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The Easy Way to Expose to the Right in Digital Photography

You may have read my two posts about  the value of exposing to the right in digital photography (also known as ETTR), What Lurks in the Shadows: The Case of the Black Cat and The Perfect Exposure, Or, When Things Don’t Look So Good.   In the second one, I show you an example of where I nail my exposure — the photograph  is exposed as brightly as possible without blowing out any significant highlights (any highlights at all, in this case):

(For an explanation on how to read the histogram, see the first post.)

I often get the follow-up question from readers, “How do you expose it so perfectly, other than by bracketing and trial and error?”

It’s actually quite easy, once you get to know your camera.   There are all kinds of exposure rules in photography — but when I switched to a digital camera, I have to admit that I abandoned most of them for the one I will explain below.

I should say first that I almost always shoot in manual exposure mode, because by the nature of what  I like to photograph, I almost always have time to measure the exposure and set my aperture and shutter speed. If instead I am shooting a fast-moving or changing scene, I put the camera in aperture- or shutter-priority and take what my camera gives me.  But these instructions are for when you have more time.  They  assume that you know how to shoot in manual exposure mode.  You may need to look up in your camera manual how to accomplish these steps:

1.  Set your camera to always display the histogram as it displays your photographed image.  This way you will get instant feedback on how well you did on setting the exposure.  I would also suggest that you turn the “blinkies” on — so that blown out highlights in your image flash on and off.  This will immediately show you what is blown out.

2.  Set your camera metering to spot metering, or, if not available, then partial. This will limit the exposure reading to the narrowest range of the center of your viewfinder frame.  Understand from your camera manual what portion of the center your setting covers.  For mine, spot metering covers the center circle.

3.  Look at the scene you are going to photograph and identify the brightest part of it that you do not want to blow out.  For me this is often the sky —   unless the sky is completely washed-out gray, I generally don’t want the detail (color or clouds) to be blown out.  However, if my subject is in the shadows, I know that I will have to let the sky go (or shoot multiple exposures and blend them with Photoshop or Photomatix, but that is not the direction of this post.)  If not the sky, the brightest part that I don’t want to blow out is often a white or very bright subject, like a shirt.

3.  Looking through your viewfinder, point the center of the frame at that chosen brightest part of your scene, zooming in if necessary so that it fills the inner circle.

4.  Rather than “zeroing out the meter”, which would put this highlight at medium gray, set your shutter speed or aperture so that the meter reads shows just short of being blown out.  It will take a little practice to figure out exactly where this is, but for my camera it is 1 2/3 stops brighter than zeroing out the meter.  Once you figure out what the right answer is, it will always be the answer.

Looking through my viewfinder on my Canon camera, here’s what zeroing out the meter looks like:

And here I have increased the exposure by reducing the shutter speed or widening the aperture, so that the metered highlight is just short of blown out:

expose to the right in digital photography

5.  Shoot, and examine your histogram.  If it isn’t as well-positioned as mine, why not?  (Remember, what is important is the position, not the shape.)

If it looks like the histogram below,

Underexposed Image

then it is underexposed — for your camera, 1 2/3 stops (or whatever you tried)  isn’t the right answer — experiment until you figure out what is.

If it looks like this:

Overexposed Image

then you have blown out highlights.   Either you have (1) metered on something that is not as bright as the real brightest highlight in your scene, (2) not confined your metering to just that (instead, you may have included surrounding darker tones), or (3) not yet figured out what the “right answer” is for your camera — try a slightly lower exposure.

Keep in mind that if you are shooting in raw, that you actually have a little leeway — the histogram is showing some blown out highlights that you will find aren’t really blown out.

Finally, if your histogram looks like this:

Exposure to the Right, But Detail Lost in Shadows

then you have succesfully exposed to the right, as explained.  However, in this case there is such a range of tones (i.e. such high contrast) in the image that the cost of not blowing out the highlights is blocking up and losing detail in the shadows.   You need to make a choice in this case — is detail in the shadows more important than detail in the highlights, for this particular image?  If so, increase the exposure and let the highlights go.  Remember from What Lurks in the Shadows: The Case of the Black Cat, if what falls in the shadows needs to be brightened to look right, you will otherwise be revealing ugly noise and lack of detail.

Note that if you usually shoot in aperture or shutter priority with center-weighted or evaluative/matrix metering, don’t forget to switch your metering setting back, so that the meter reads more of your scene in these automatic modes.

Do you have a different technique?  Share it with us by leaving a comment below.

2017-07-09T12:22:13-07:00 September 18th, 2011|27 Comments


  1. Les Howard September 19, 2011 at 8:43 am - Reply

    Good explanation of this technique, Laura. I included a link to it in my mashup of photo tips.

