Lightroom Tips

Do you tend to under or over expose your photos?

OK, weird question – I know. But do you find you typically underexpose or overexpose your photos. Here’s why I ask. Believe it or not, It makes a difference when it comes to your Lightroom edits. Years ago, I read a white paper from the late Bruce Fraser. Bruce was a pioneer in many aspects of digital imaging and I encourage you to give this white paper a read (it’s actually a pretty quick read too). Now, knowing that many of you won’t read it and the fact that white papers can get REALLY technical, I’ll paraphrase.

Bruce basically writes that our cameras capture a lot of information in the highlights. Way more than we think. He points out that it’s typically best to try to capture as much of the highlight information as possible without actually blowing out the highlights. Why? Because programs like Lightroom and Camera Raw are so good at bringing back highlight detail, while trying to bring back detail in the shadows and dark areas can often have negative effects on your photos (there’s lots of noise in the shadows).

I read this about 4 or 5 years ago and I instantly became happier with my photography and post processing. It was great to finally bring the Exposure slider toward the left a little instead of always increasing Exposure or Fill Light (I used to underexpose because I was always afraid of coming anywhere close to that histogram touching the right side). When I’m outdoors my Exposure Compensation on my camera is always set to at least +1/3 or +2/3 and I’ll push the exposure as far toward clipping as I can get if I know there’s some shadowy areas in the photo.

Now before you answer the question keep this in mind. First, the question is just for fun. I’m simply curious so please don’t read too much into it and write a long comment telling me all about gamma and compressive nonlinearity (I hate the word gamma by the way). Also, if you’re shooting in the studio a lot this doesn’t apply to you as much. For me, I find I don’t have to modify many settings on my studio portraits. I’d get that done with the lighting in the studio. I’m talking about things like outdoor portraits, sports, travel, and landscape photography where we don’t always have the ability to balance light in all areas of the photo to get the exact proper exposure. So we have to make a choice – underexpose to make sure you capture all of the highlight detail or overexpose to make sure you capture the shadow detail?



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  5. Rash Apricot 2 January, 2011 at 23:10 Reply

    Centered works a lot for me because often i have to shoot it right the first time as most clients expect prints as soon as possible but sometimes my preference is a little to the left.

  6. Afrikia 26 October, 2010 at 05:55 Reply

    What happens if you’re shooting both RAW and jpegs, and apart of have +1/3 or +2/3 you have switched for example landscape mode for the jpeg too (to the send by email for a friend) ? does my raw register those settings or just register the + EV ?
    Thanks to everypne that could answer.

  7. Jim Everett 24 September, 2010 at 12:39 Reply

    Same as has been said by others – if you want less noise and detail in important shadow areas, overexpose. If highlights, such as clouds backlit by the sun, or sunlight highlights on a light-skinned face, then underexpose. For faces with darker skins, where a lot of detail is in the shadows, overexpose.

    Often I will take a 3, 5, or seven shot bracket, especially where there is extreme contrast, and detail is needed everywhere (such as an existing light interior with a sunny garden outside – used to be a nightmare). The I can choose the closest couple of shots by playing with exposures in Lightroom, and make the choice for the optimum shot and then adjust it with many tools. Or I can use Photoshop (or PhotoMatix) straight from Lightroom to do an HDR.

    But frankly, not all HDR merges work, and often simply playing with the best compromise choice of bracketed exposures as above give more natural results.

    Hint – even of you archive them, keep your bracketed sets of important shots. One day, further improved HDR technologies will bring them back into play at a future date.

  8. Frank 29 August, 2010 at 14:55 Reply

    I recenlty switched to a very simple method, I Bracket +/- 1 stop.

    It may sound crazy to some people but I discovered that it give me the best outcome.

    BTW: This is also a tip of Jay Misel.


  9. taurui 28 August, 2010 at 04:58 Reply

    I wasn’t happy with my Nikon D300 overexposure – bringing back the highlights seems to do weird things to skin tones and makes adjusting the white balance, for some reason, really difficult. So I tend to underexpose a little, then bring in some fill light/exposure/brightness – noise is usually no problem when shooting up to ISO 1600 (or 25.600 or something if you’ve got a D3s 😛 ) and the new LR3 noise module is great for that little noise that creeps up.

  10. Edward F Chaplinsky Jr 27 August, 2010 at 11:31 Reply

    There is a great example of this by Jeff Schewe and Michael Reichmann in their new LR3 Tutorial (LR3 – 19. Workflow and Style). Jeff shot a photo at Niagara Falls in which 98 percent of the original image is white; what detail he is able to bring back from what looks like total blowout of the highlights is astounding. Absolutely worth a look.

