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How to ETTR (Expose to the Right) for Better Exposure

Last updated: September 21, 2023 - 7 min read
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Exposing to the right (ETTR) is an exposure strategy that can help you improve the quality of your final images. This technique can help you capture photos with less noise and as many details as possible in the shadows.

And this is done all without losing information in the highlights. But ETTR is controversial. A lot of photographers agree and find ETTR really useful. But some think that it is an unnecessary complication.

These differences in opinion might originate from the fact that ETTR is not the easiest technique. It can ruin your exposure if you use it incorrectly. And good results are not obvious in all situations. Let’s see what it is about. And you can decide for yourself if ETTR is for you.

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The Fundamentals of Exposure to the Right (ETTR)

Exposure refers to the amount of light that reaches your camera’s sensor. A technically well-exposed image looks bright or dark enough. It does not lose details in the shadows or highlights. And it has a similar look to the original scene that was shot.

These tasty sweets below (baklawa) look exactly like they did when they were in front of me. They’re not too dark and not too bright. So the image is correctly exposed.

Getting the right exposure requires understanding the exposure triangle, including ISO and exposure compensation. Head over to our tutorial on the exposure triangle if you want to refresh your knowledge.

Lines of tasty baklawa sweets shot using ettr technique

1. How to Read a Histogram and Why It’s Important

Almost all cameras these days show you the photo’s histogram. This is a great tool that enables you to check the exposure of your images.

It is a graph set on two axes. And it represents the range of tones in your image.

A photo histogram to check the exposure of images

The horizontal axis represents all your image’s tonal range, from pure black on the left side to pure white on the right. And tonal levels can be divided into groups from darker to lighter. So we have blacks, shadows, midtones, highlights, and whites.

An image of a cave with the histogram overlayed to point out shadows, blacks, midtones and whites of the image

The peaks of the histogram represent the percentage of the pixels with a certain exposure value (EV). The higher the peak, the more pixels in the tone you have.

The image is considered well-exposed if the histogram is stretched over the horizontal axis.

If the histogram has more weight on the left side, the dark tones are predominant in the image. And you can say that your photo is underexposed.

The photo is overexposed if the histogram has more weight to the right. And light tones are dominant.

The three images were taken with different exposure settings. In the one on the far right, I exposed the photo for the highlight. And this photo would work nicely for ETTR.

Three flower images taken with different exposure settings.

It might happen that the peaks in one or both extremes are reaching out of the graph. This means you clipped the blacks (on the left side) or burnt the highlights (on the right side).

The histogram’s right side in the image below touches the graph’s border. This is because I set the exposure to totally burn the whites.

An underexposed flower image with histogram

2. Why ETTR Can Help You Get Better Images

The idea behind ETTR is to take photos with the histogram pushed slightly toward the whites. But you must also ensure not to burn the highlights.

In other words, you intentionally overexpose your image without burning it. But what is it good for?

The theory is that you will have a higher-quality file once you process the photo back to the correct exposure. And it will be better than exposing the photo correctly or underexposing it.

And why is that? Well, the sensor of the camera captures light in a non-linear way. So the sensor has less space for capturing dark tones than bright ones. For that reason, the right side of the histogram has more capacity to store information.

This has an important implication regarding the quality of the image file. Trying to recover details from blacks in post-processing will produce noise in your image. There is not a lot of information to recover detail from.

If you want to recover detail from the highlights, they can store information more easily. The recovery process won’t affect the final quality of your image.

In fact, when you darken an ETTR image, you bring it to a lower ISO than when you took it. And this reduces noise in the photo.

3. How to Use ETTR to Get Better Quality Images

When attempting to use the ETTR method, it is crucial to shoot in RAW. That’s because you will need to post-process the images later. And RAW files let you make more adjustments than JPEGs.

ETTR is an easy technique. But it’s best to be careful not to burn the highlights because this can totally ruin your image.

Use your camera’s light meter to evaluate the scene. And adjust the exposure triangle settings to be overexposed.

An overexposed pictured of a pink flower

Start by taking one overexposed image. And to be certain that you didn’t burn the photo, check the histogram to ensure the highlights are not “climbing” on the right side of the graph.

If your camera can display “blinkies” (a visual indicator that marks burnt areas), enable it. This way, you can see the pure-white areas blinking. But keep in mind that blinkies are not as accurate as the histogram.

An overexposed pictured of a pink flower

If you think you can push the exposure of your image a bit further to the right, adjust the camera settings again and take another photo. And stop increasing the exposure when you see that you are burning the whites.

A triptych of bringing down an overexposed pictured of a pink flower - ettr photography

Lastly, bring down the exposure in post-processing. You can use any editing software, like Adobe Lightroom.

When you import the image to Lightroom, you can see its histogram in both the Library and Develop modules.

A screenshot of bringing down an overexposed pictured of a pink flower in Lightroom

You can correct the exposure with the Exposure slider in the Develop module.

A screenshot of bringing down an overexposed pictured of a pink flower in Lightroom

4. Comparison of Processed ETTR Photo and Original Image

When you compare the photos straight from the camera, you can see that the ETTR is overexposed.

This is a well-exposed image vs an ETTR image, both straight from the camera.

After decreasing the exposure of the ETTR image, they both look the same.

An ETTR flower image after bringing down the exposure.
This is the ETTR image after bringing down the exposure.

But if you zoom in on the darker areas, you can see that the correctly exposed image has more noise. And it’s also a bit less sharp than the darkened ETTR image.

This is exactly what we want to achieve from this technique.

Flower photography diptych showing an originally well exposed photo and then ETTR after exposure correction

5. When You Should Use ETTR and When to Avoid It

ETTR is a good technique to know and keep in mind. Using it more or less often will depend on what type of photographer you are.

ETTR is very useful if you think ahead and plan the scene. This way, you can give yourself time to get a high-quality final image. This is why landscape photos are a great subject for ETTR.

Another aspect that might influence your decision to ETTR is what you want to do with the image. If you are going to print it, ETTR could be very beneficial.

In other photo situations, you might want to avoid using ETTR. Examples include kid’s portraits, weddings, sports, and wildlife photography.

A sweet portrait of a little boy on a beach

They are situations where you can’t take the chance of missing a shot. Or you might be restricted by the scene’s demands in terms of the camera settings. In these cases, it’s better to be more conservative than risk burning too much of the scene.

Another situation in which ETTR doesn’t make much sense is when you need to increase the ISO to overexpose. When you increase the ISO, you also increase the noise in the photo. This is exactly what you try to avoid when applying ETTR.

Save yourself from extra work in post-processing by taking a well-exposed photo with metered exposure.

Conclusion: How to ETTR for Better Exposure

ETTR (exposing to the right) is a seemingly easy technique. You just need to overexpose your image and bring back the exposure in post-processing.

But it has risks. You can accidentally ruin the image by overexposing too much. Avoid this by mastering the histogram and using the camera blinkies.

ETTR is also not useful in every situation. But keep these things in mind before pressing the shutter release.

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