    • Laura Shoe September 19, 2011 at 10:00 am - Reply

      Thanks, Les!

  2. John Ruckser September 20, 2011 at 3:34 am - Reply

    I tried this method. So simple even I was successful after a few tries. I hope it works in aperture priority as well.

    • Laura Shoe September 20, 2011 at 9:17 am - Reply

      Good to hear it worked for you, John. Unfortunately it won’t work in aperture priority, as the camera then decides how brightly to expose… and cameras don’t yet use the ETTR rule.

      • FedkaTheConvict September 21, 2011 at 11:41 am - Reply

        When shooting in Av or Tv Mode, wouldn’t + Exposure Compensation work the same as ETTR? What + Exposure Compensation does is slow the shutter speed which pushes the histogram to the right.

        • Laura Shoe September 21, 2011 at 11:44 am - Reply

          It would push the histogram to the right by however many stops you specify, Fedka, but it wouldn’t pin it to just short of being blown out. Some images will be too far to the right, some not far enough.

          • Christophe Parroco October 15, 2013 at 3:46 pm

            Even with 1/3rd of EV compensation increments? Also can you enlighten me on the overexposed image, I thought it looked like a well exposed histogram because nothing clipped (except the blue maybe) and that it was pushed to the right, if anything it looks to me that it’s not “over-exposed” enough as in it could be pushed a little more to the right, since nothing seems to have clipped. Im currently reading a lot about understanding the histograms, it’d be very helpful if you could briefly explain why that histogram is overexposed, as it looks less pushed to the right than your perfect exposure one. Thanks

          • Laura Shoe October 16, 2013 at 1:13 pm

            Christopher, the overexposed image histogram I show has a spike on the right edge — indicating that there are clipped highlights.

            Once you see the histogram for your scene, you could certainly use EV compensation to push it however many stops or fractions of a stop you need to, but my method will allow you to get it right the first time.

  3. Dan Miller September 20, 2011 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the info Laura, I’m going to try it out the next time I shoot. And I love your web site. I am a longtime Lightroom user and after going through your site I am re-discovering things, and finding things I didn’t know; now I’m going back through my catalog and re-editing some of my photos!

    Thank you!

    • Laura Shoe September 20, 2011 at 9:01 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the note, Dan. Let me know how your exposure experiments go! I am glad you are enjoying the site. No hard sell intended at all — there will alwys be lots of quality free content, but in addition, lots of long-time Lightroom users also find good stuff in my DVD!

  4. John September 21, 2011 at 12:59 am - Reply

    Excellent description. Just to expand a little. On the occasions when the histogram indicates too great a dynamic range you can also use the same method to determine a value to hold the shadows. If the two values are within two or three stops of each other then you can get the full range of tonality with two exposures using those values. Merging just those two exposures in post will give you the full range without clipping important highlights or having to do any heaving lifting of the shadows, which would otherwise reveal noise. Keep the apperture setting the same or close for both exposures.


    • Laura Shoe September 21, 2011 at 11:44 am - Reply

      Thanks for the addition, John!

  5. Ron Whitaker September 22, 2011 at 11:16 am - Reply

    Thanks Laura,

    I have been shooting to the right for a while and this make it one step faster and simpler. On the Canon 50D one of the options is to reverse the direction of the wheels. This added another step simpler for my poor dyslexic mind. Now I push the wheel in the direction I want the little pointer to move.

    Thanks much.

    +Ron Whitaker

    • Laura Shoe September 22, 2011 at 11:35 am - Reply

      Thanks for the tip, Ron — I didn’t realize it was possible to reverse the direction!

  6. mike c December 16, 2011 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    Thanks Laura for the article. I find street work is a whole different animal. I have been trying my hand at street photography for about a year now mostly in low light situations. Since most of my shots are “from the hip” so to speak trying to capture the subject unopposed and unaware of me, with no time to setup the scene I set the camera on tight spot, shutter priority 90/sec with a +1 bracket and let the aperture float where it may. This setup will push the histogram to the right w/o blowing out the highlights.
    Thanks again for all the great advice.

    • Laura Shoe December 18, 2011 at 6:43 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the comment, Mike. I agree that this is a different animal — no time to carefully meter and set your exposure. What makes you successful with your approach is that you know your camera’s meter. Through careful observation you have found that +1 works best. Only thing I’m not quite sure of is why you use the spot meter, rather than have your camera meter on the larger scene.


