Why Exposure Matters.

Making once-in-a-lifetime photographs only to get home and find you botched the exposure can be one of the most disappointing and frustrating experiences a photographer can have. It happens to all of us, and after being bitten by it more than a few times, it’s something I work very hard to avoid. 

The simple fact is I want to succeed every time I make a photograph. I don’t want blown out highlights, and I don’t want lost shadow detail and noise that comes from underexposure. I want it right. I want something that expresses my creative intent, and I don’t want the time and money it costs to go out and find incredible photographs to be for nothing. 

One of my biggest frustrations with digital photography has been how hard it is to achieve an Expose To The Right exposure that truly pushes the exposure as far to the right as possible. I know I’m not the only one, because I consistently see the same issues of overexposure or underexposure in my work as a master printmaker. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve asked a client if they had another frame just a little darker so we could hold more highlight detail, or a little lighter to bring out more shadows.

The problem isn’t because of lack of experience. I spent years using 4x5 film, working with the extremely unforgiving latitude of color slide film, and could consistently use my spot meter to achieve exposures accurate to within 1/2 stop or less. Film was not only unforgiving, but expensive, so you really had to learn to get it right. Furthermore, in my printmaking for customers, I’ve scanned thousands of frames film on the Tango drum scanner, working to hold every ounce of detail from highlights and shadows. From this I learned just how important it is to make the best exposure you can every time, and I learned how to do it with great precision. 

The problem I was having was how to achieve that same level of exactitude with a digital camera, where the only way to read the exposure is in-camera with histograms. These in-camera guides are simply not sufficient. Histograms often don’t show small areas of highlight detail; the camera’s highlight warnings consistently seem inaccurate; and it’s difficult to evaluate RAW files, digging to find the original camera data buried beneath how the processing software has interpreted it.

Here is what I have realized: It’s not our fault we’re having these difficulties. The problem is that camera manufacturers have not given us the tools we need to evaluate our exposures with the precision needed for the most accurate exposure. Since our cameras and our techniques typically rely on the wide latitude of our sensors to underexpose the image and make sure the highlights are not blown out, we aren’t getting the most out of our cameras.

Underexposure can lead to lost shadow detail, increased noise, and failure to use the full latitude of our sensor. Even if you are attempting to Expose To The Right (ETTR), this could be happening to you. 

Let’s talk about ETTR for a moment so we understand what it is. Most digital cameras allow us to play back our images and display a histogram. As you may already know, the right side of the histogram represents the brightest area of our photograph. But if you expose too far to the right, you will lose highlight detail. The end of the histogram is like a wall, and everything that hits it is “blown out” to pure white. There is no way to recover detail from a pixel that is truly “blown out”. 

The goal of ETTR is to expose so the histogram bars get as close to the right as they can without slamming into the wall. That’s much easier to achieve if you know how to find the “right” with a high degree of precision, i.e. better than what our camera can show us. 

To properly ETTR, we need to see a “real” histogram. The problem is that our cameras don’t show us “real” histograms. What our cameras show us is a “biased” histogram that changes based on whatever colorspace (sRGB, AdobeRGB) and white balance our camera is set to.

It also appears (based on my observations) that camera manufacturers have built a “safety margin” into the histogram and highlight warnings, so they do not show us what is really happening. Relying on these tools could cause you to be underexposing by 1-2 stops, even when your camera is showing you a “perfect” exposure.

This consistent conundrum led me to go beyond the “standard” ways of using the tools, and develop a technique to calibrate my camera to produce more precise results. 

This out-of-the-box approach is nothing new for photographers. You don’t think Ansel Adams used the instructions inside the film box to make his masterpieces, do you? He had to use his knowledge of the process, and a careful approach, to go beyond the “standard” way of doing things and produce those luminous photographs of Yosemite. 

Similarly, if we improve our techniques with our digital cameras, we’ll have a better chance of making our masterpieces, or at the very least, being more satisfied with our results. 

The good news is that once you improve your technique, exposing with more accuracy is just as easy as how you’re doing it now. If fact, it’s even easier because it removes so much of the doubt that can come along with the process, and can even let you work faster.

That assurance of results makes me a more confident photographer and lets me find more enjoyment from photographing. 

The purpose of this workshop is to teach you my technique for getting around these shortcomings so you can achieve better ETTR with greater confidence and can obtain the consistent results you are seeking when you make a photograph.