicator on that exposure scale.  Incredible tool. Learn it well. Learn how and when to use different metering modes so that you can improve the quality of the information that exposure scale is providing.  
  3. Use Histograms! Now we are getting much closer to the truth about the exposure.  It is why I am so excited to go mirrorless at some point so that I can get this information as I am taking the photo through the electronic viewfinder.  

    Use a histogram to judge exposure in addition to the info from the light meter.  We haven’t talked about histograms in this episode and I don’t want to spend any time on them here.  I have a Photo Taco episode to check out if you don’t know what they are or how to use them I will throw in the show notes.  

    I love histograms but have to mention quickly there are two things that still hide the truth about your exposure.  First is that they come from the JPEG and not your raw file. If you shoot raw your camera embeds a JPEG into that raw file and your camera uses that to populate the histogram.  I can guarantee there is more room in the highlights than the histogram shows. Second, both white balance and picture profiles affect that same JPEG file, which can further impact the histogram and make it lie about your exposure.

    Still, the histogram is THE BEST tool you have in-camera to judge your exposure and make adjustments.
  4. Take Multiple Shots.  The beauty of digital photography is that you can take as many shots as you have space for on that memory card and battery in your camera.  For landscapes using the bracketing feature on your camera is an awesome resource here. I set my exposure slightly over the middle and then use 3 or 5 brackets so that I have multiple shots to choose from or can even exposure blend afterwards.  If it is a portrait, take some “safe” shots where you have the exposure right on where the light meter and histogram say you are good and then take the exposure up a touch and take a few more.
  5. Know The Limits of Your Camera.  This only comes by experience.  Doing lots of shooting. In my case I specifically tested doing ETTR to see where that line was.  As I mentioned, it won’t be the same for every camera. Won’t even be the same for the same manufacturer.  I shoot a Canon 7DM2 and the line I have figured out I can’t cross there may not be the same for the 5DM4 or the new R cameras.  

    I have found that with my 7DM2 if I meter things using spot metering on the brightest thing in the scene I am entirely safe shooting ⅔ of a stop over the middle.  There is enough room in the raw file to not lose any data in the highlights. In many cases I can take it even further to almost 2 stops. At that point I will lose some highlights but it is highlights I am find losing, things that can be pure white in the photo.

    Not only do you need to kind of figure out where the line is on how far to the right you can go with your camera, you have to figure out how you want to use ISO.  I don’t want to get into a lot of technical detail here, but in general my recommendation is that increasing your ISO until you get to the right side of that exposure scale is not going to help you get better images.

    There are lots of factors here with ISO.  Unfortunately all of them a unique to the camera you are using which is why I say you really have to get to know the camera you have.  It is not noise why I say that in general ISO shouldn’t be used to do ETTR. It is the effect on dynamic range.

    With all digital cameras the higher the ISO the less the dynamic range.  For some modern cameras you can take the ISO up to insane levels and still have plenty of dynamic range to make incredible images.  But on all cameras this is true and you can go over to photonstophotos.net and see if Bill has done the testing on your camera to see that.  

    Bill Claff has a photographic dynamic range chart I will link to in the show notes.  Using the information there is going to be a little bit subjective. Just like every photography has a different tolerance level for noise, which again is NOT why I suggest you don’t achieve ETTR with ISO, every photographer kind of has to figure out how low they are willing to take photographic dynamic range with their camera by increasing ISO.

    For me that value is 6.  I don’t want to take my PDR down to anything lower than 6 as I take photos.  I my 7DM2 that means I don’t use ISO above 2500. Again, not because of the noise, because of the decrease to dynamic range.  A PDR lower than 6 from Bill’s cale to me looks “muddy” almost like nothing is in focus. Losing edge details. Reducing overall image quality significantly in a way that I haven’t found a way to address in post-processing.

    On my Canon 80D, Bill’s chart shows me I can stay above 6 on PDR at ISO 3200.  So I have a little more room. I have seen it in the images too. I am as happy with the images from the 80D at ISO 3200 ans I am with the 7DM2 at 2500.

Conclusion

So Connor, when I say ETTR I mean making the photo with the brightest possible exposure without going over the line where you lose highlight details.  To me that is what produces the highest possible image quality. It does mean I am frequently reducing exposure in post. I am going to crush the shadows back down so that they are actually shadows in the photo.  

What I really what to avoid with ETTR is having to increase exposure in post.  I end up there sometimes because there just isn’t enough light in the shot. But I like the look of my images better if I don’t have to increase the exposure in post.  
Now it could be that it is because of the camera I am shooting.  Maybe if I switched to a full frame camera I would decide I don’t like ETTR with that camera.  I don’t have enough experience with other bodies to say for sure on that. Overall this whole thing can still be subjective.  I have decided I like the effect of the ETTR technique on my images. You may not. Which is just fine. I still think it is worth discussing so that photographers have the tools they need to make that decision.  Really we all need to find our way in how we can produce the images we want and I think ETTR is one of the things that might help you.

Doodads:

Jeff:  Photo Taco search.  Go to phototacopodcast.com and there is a search box there so that you can find episodes on all kinds of topics.  

Connor: ZhiYun Crane 2 ($650)

Reminders:

Comments

  1. Jeff,
    It was pretty clear to me that some of the feedback you received wanted a less technical approach. Just another viewpoint but of all the many podcasts I subscribe to, yours is definitely one of my favorites. I definitely do not think your approach is too technical, just the opposite. I love the way you take a topic, even technical ones and cover them so throughly. I especially appreciate the effort you make to make technical details understandable. Doubt anyone can please everyone all the time but at least from my perspective, you keep me wanting more. Thanks for all you do!

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