  11. Mariano 23 August, 2010 at 11:14 Reply

    I usually shoot in -1/3 to -2/3 to have more saturated colors…a least I was told that 🙂

    So the question may be kind of dum but if you overexpose a bit can you still recover in LR the same saturation you would get by underexposing IN camera?



  12. Dušan Smolnikar 21 August, 2010 at 12:44 Reply

    I rarely ever overexpose. As mentioned in some of the earlier comments, colors get washed out when overexposing. I’m saying this is from my personal experience, comparing differently-exposed shots. So when shooting landscape, I mostly underexpose to get more vivid colors.

    With today’s cameras, do you really find noise to be a problem, especially in outdoor shots, where ISO is usually very low?

  13. Josh 20 August, 2010 at 00:52 Reply

    I ALWAYS underexpose, and not on purpose…. I tend to look at my lcd and always think it’s too bright, then I drop it down, get home and have to bring it back up…. maybe I should use the histogram!!!

    • Jason 23 August, 2010 at 09:58 Reply

      Never rely on the camera LCD. In fact, I suggest you reduce the camera lcd brightness until you get rid of your nasty habit of looking at it to determine exposure 🙂

  14. Ross Zentner 19 August, 2010 at 21:10 Reply

    I find I underexpose about 90% of the time. I bump the exposure at least .5 on most of my images. I am surprised whenever I have to lower the exposure. I am slowly trying to get my exposure right on.

    When I am out shooting a series of portraits with someone and show them the images on the camera I have them lock the ones they like the most (I shoot with a Nikon D90). I was wondering if there was a way to find and sort these inside of Lightroom? Can I setup a filter that will flag all the files that are locked? I do not want to have to go through the folder and manually find the locked images.

  15. Steve K 18 August, 2010 at 17:34 Reply

    My power on settings are:

    ISO 100
    Aperture priority
    F8 (sweet spot for my lens)
    Exposure Comp +2/3
    AEB on, +/- 1-2/3 stops
    AF = on, focal point centered
    Stabilization = on

    Of course, I adjust as necessary for individual shots, but this keeps me from shooting for an hour on SP or P or even M or perhaps with a high ISO and faster than needed shutter speed.

    Before I start shooting, I always revert to those settings. Actually, I do it as I’m importing images into LR. That way it’s ready.

    I often HDR, but even if not, I get three exposures to pick the best of, or to open as layers and then mask to get the best parts of all.

  16. Elmar 18 August, 2010 at 15:27 Reply

    As long as sensors do not record very huge ranges from the darkest to the brightest luminance within a single shot, exposure depends on the intent of the photographer based on his/her technical knowledge and how the image shall look on screen/paper/other media.

    My “rule of thumb” (always using the spot meter and setting manual the f-stop and shutter value and let the camera only producing raw files):

    * If the sensor can grab the complete light contrast of the important subject parts: Spot metering on the brightest relevant subject part and substract from the metered result as many f-numbers (smaller f-values – larger “holes” in the lens – and/or a longer shutter speed – short: more light onto the sensor) as possible (“expose to the right” about 3-5 f-stops. Find them through trial with Your camera on different ISO values.)

    * If the light contrast is too huge, ignore clipping and exposure, that the most important parts of the subject are having details without “noise”. That requires experience: If the darks are more important, they have to exposure the sensor not less than 1-3 f-stops based on the exposure meter value, camera and ISO setting. If the lights are more important, the strategy is the same as obove (metering the important brightest part of the subject and adding exposure).

    Most times I’m ignoring that and metering to the most important part of the subject like in “old times”: Adding or subtracting exposure to make it darker or lighter as the expusure meter would do (“middle” luminance). Only if the clipping indicators on the LCD are blinking, I’m taking another picture with more or less exposure to fix that. Concentration on the composition is much more important than gaining the best technical result.

    I’m hoping, in future the clipping warnings will be based on the raw values of the sensor rather than on the rendered preview image.

    The image control on the LCD related to the composition after a shoot is more important than the ability to “fix” the clipping warnings: Some cameras, e.g. the Nikon D300, can use custom curves (created with a computer program): A linear curve should show clipping much more accurate but the contrastless image is not good to detect immediately a bad composition.

  17. Alvatrus 18 August, 2010 at 14:42 Reply

    I always try to expose correctly.

    That doesn’t mean I set exposure to 0eV, but set my camera to manual, read the TTL lightmeter, then adjust it to the lightness/darkness of the spot I’m metering.
    I add a pinch to the right or left for creative purposes, rather than to get max. dynamic range from the photograph. (Unless I *need* that DR, of course.)

