Expose To The Right (ETTR) isn't always right

There’s a good rule in digital photography called ETTR (Expose To The Right), that says that you should aim for your histogram to be as heavy loaded to the right side as possible (brighter), while avoiding clipping the whites. Once you clip a color (you go outside the possible values, so a white can only be white, there’s no brighter white), there’s no way to recover that data, but you can try and push it as close as possible to get the best data.

This works great in most cases, you get more data to work with, less noise, you can simply pull down the exposure slider and your image will look great. But it doesn’t always work as intended, as I just found out while editing some sunset photos.

 In this case, the optimal image to edit should be the third, it’s very heavy to the right side, and does not clip any of the bright values. More data to work with!

In this case, the optimal image to edit should be the third, it’s very heavy to the right side, and does not clip any of the bright values. More data to work with!

When ETTR doesn’t work properly

Look at what happens when we pull down the exposure on this image shot using ETTR, where no colors were clipping, yet it had a sharp peak close to the right edge of the histogram…

 ETTR version shows no color separation when pulling the exposure down.

ETTR version shows no color separation when pulling the exposure down.

As we pull the exposure down, there is no noise in the data, but there is also no color separation in what should be pink clouds! Each RGB channel has loads of data, but they all land in the same peak, therefore creating a lame white/gray color as the colors blend together.

Now let’s see what happens with a more balanced exposure…

 A more balanced exposure works better for this case, instead of ETTR.

A more balanced exposure works better for this case, instead of ETTR.

With the non-extreme, balanced photo, when we pull the exposure down, the color separation is clear and we can see the original pinks. It’s important to read the histogram and avoid a large peak close to the edge. This image also had a peak towards the right, but not tightly crunch to the very edge of the histogram, and it was a much wider column.

Conclusion

Using ETTR will give you extremely clean images to work with, where you won’t have as much noise in the shadows, and you’ll be able to tweak the exposure a lot without sacrificing image quality. ETTR is absolutely great in most cases, but make sure you aren’t just looking for clipping, but also for extreme peaks too close to the right, where ETTR can fail due to crunching too much data in a single range of RGB values.

ETTR 4.png

Avoid peaks on the right

This type of image is not good for ETTR.

ETTR 5.png

Leave breathing room

This type would be ideal for ETTR.