ETTR Revelation « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

ETTR Revelation

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The two Willet images above were created at Westhampton Beach, NY with the Canon 800mm f/5.L IS lens, the EF 1.4X III TC, and the EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Lens/TC/Camera Body Micro-Adjustment +3.

Image on the left: Evaluative metering -2 stops: 1/1600 sec. at f/11 in Av Mode.
Image on the right: Evaluative metering + 1 stop: 1/200 sec. at f/11 in Av Mode.

ETTR Revelation

ETTR: Expose to the right

As far back as The Art of Bird Photography II (916 pages on CD only) we urged folks to create images that had at least some data “spilling into the fifth histogram box on the right.” Over the past decade we have refined that advice and stated over and over that folks need to be sure to push their exposures to the right just to the point of creating a few blinkies. At seminars. In the Bulletins. On the blog. On BPN. On IPTs.

Why? To create RAW image files with near maximum amounts of data and to avoid introducing noise when too-dark images are lightened either during or after conversion. “But when I expose to the right my images look washed out on the back of my camera and on my laptop; that can’t be right, can it?” Well, the answer is a resounding yes. Expose to the right (without an excess of blinkies) and adjust your middle tones either during conversion or afterwards in Photoshop and you will produce exquisite image files with a minimum of noise. Below is the proof.

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Note the size of the darker of the two images, _Y9C9983: 19,072 kb. Now compare that with the size of the lighter image, _Y9C9985: 22,075 kb. Larger files contain more data and more color information and make cleaner more detailed image files (and therefore cleaner and more detailed prints). Not convinced yet? Read on.

At approximately 500%, the increase in noise and the loss of detail in the darker image are obvious. Though the comparison of a -2 stop image with a +1 stop image is a bit of an exaggeration, the principles remain the same: exposing to the right yields larger files with less noise. Period.

To learn how to evaluate and adjust your histograms in the field you can see the sections on histograms and exposure in either Digital Basics (a PDF sent via e-mail) or the Art of Bird Photography II (916 pages on CD only). The former contains my complete digital workflow and dozens of great Photoshop tips and the latter details everything new that I learned about nature photography from 1998 to 2006. To learn exposure theory (recommended only for serious photographers) consult the Exposure chapter in the original ABP (now in soft cover only). ABP III is on the distant horizon, possibly in printed form.

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This is the image optimized from the lighter file. A very few blinkies in the water were recovered in ACR by moving the Recovery Slider to the right.

Shopper’s Guide

Below is a list of the gear that I used to create the image above (along with some related items). Thanks a stack to all who have used the Shopper’s Guide links to purchase their gear as a thank you for all the free information that we bring you on the Blog and in the Bulletins. Before you purchase anything be sure to check out the advice in our Shopper’s Guide.

Canon 800mm f/5.L IS lens. Right now this is my all time favorite super-telephoto lens.
Canon 1.4X III TC. This new Series III TC is designed to work best with the new Series II super-telephoto lenses.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV professional digital camera body. My workhorse professional digital camera bodies.

And from the BAA On-line Store:

Gitzo GT3530LS Tripod. This one will last you a lifetime.
Mongoose M3.6 Tripod Head. Right now this is the best tripod head around for use with lenses that weigh less than 9 pounds. For heavier lenses, check out the Wimberley V2 head.
CR-80 Replacement Foot for Canon 800. When using the 800 on a Mongoose as I do, replacing the lens foot with this accessory lets the lens sit like a dog whether pointed up or down and prevents wind-blown spinning of your lens on breezy days by centering the lens directly over the tripod.
Double Bubble Level. You will find one in my camera’s hot shoe whenever I am not using flash.
The Lens Align Mark II. I use the Lens Align Mark II pretty much religiously to micro-adjust all of my gear an average of once a month and always before a major trip. Enjoy our free comprehensive tutorial here.

Delkin 32gb e-Film Pro Compact Flash Card. These high capacity cards are fast and dependable. Clicking on the link below will bring you to the Delkin web site. There is lots of great stuff there. If you see a product that we do not carry let us know via e-mail; we will be glad to have it drop-shipped to you and save you a few bucks in the process.

I pack my 800 and tons of other gear in my ThinkTank Airport SecurityTM V2.0 rolling bag for all of my air travel and recommend the slightly smaller Airport InternationalTM V2.0 for most folks. These high capacity bags are well constructed and protect my gear when I have to gate check it on short-hops and puddle jumpers. Each will protect your gear just as well. By clicking on either link or the logo below, you will receive a free gift with each order over $50.

7 comments to ETTR Revelation

  • Did some more careful experimentation and it turns out that it’s better to shoot an ETTR exposure at ISO 3200 than underexpose at ISO 400, 800, or even 1600. You lose a bit of contrast and some saturation, but both are easy to add back in RAW processing.

  • It was late and maybe I didn’t get the question across – what I was really asking is:
    In low light, are you better off to underexpose by a stop or two to keep the ISO low, or is it better to ETTR even if it means dialing up the ISO to 1600 and beyond.

    I just played around with my 24 f/1.4II and the family pet and it looks like a good ETTR exposure at ISO4000 (-.67 exposure compensation in PhotoShop ACR) has less noise than one shot at ISO 800 and pushed +1.67 stops.

  • Excellent info! I’ve been taking your advice on this and have excellent results. (only downside is my fault – in trying to straddle the line between a few “blinkies” and totally blown out, I have at times ruined some great images. But practice is the name of the game and I get better every time!)

    Another good way to illustrate this is with the histogram. As you adjust an exposure slider to the left, watch how quickly the data in each segment expands out. The data in the right most segment expands to the slowest, further illustrating the quantity of data available on the right side. The boxes to the left (with the least data, extend out much much quicker!

    Thanks for all the help! Glad the hand is doing better.


  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Ian, I do not understand your question: are you asking what I would have done if 1/200 sec. was the metered exposure at zero compensation?

    In any case, I would recommend that you do the tests to answer your own question and let us know what you find. 🙂 And remember, I can never know if something is “worth it” for you…

  • Excellent post and I love the 500% enlargement. I try to ETTR whenever possible but have one follow up question – is it worth boosting the ISO to expose further to the right? In your example, you had ample light and IS so you were able to keep the ISO the same, but what if you had started at 1/200 sec. and ISO 400 – would it be worth it to bump the ISO up to 3200 to get the lighter exposure? It’s something I’ve been meaning to try out in low light, but I imagine you have been there and done that.

  • Arla

    Excellent lesson illustrated here! “A picture is worth a thousand words…”