    Completely off-topic question but this one it bugging forever:
    If I have devided a shoot over 2 CF-cards, and import the first one, autonumbering it (Shoot-1.dng, Shoot-2.dng, etc.)
    Now if I import the 2nd card, I want to have consecutive numbers. Either I have to look up where the previous card left off, or I’m stuck with Shoot-1-1.dng, etc.)

    How can I force Lightroom to automatically continue the sequence?

  18. Kurt Muetterties 18 August, 2010 at 10:27 Reply

    Great point Gary! This is a fascinating discussion, but I feel these generalizations suffer from failing to consider the complex nature of camera metering. What is presented as the ” proper” exposure is obviously dependent on the metering used: Are we to assume everyone is using matrix, or centered weighted? If I am shooting a hockey player in a poorly lit stadium, using focal spot on the player to compensate for the bright ice BG, and throw an additional +1/2 stop, chances are the shot is blown. What if the jersey is black, instead of white?

    I agree that when needing to correct exsposure in PP I would rather dial back the exp, or add recovery instead of fill. But I don’t think quality imagery is best achieved by generically applying exp comp and then “point and shooting”, assuming your camera meter knows better then your eye.

  19. Kurt Muetterties 18 August, 2010 at 10:19 Reply

    Great point Gary! This is a fascinating discussion, but I feel these generalizations suffer from failing to consider the complex nature of camera metering. What is presented as the ” proper” exsposure is obviously dependent on the metering used: Are we to assume everyone is using matrix, or centered weighted? If I am shooting a hockey player in a poorly lit stadium, using focal spot on the player to compensate for the bright ice BG, and throw an additional +1/2 stop, chances are the shot is blown. What if the jersey is black, instead of white?

    I agree that when needing to correct exsposure in PP I would rather dial back the exp, or add recovery instead of fill. But I don’t think quality imagery is best achieved by generically applying exp comp and then “point and shooting”, assuming your camera meter knows better then your eye.

    • A Friend 7 September, 2010 at 19:51 Reply

      What a lot of people in this thread are missing is it’s not about “over-exposing” or “under-exposing” or using exposure compensation one way or the other, it’s about exposing as far to the right as possible without blowing highlights and then moving the exposure to the “correct” place in post. With the exception of possibly losing some saturation in extreme examples, this approach provides the most digital information possible.

  20. Gary Chisolm 18 August, 2010 at 09:31 Reply

    Overexpose or underexpose – What baseline are you using to determine this on?

    If you are using your cameras meter (also depending on metering mode) you will usually get a pretty good ball park exposure for average shooting conditions. What is an average situation? I am rarely shooting in average conditions. Camera meters are easily fooled and rarely give you the “proper” exposure. Your camera meter is doing the best job it can but usually lying to you!

    I have 4 Nikon digital cameras: 2 – D100’s, D2x and a D3x. I learned early on with the D100’s that their meters were not giving me “correct” exposure. A side by side comparison test showed almost a full stop in the difference between those 2 bodies: Pretty significant in my book! The 4 cameras do not agree on what “proper” exposure is: the D2x and D3x meter about ¼ stop apart and about 2/3 of a stop from the D100’s: still not giving me the correct exposure. Now what? I test each camera and learn how much compensation must be dialed in to give me the proper exposure. Even though the RGB histogram is based on the JPEG you can learn to use that tool as a guide to give you the proper exposure for your RAW file. I always have some compensation dialed in, except when I am shooting in the studio, however in that situation I use a Sekonic meter calibrated to my camera.

    After reading Bruce Fraiser’s article shortly after it came out, it made sense to me why what I was doing was giving me better images. Bottom line: Take the time to test your camera, learn your camera and know what to expect when using it, you will get better images

  21. Petr Bohacek 18 August, 2010 at 04:56 Reply

    I used to use exposure without any compensation and have made the same observation you described in this topic. Now I use + exposure compensations every time depending on the histogram of the test shot (usually +2/3 to +1 1/3). LR is much more powerful in fixing the highlights than the shadows.

  22. Gino Eelen 18 August, 2010 at 03:25 Reply

    A while back there was an interesting series of arcticles by Alain Briot on colour theory over at the Luminous Landscape site (

    If you look at the colour space representations depicted there, you can see that towards the top of the space (more luminosity or lightness) there is less room to the sides available (so less saturation). And different colours are affected to different degrees. Especially reds and blues have much less saturation available towards the top of the model as compared to halfway down the model.

    Overexposing increases the lightness values of all the colours, moving them towards the top of the model. For saturated reds and blues, this will mean a loss of colour information as they are not only shifted towards the top, but also towards the middle. Other colours (yellows and to some extent greens) will suffer less from this. So the overall colour distribution in the image will be altered by overexposing.

