Today’s Question: Recently there have been articles and books about exposing raw captures far to the right in order to get better shadow details. Some authors suggest exposing so far to the right that the initial unprocessed raw file looks milky white with blown out highlights that are then brought back into proper exposure using the exposure slider in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom. Can you comment on this practice and what types of images might benefit from “extreme” exposure to the right then “recovery” in the raw converter?
Tim’s Quick Answer: The recommendation to “expose to the right” does have merit. By exposing an image as brightly as possible without losing detail in the brightest highlights, you are maximizing information and minimizing noise. There is a potential disadvantage to workflow efficiency, but you are also maximizing potential detail and image quality with this approach.
More Detail: While there is a potential benefit to exposing to the right, this approach shouldn’t be perceived as a cure for all potential issues related to image quality. My personal approach is to aim for an exposure where the right end of the histogram display reaches into the right-most section of the display (which is generally divided into four or five sections). But if I’m photographing a scene that has a very low dynamic range, I don’t apply an extreme exposure compensation because none of the tonal values will reach into the darkest range of the histogram in the first place.
Achieving the brightest exposure possible won’t have a dramatic impact on image quality under normal circumstances, where you have achieved a good exposure and you won’t need to brighten the shadow areas significantly. If you are already shooting at the minimum ISO setting for your camera, there is good light illuminating the scene, and you have established a good exposure that will require minimal adjustment after the capture, you can expect very good quality.
Therefore, when all is said and done, I treat the “expose to the right” concept as one that represents a good general habit to be in. I tend toward brighter exposures, but don’t stress about using this approach under all circumstances for every photo I capture.