      • mike c December 19, 2011 at 11:01 am - Reply

        Hi Laura,
        The manmade canyons of New York City can be a very harsh environment as far as light is concerned. Shafts of bright sunlight filtering down into the deep shadows between the buildings. For all my street work I use a 24-70 mm f/2.8 lens. (still waiting for a 24mm f/1.4 prime). I prefer to get close in as opposed to the Paparazzi who use 200-300mm lens and shoot from afar. I try to get in as much of the scene as possible then crop it down to what I want. I center the shot on the main subject holding my finger lightly on the trigger locking the meter and focus then quickly recomposing the scene when i have the chance, then click. Most of the pics will have a hot or cold area. I have found if I set the meter on center weight or full matrix the subject is either over or under exposed.


        • Laura Shoe December 19, 2011 at 1:57 pm - Reply

          Makes sense, Mike … thanks for sharing!

  7. John King January 10, 2013 at 4:35 am - Reply

    Knowing how much tolerance your camera has for highlights is a really important step as you say. Taking a little time to test is a good idea to take some of the guesswork out of adding exposure. I think software plays a role here too.

    Sunlit snow makes a great test subject to understand how much leeway you have with highlights using the camera and its meter. I just revisited the snow tests I did two years ago and remembered that LR4 with Process Version 2012 provides almost +1EV more dynamic range in the highlights than LR3 for my camera.

    • Laura Shoe January 10, 2013 at 9:12 am - Reply

      Great suggestion, John! Snow and sun are two pretty rare winter elements here in Seattle, but I know this will be useful to many!

  8. Gary Berman November 11, 2014 at 12:55 pm - Reply

    Hi Laura. At last, I’ve just seen the light. I’ve implemented your suggestions and they work brilliantly. I’m now getting perfectly exposed, beautifully clear images with accurate colour balance. I’ll never use my camera in auto mode again.

    • Laura Shoe November 11, 2014 at 4:05 pm - Reply

      Hooray – I’m glad my suggestions have been helpful, Gary!

  9. Kevin November 29, 2015 at 5:07 am - Reply

    Great explanation. A friend forwarded it to me because I was struggling to emphasize the importance of using the histogram while teaching from friends. It was as though they really just needed to trade-in for a point-and-shoot. But I guess I am going to learn how the knobs work on that other camera brand so I can show them (I use the good camera brand 🙂 ). So, when people want to make images that look like yours and they haven’t spent the time to learn how to display the histogram, what do you do? We were out at the beach in FL shooting the Milky Way. They had the camera pointed in almost the right way (“You may want to try a vertical for the Milky Way.” was an ineffective instruction too). I have found that shooting brighter is mandatory for night-Milky Way stuff. Who cares if the pin points of stars are barely blown out. You have to save the shadows. I look at their images on the back of the camera and say, that appears a little dark; show me the histogram.” They can’t do it. I am going to harass my friends until they either hate me, or they learn to use the histogram.

  10. Sybrand June 27, 2016 at 2:45 am - Reply

    excellent info regarding ETTR .my question is can one use any iso number to do ETTR photography or should you keep at base 100iso always. Secondly do one always need to spot on brightest part or can you ETTR any time regardless of the brightest (white ) part of the image ??

    Thanks very much regards


    • Laura Shoe July 2, 2016 at 12:20 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Sybrand. To avoid or minimize noise, you should use the lowest ISO setting possible.

      With ETTR, exposing to the right, you want to meter on the brightest part of your photo that you don’t want to lose detail in (i.e. blow out). It’s this part of the photo that you want to end up just short of blown out or just short of the right edge on the histogram. (Often the sky is the brightest part of a photo taken outdoors – sometimes preserving the detail in this may be important to you (i.e. it’s a nice blue sky or has cloud patterns), and sometimes it may not be important (like a solid white/light gray sky).

      • Sybrand July 2, 2016 at 4:05 pm - Reply

        Thank you very much for info regarding my 2 questions. I would like to ask some questions regarding following scenarios ……….. can one apply ETTR in these :

        1. Indoors wedding groups bride white dress.?

        2. Incident light indoors ( functions ) ect… ? white shirt

        3. Candle light and city lights night photography ?

        4 wildlife and action in daylight?

        5 How does Ettr work with incident light meter readings do one also ETTR from such readings ?

        Thank you very much. look forward to hear from you. regard Sybrand

        • Laura Shoe July 5, 2016 at 8:30 pm - Reply

          I’m sorry, Sybrand, I unfortunately don’t have time to cover this, but your questions are good ones, and I’m glad that I have gotten you thinking through all this! I’d recommend posting in one of the photography forums. I will say that when shooting people and action you probably won’t have time to use manual exposure and meter for every photo – if you use one of the automatic modes, keep an eye on your histogram (display it in-camera), and if you see it consistently under-expose in a situation, use exposure compensation to adjust it for images going forward.

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