    Lowering the overall exposure and increasing saturation in post-processing can remedy this to a certain extent, but in order to regain the total colour space as it was present in the original scene, different colours would have to be tweaked differently. And even then, as Robert Ash said in an earlier comment, these post-processed colours will be the result of interpolation and estimation, and as such involve a loss of information.

    So if details are the most important in an image, I expose to the right, but if colour is more important I do not.

    • James Fitzell 28 August, 2010 at 20:33 Reply

      Excellent comment Gino Eelen, that was very helpful. I personally shoot for the overall photo tone (ie colours) rather than specific detail so it explains why I am so dissatisfied with the expose to the right model (sometimes even when it’s brought back by LR). Now I better understand why it occurs I can sometimes exposes to the right when it’s detail I’m after rather than colours. Thanks 🙂

  23. Theresa Jackson 18 August, 2010 at 03:09 Reply

    Yup. I’m guilty. I tend to under expose my images because I like the rich colors I get with a darker image. The fill light slider is my favorite editing tool. Now that I understand why this is a bad habit I’m going to work on breaking it. Thanks for setting me straight.

  24. James Fitzell 17 August, 2010 at 23:42 Reply

    To comment further, I personally feel that Lightroom is better at recovering shadows than highlights anyway. Shots that end up clipping are awful (for obvious reasons) and so I’m far more concerned about clipping highlights (something easily done when there’s a bright sky, especially in bad weather) than about some shadows having a bit more noise (especially now it just looks like grain in LR3)

  25. James Fitzell 17 August, 2010 at 23:37 Reply

    After much fussing around with “exposing to the right” I decided that I don’t care enough about noise (particularly with LR3) to bother. What I now tend to do is expose so that the resulting photo looks how I want it to. More often than not I find this means I’m underexposing images a little because I find the result more pleasing, especially at night time where the camera tries to turn the photo into a “daylight shot”.

    • Matt Kloskowski 17 August, 2010 at 23:58 Reply

      🙂 Hey Tim,
      I just think it’s a horrible word to use in a creative area like Photoshop and photography. It’s a techie term and no one besides techie people inherently know what it means. It’s one of those words that makes learning these programs so difficult because people can’t just look at an interface and understand what everything does when they see terms like “Gamma”.

      Hey, I probably shouldn’t hate it because it’s what helps ensure I have a job, but I just think it has no place in creative software.
      (END RANT)

  26. Kirk 17 August, 2010 at 22:50 Reply

    I tend to overexpose about 13 stops… oh wait.. that was the time i forgot to switch back from Bulb..

    to me it is depends on situations.
    If the environment is well lit, then i tend to expose to the right by 1/3-2/3 stops. and i bring it back with lightroom. That’s because i want the detail in the shadow. and especially i am a Full frame shooter, there are often vignette on the edge if i shoot wide open and it could result to be too dark on some of the detail.

    On the other hand, if i am shooting in a dark place (and these are usually general photo like travelling or snapshots) when i care more about camera shake then a little extra bit of noise.. then i will under it by 1/3-2/3. and i know i can bring it back from the 12bit raw to the 8bit jpeg without causing too much noise.

  27. Dennis Zito 17 August, 2010 at 22:44 Reply

    Hi Matt,

    This sounds like a good subject to cover on D Town TV when you guys come back!

    I know I could use a good demonstration!



  28. Dennis Zito 17 August, 2010 at 22:41 Reply

    Hi Matt,

    This sounds like a good subject to cover on DTown TV when you guys come back!

    I know I could sure use a good demonstration!


  29. Zac Grimaldo 17 August, 2010 at 18:58 Reply

    Ok, I shoot everything manually, old habits are hard to break. I shoot Canons and I know that if the LCD/histogram looks good, then I open up a +1/3 – +1/2, depending on the subject. That;s because I know that when I download that card and see it on my computer, at the “correct” exposure, it will be just a little “under” exposed.

    It happened enough that I eventually just tested it. You can do the “wall” test. Shoot a wall, mine is outside, daylight, and it had a little shadow in it. Do a 1/3 stop bracket, pop that card into your computer and bring it up into Lightroom/ACR, put the card back into the camera and compare your LCD/histogram with your computer monitor/histogram. You should be able to see how it meters, every body is different, because every chip is different.

  30. Larry Smith 17 August, 2010 at 18:20 Reply

    I tend to overexpose. I was convinced to do it after taking a workshop five years ago with one of Bruce Fraser’s friends and business partners Seth Resnick. Seth convinced me how exposing to the right yields better results most of the time. I think my files are better processed that way when I get them in ACR or Lightroom.

  31. Thomas 17 August, 2010 at 17:10 Reply

    Well, some people call me a prick when I ask why you don’t expose correct. Excuse me for asking why that’s not an option.

