I spent this past weekend at a workshop with John Shaw, famous landscape and nature photographer. Learned a lot of good things, heard a lot of things I already knew, and found a few things I don’t necessarily agree with. Now John’s a pretty opinionated dude, not afraid to say so and what he says is right. As far as he’s concerned. All in all it was worth the time and money, especially in the middle of February when there’s not a whole lot else going on.
One of the most inspired conversations of the weekend was around Shaw’s espousal of the principal of “Expose to the Right” or ETTR. I feel pretty confident in saying that I understand the theory behind ETTR – half of your information is in the 5th box, the preview on your LCD will look overexposed, move the histogram as far right as possible without blowing highlights, move it back during processing etc, etc, etc. I get that. But here’s the thing: Many if not most of the attendees at this workshop were completely clueless about this, as evidenced by the questions and background whispers. I don’t think it’s a good idea for most people to run around constantly overexposing their pictures because “I was at a John Shaw workshop and this is what he said we should do.” NO! How about subject or situational appropriateness?
During this lengthy discussion someone asked the rhetorical question, “what if I’m taking a photo of my Black Lab in a coal mine?” Shaw’s response – “EXPOSE TO THE RIGHT!” “How about if…”EXPOSE TO THE RIGHT!” Like there were no other options. What I wanted to ask and didn’t was, “If, in order to expose to the right I have to increase exposure by 3 stops, and assuming I know what I want my aperture to be, I have to increase exposure either by using a longer shutter speed or higher ISO. What if the dog is panting hard and will be blurry at a longer shutter speed, or what if we’re in the woods, there is just a little bit of breeze and the leaves are moving? What if lengthening the shutter speed or raising the ISO by three stops takes it beyond the optimal low-noise threshold for my camera? Is it better to have the information I want, properly exposed and sharp, or should I accept a blurry subject with noise because someone said that I need to EXPOSE TO THE RIGHT? And what if I don’t want to spend the time it takes to process all my images back to the proper exposure?
Most people have a hard enough time understanding exposure as it is. Many of them have advanced beyond shooting JPEGs which is great, but to then introduce this principal of purposely overexposing their pictures is an unnecessary complication for a lot of people. The problem as I see it is that most of the people who are knowledgeable enough to use and understand ETTR are probably experienced enough to know that it is not a One Size Fits All proposition. Those who aren’t should be happy with the gains they achieve by shooting at the higher bit rate and larger color space of RAW files and leave the color theory to the scientists.