July 29, 2013 - Editor's Note: One of the many talented whatbird.com forum members, Joseph Cala - who goes by JoeJr on the site, was ...

PHOTO TIPS - ETTR - Exposing to the Right - By Joseph Cala

July 29, 2013 -

Editor's Note: One of the many talented whatbird.com forum members, Joseph Cala - who goes by JoeJr on the site, was nice enough to share one of his many photography tips with the followers of Rogue Birder. Joseph's work can be seen at http://josephcala.zenfolio.com/

This tip improved my photography considerably.

ETTR - Exposing to the Right
 - Joseph Cala

ETTR--Four letters that cause quite a dispute in the photography world.

ETTR is a photography theory that stands for 'Expose to the Right', which means increasing the exposure to push the highlights of an image to the right on the histogram as far as possible without going too far and losing data.

The theory behind this is somewhat complex, and I promised Chris this wouldn't get overly technical. So to keep it simple, I'll just say that basically the theory is that exposing to the right creates photographs with the highest dynamic range and lowest noise possible.

If you're interested in the technical details, set aside a few hours and Google away. While you are Googling I would suggest taking a look at some of the examples from Jeff Schewe, especially his ETTR Niagara Falls.

You'll also find a wide range of opinions on the ETTR front. From countless people who swear it's the right way to expose, and numerous others who think that it is a total myth. My experiences have been that ETTR leads to better processed images that tend to have better dynamic range, better colors, and less noise.

Now, I said this was about ETTR, but I actually lied. What I'll explain below is actually 'BETTR', or 'Bird Exposed to the Right'. This is essentially the same thing as ETTR, however when shooting birds the idea is to expose the bird to the right without worrying about the background. Since the main point of bird photography is to create a fantastic image of the bird, it only makes sense to make sure that the bird is correctly exposed, even at the cost of the background.

Horned Lark (as shot) ©Joeseph Cala
Take this Horned Lark, for example. Most people looking at this picture would probably assume that this is an automatic 'delete' and would immediately move on to the next pictures in hopes of a better exposure. Of course, this also happens to be a great shot to show just how beneficial shooting RAW can be, as this image as shot as a JPEG would have in fact been an immediate delete.

Truthfully, this is an extreme case of BETTR and wasn't done intentionally but serves as a great tutorial picture so feel free to click here to download the unedited (only cropped) tiff file.

Let's use this image as a test image to demonstrate BETTR. After working through the test image I'd suggest trying it out for yourself, specifically comparing a 'correctly' exposed image and a processed ETTR image.

I'll be working the file through Lightroom 4. If you are using Photoshop or other editing software things will be a bit different.

Let's take a closer look at the image. If you've downloaded the file and pulled it into Lightroom you'll immediately see that the histogram is way to the right and that almost all of the histogram is in the far right box.

Horned Lark Histogram
It should be obvious that most of the background and the left side (our right) of the bird is blown out as well. This is not the idea of ETTR/BETTR, but again, this is a good demonstration shot.

First thing is some adjustment of the exposure slider to get things back to looking somewhat normal, although if you move the exposure slider all the way to -5.00 you'll see the areas I referenced above that are totally blown.

Exposure Slider -5.00
An exposure adjustment of -1.31 tends to look good to me, and with that adjustment it should be obvious that the bird was pretty severely lit from it's left side, but more on that later. A highlight adjustment of -75 or so tends to bring some grey back into the all white background and restores some of the facial features as well.

Exposure Slider -1.31 / Highlight Slider -75
With the bird lit from the side the breast area could use some shadow lightening, and this would be much easier with selective work in Photoshop. Since we're doing just a quick editing in Lightroom I'll adjust shadows +50, and -10 on the blacks.

Shadow Slider +50 / Blacks Slider -10
Whenever I have a bit too much on the ETTR front I tend to add a bit of saturation into the shot to bring some of the colors back than can get washed out, so for this shot somewhere around +5 to +10 does the trick.

Saturation Slider +7
Of course this is just a very quick run-down of processing an ETTR/BETTR image, and a lot more work can be done with selective tools found in Photoshop or other editing software, specifically on the left side of the bird and its head. If I were to continue editing this I would open the file in Photoshop and selectively reduce the exposure/highlights in those areas.

Here is my final Lightroom image...

Horned Lark (final image) ©Joeseph Cala
How did yours turn out?

 - Joseph Cala (JoeJr) Joseph's Zenfolio

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1 comment:

  1. I thought I had commented on this the other day, but perhaps I didn't click 'publish'!
    Anyway, this is a well written article, Joe. I like your included screen shots and certainly the downloadable image.
    I have been working with Lightroom for about 5 years, so your workflow is quite familiar to me. I almost always (95% of the time) go beyond LR into NIK for further editing.
    As you likely know, I am not a ETTR devotee, but I am aware of the benefits to (sometimes!) applying it, and I applaud any measures one takes to achieve high image (and in particular here) bird photos.


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