    I don’t consider myself being a magician. There’s no need to. Simple exposure knowledge is the trick. I find it very unlikely that I’m the only one trying to get the perfect exposure.

    Matt asked a question. I gave my answer. Some people didn’t like it. I must be a unique photographer then. So are a lot of my friends. Maybe we should write a book about? Hey, wait! I learned it from a book. The guy who wrote it must be also be a fool. Exposing correct. What an utopia. At least for people reading this blog …

    • A Friend 7 September, 2010 at 19:46 Reply

      The thing you are completely missing is how much digital information is stored in the upper tier of the exposure. Not trying to be a jerk, but you are not actually understanding the real reason why this is so important — you actually get HOARDS more info by exposing to the right in camera and then dropping the exposure in post to where you want it (of course not blowing the highlights). In digital audio it’s the exact same thing, you want to have your recording levels as high as possible without clipping because you LITERALLY get for digital information. Now, if you need JPGs straight out of camera for a gig that requires instant use of the images, then by all means make the “correct” exposure and ship off the jpegs, but otherwise you are leaving valuable information on the table when you don’t have to. It’s pretty much that simple.

  32. John 17 August, 2010 at 15:17 Reply

    Matt, is it true that camera manufacturers calibration on metering differs even from camera to camera? If this is true, do you know of a source that provides compensation adjustments by model as a means of calibration. I think once we can eliminate camera specific metering nuances, we can then decide which situational approach to take for exposure compensation, including exposing to the right, which as I have researched more since your post seems more and more compelling.

  33. Craig Beyers 17 August, 2010 at 15:13 Reply

    With indoor volleyball, my Canon 7D tends to both under and over expose within a string of rapid-fire shots (at multiple frames/sec). Often, the first shot will be underexposed, with the next frames either close to spot on or slightly overexposed. Since I can’t shoot with flash, I’m stuck with 3200 ISO (or higher) and f/2.8 (on a 70-200mm f/2.8L Canon lens) to get a high enough shutter speed to “stop” the volleyball inflight. With baseball, I tended toward overexposure to get more data to the right side of the histogram, knowing with Recovery I could retain highlight data. Players in direct sun were a problem as their skin and uniforms were typically “hot” while their faces–under baseball caps–were typically 1 – 2 stops (or more) underexposed. Thank goodness for the LR Adjustment Brush!

  34. Paul 17 August, 2010 at 14:33 Reply

    Matt, is it true that camera manufacturers calibration on metering differs even from camera to camera? If this is true, do you know of a source that provides compensation adjustments by model as a means of calibration. I think once we can eliminate camera specific metering nuances, we can then decide which situational approach to take for exposure compensation, including exposing to the right, which as I have researched more since your post seems more and more compelling.

  35. Angela 17 August, 2010 at 14:21 Reply

    I actually used to under expose and now am over exposing most of the time (I use Canon), just like you do. My biggest problem with either of these is that this process only works well if there are no huge contrast differences in the image. Just recently I tried to capture a waterfall where the rocks on one side were in complete shadow and the other side on the sun (no chance to do this at the golden hour, since that park closed at 6 pm and the golden hour arrives after 8 pm there), with the waterfall also either on the sun or in the shade.

    Hence if you expose for the waterfall, overexposure in the shady part of the waterfall without blowing the highlights did great with the water but still kept the shaded areas in the shade and the overall look of the picture is too dark. If exposing for the highlighted areas of the water or the rocks, normal or underexposure worked best to keep the histogram to the right but then the waterfall itself was blown.

    So when I want to be really sure I get it all, I bracket for under and over exposure and create an HDR. The Canon can only bracket 3 shots, so I typically under and over expose by +/-2 EV specifically for HDR but just recently I started to think about doing the bracketing at 1/3 Ev or 1/2 EV…

  36. Chris 17 August, 2010 at 13:58 Reply

    I feel like rambling for a bit.

    It really depends on the subject you’re shooting for, but yes the more information you can collect from the sensor the better. Take a look at the file size of an over exposed shot compared to an under exposed shot it’ll always be a bigger file, and lets face it in the end that’s what were working with “digital files” the more information the better. Leave the “point and shoot stuff” to the point and shoot camera’s (until they get bigger sensors, and can handle a bit of noise)

    I’ve a taken part in a few photograph classes and learned to shoot in manual all the time. This question has another aspect Matt didn’t mention but I’m assuming the more advanced guys/gals are metering in centre weighted or spot metering right? I find the histogram is useless if the meter set to evaluative and I can’t choose the subject to expose for.

    I went to Paris last year and photographed some of the statues in the garden at the Rodin Museum ( This was a big challenge for the little brain in my DSLR as some of the statues are pure black, and garden is lush and green. “What on earth is 18% reflectance?” my DSLR thought to it’s self, and it’s best evaluative guess was…”The green background of course!” Needless to say this was before I started shooting in manual with the spot meter on, and partly responsible for pushing me to take some DSLR courses, and all my shots of any of the black statues came out as big dark blobs next to a nice green hedge. If I would’ve shot to the right I could’ve recovered this lost detail!.

    First thing my instructor told us was “With DSLR always shoot to the right!”

  37. Mike Padua 17 August, 2010 at 13:18 Reply

    This is a great discussion.

    One thing we need to take from it is that everyone’s situation is different.

    As was mentioned, total control of light in a studio negates the need to over- or under-expose, but we’re not all in a controlled environment like the studio.

    In shooting theater, there is such a disparity in lighting that if I expose “correctly” to an actor’s face, the person standing JUST out of the spotlight will be completely lost in the shadows. Hence, I have a NEED to overexpose by a whole stop.

    If you’re questioning which technique works for you, the best answer is to try it yourself and see which produces the results that you want.

  38. Bwyan 17 August, 2010 at 13:16 Reply

    In most situations I keep well to the right. As others have pointed out, go beyond the first sign of blinking. It’s important do a test on your blinkies, it can blink pretty much before you can’t recover it again!

  39. Deb Roedell 17 August, 2010 at 12:25 Reply

    This post timing is so perfect, I decided to try this concept yesterday, did a portrait session outside on a bright sunny day. I pushed to exposure compensation as far and then further to the right, allowing for clipping in the highlights. In post processing I used the black slider to pull it back in with some recovery, I loved the look it gave me. We are going back out today for more practicing of the technique.

  40. KC 17 August, 2010 at 12:03 Reply

    David Ziser’s comments on exposure and histograms:

    Personally, I find this discussion extremely frustrating. Who are we to listen to? There are “pros” telling us to overexpose, because Lightroom can bring it back; other “pros” say to underexpose to be sure there is enough info in the highlights, and noise correction in LR and other plugins are fantastic to correct the dark areas.

    I tend to push as much to the right without getting blinkies, unless those blinkies are specular highlights. With HDR becoming better and better (which, to me, means closer to photographic reality), just shoot multiple exposures to retain the necessary information.

    • Matt Kloskowski 17 August, 2010 at 12:18 Reply

      Good point KC. However, what should I do if I’m shooting a portrait session or sports outdoors? Event photography? Weddings? Nature, wildlife? People don’t sit perfectly still nor am I going to tie myself to a tripod the whole time. HDR doesn’t work so great there. For landscapes, I’m with ya, but not people.

    • Mike Padua 17 August, 2010 at 13:21 Reply

      KC, I used to scratch my head and ask “which do I do?”

      The real answer, though is different for everybody. Essentially I found that I need to overexpose in many situations–but I shoot in situations where there is a huge disparity in light levels (theater). But that’s only my situation, not everybody else’s.

    • Robert Ash 17 August, 2010 at 20:46 Reply

      Hi Matt, All,

      Interesting topic today.

      Actually, I wrote that article on perfect exposure for David Ziser’s blog at David’s request.

      As for me, I always try to shoot at the *correct* exposure, either in the studio or in the uncontrollable, wildly varying lighting conditions that have made up the bulk of my shooting. The reason for that is because of what Tomas B mentioned above:

      Tomas B. August 17, 2010 at 6:56 am
      “I tend to overexpose as much as I can. But there is one downside of this strategy. The colors are not that vivid when you dial down exposure in the Lightroom. It is probably hard to explain, but when you overexpose you can get the fine gradation back, but you will inevitably loose some of the color information.”

      The reason for this loss of vividness is that color and brightness/luminosity are very dependent on one another. If you change the exposure by overexposing or underexposing you literally change all the colors in your image. In particular, overexposing makes colors less saturated. Bringing them back through post-processing involves software interpolation (ie. estimation), and interpolation always involves data loss. Lost data = lost color, hence the loss of vividness Tomas notes.

      Interpolation can work really well for many colors, but it only works to a point. Beyond that point you can run into situations where you literally can never recover the correct color completely. That threshold point varies depending on the colors and lighting conditions.

      So my rule is / rules are:
      – If you can fit it in the histogram with good detail and color throughout, expose correctly (i.e., use +0 exposure compensation)
      – if you can’t fit it in the histogram then:
      – if you need highlight details, underexpose
      – if you need shadow details, overexpose
      – Any time you vary from the correct exposure, vary as little as you can get away with

      Your ‘correct’ exposure will depend on your entire processing cycle (and your intent for the image), but that’s another article 🙂

      • Robert Ash 17 August, 2010 at 20:52 Reply

        One additional point. High ISO cameras and techniques like HDR can buffer us a little from the effects of interpolation, and can give interpolation more leeway than we’d otherwise have. But the principles above still remain in effect overall.

      • Robert Ash 17 August, 2010 at 20:56 Reply

        A couple of additional points. First, high ISO cameras can give interpolation more leeway to work well. So can HDR if used correctly. Second, because of the data distribution effect mentioned in Bruce Fraser’s article and other good article on exposing to the right, erring on the side of overexposure typically has more buffer than erring on the side of underexposure. Not always, but typically.

      • Dennis Zito 17 August, 2010 at 22:38 Reply

        Hi Robert,

        Great information, thanks! I’m fairly new to digital DSLRs and have had some problems understanding *Correct Exposure*. My question to you is this. I press the ” * ” on my Canon 40D which locks the exposure for that lighting condition so is that what you mean by *correct exposure*? From what I’ve been reading most cameras are needing the overexposure to correct for *correct exposure*? Sorry for being a little stupid about this, but I’m confused.



  41. Gary Gray 17 August, 2010 at 11:49 Reply

    It’s going to depend on which camera I’m using. As a rule of thumb, I’ll over-expose between 1/3 a stop and a full stop. Recovering highlight detail from a slightly over exposed image is well within limits of the digital medium, plus it keeps shadow noise to a minimum. As already explained, blowing out highlights should be avoided. What is gone can’t be retrieved. But, the state of noise reduction is improving as well, so those shadow areas are much easier to de-noise than they were 5 years ago.

  42. Pete 17 August, 2010 at 11:17 Reply

    I try to expose to the right if I can. In consistent conditions it’s fine and I’ll often be shooting at 0 or -0.3 and still seeing highlight detail warnings.

  43. RON 17 August, 2010 at 11:04 Reply

    hey matt,

    75% shoot for shadow detail
    25% highlights detail

    But it really depends on what your shooting in the moment, But i would rather have the detail in the shadows , too much info is better than not enough.

  44. Wendy C. 17 August, 2010 at 10:53 Reply

    I am an organizer of the Nashville Photography Meetup Group, and I am always preaching to them about over exposing. I believe it is necessary when you are shooting with natural light, and most of them are too scared of it. That histogram can be a scary thing. I personally ignore the histogram when I am shooting. I never even look at. I have developed a style that is somewhat high key using mostly natural light. I always shoot around a complete stop over +1. So glad to see I’m not the only one who does this.

  45. Bob 17 August, 2010 at 10:39 Reply

    I know that many people reduce their exposure as necessary to eliminate the blinking “highlight warning” when they chimp. In fact, this is just a warning that one channel MIGHT be blown out. Always eliminating the “blinkies” is not good practice.

  46. Paul Morel 17 August, 2010 at 10:24 Reply

    Interesting concept. I’ll definitely try this next time I’m shooting in almost controlled conditions.

    Most of my photos are live concerts and I normally underexpose my photos by half a stop to be able to get no motion blur.

  47. JohnStG 17 August, 2010 at 10:06 Reply

    I prefer to underexposed (-1/3 to -3/4ev), but do occasionally push a shot when I don’t care about the surround and it always surprises me how much detail is still there. But highlight clipping is more bothersome than shadow. I’ve observed as well that over exposed shots tend to feel washed out even when I pull them back and require a lot more post work to restore the color. I like Jase’s idea of bracketing–but I don’t shoot a lot of available available light scenarios so hopefully I won’t forget about this when I do.

    Good post as always.

  48. John Swarce 17 August, 2010 at 10:05 Reply

    Interesting post. I haven’t tried this technique before, but I will certainly try it out the next time I go out shooting.


  49. fulminating 17 August, 2010 at 09:56 Reply

    I expose right usu + 2/3 stop on Canon 20D/7D and it rarely blows out highlights with RAW exposures (Lightroom 3.2/ACR 6.2). This strategy only works in normal exposure situations–while in hawaii on a helicopter tour I bracketed my pictures so that I could both expose to the right (like normal) but hedge against the extreme contrast between the very bright clouds and the very dark green/red mountains. Good thing because my normal expose to the right strategy would have left with me with nothing but washed out, overexposed pictures. I suspect that the the dynamic range was just too great for the camera to handle and as a result, I got barely any more highlight detail (almost blown out) for no additional shadow detail (noise and tightly compressed color). Probably in hindsight, I should have not bothered with the sky at all and just focused on the montains.

  50. Sue H. 17 August, 2010 at 09:47 Reply

    A long time ago I was told there were more details in the shadows, so I got in the habit on underexposing. Additionally, I’m often shooting without a tripod, so I underexpose to get a faster shutter speed. But after reading this discussion, I’m going to try playing around with overexposing. Thanks, all.

    • JayM 18 August, 2010 at 14:39 Reply

      True insofar as the amount of detail you can pull out of the shadow areas. But that’s where all the noise resides as well. If you consider the calculations provided above there are so few bits allocated to the lower brightness levels that the signal:noise ratio gets terrible. So while you definitely want to protect those highlights (RAW can only recover so much) you should always get better results by darkening, rather than brightening, the image in post.

    • Tomas Järnetun 17 August, 2010 at 12:22 Reply

      Take a look at Rikk’s video. Highly recommended!
      The discussion is of course based upon the fact that you want a neutral exposed final image. If the aim is to make a dark low key image, then keep on exposing to the left…

    • Dennis Zito 17 August, 2010 at 19:05 Reply

      Hi Rikk,

      Wow, your video really brought this discuss to the light for me. I’m fairly new to digital and have been struggling with exposure. I use a canon 40D and I’ve been shooting underexposed and have not really been pleased with my photos. Now I know why. So I’m now going to experiment with exposing to the right. I’m off to a photo shoot tomorrow, and will be doing some tests for myself.

      Thank again Rikk for doing this video! And Matt, thanks for bring up this subject so that I could gain some really good knowledge from you and the gang here!


    • Michael Flynn 17 August, 2010 at 19:25 Reply

      Hi Rikk, thanks for posting this link. I have just viewed your video and found it to be an excellent example of what Matt has been talking about. Having shot transparencies all of my life I still find it difficult to over expose in the camera. My camera has been set at – 0.3 because of that thinking. Your video has given me the confidence to ‘let go’ of that idea and to try exposing to the right. Thank you.
      Matt, once again thanks for yet another great posting. I learn so much from these tips of yours, and, as in the case of Rikk’s post, I pick up a great deal from other readers posts as well. Cheers!

    • Dennis Zito 17 August, 2010 at 19:54 Reply

      Hi Rikk,

      Wow Rikk, great video on exposure! It really shed some light on this subject for me! I’m new to digital and have been having a problem with exposure. I have a Canon 40D and have been shooting underexposed or center and have not been really happy with my results. Now I know why! I have a photo shoot tomorrow and will be experimenting with exposure to the right.

      Thanks again for doing this video! Matt, thanks for bring up this subject to help me gain some knowledge from you and the gang here!


      • Rikk Flohr 18 August, 2010 at 08:08 Reply

        I am glad it helped illustrate what Matt is referring to. If it hadn’t been for a non-needed bracketing for HDR, I probably would have never stumbled upon such a great example. Just don’t blow the highlights!

    • Jase 18 August, 2010 at 17:21 Reply

      Thanks for a great video Rikk – talk about making the point clearly and illustrating why we should be shooting right!

  51. Mike 17 August, 2010 at 09:31 Reply

    I over expose. If you shoot the exact same picture at normal exposure and then increase your exposure for the same shot your raw file size will increase due to the increased data the raw file stores.

    @Thomas – correct exposure? Getting the exposure correct for every aspect of your photo? This is only possible if everthing is evenly exosed in your photo and for 99% of what I shoot this would never be possible. So try this methood and you will see you still keep your detail in the properly exposed areas and gain more details (less noise) in the darker areas. Obviously you can only over expose so far before it is too far but it works.

  52. JayM 17 August, 2010 at 08:57 Reply

    I have tried to expose to the right since first reading about the concept in Digital Photo Pro magazine. Was somewhat of a revelation. Around that time I also changed the settings on my camera to better reflect what was happening with the RAW file (when are camera makers going to start showing RAW previews rather than JPEG?!!). So I leave it in Neutral picture mode with a flat curve and bump back the contrast a little. And when I expose I track not just the brightness histogram but the color channels as well, and will vary the white balance in different situations if one channel is getting too much attention and limiting the others (ex. too much warmth blowing red prematurely during a sunset). In many cases using a UniWB preset (Google that one for more info) can really help – image looks whacky and green but the channels can be more neutral and pushed even further. Everything corrects in post. Combining that with 14-bit RAW mode can deliver some incredibly clean and smooth images.

    And always remember this is a RAW shooting strategy. You’re royally screwed if you try it with JPEG. 😉

    • amz 17 August, 2010 at 10:17 Reply

      Great points – Yes, my post earlier really only applies if you shoot RAW. And, remember, even though you ‘expose to the right,’ you do need to keep an eye on the highlights – using the ‘RGB’ histogram… Works beautifully, when done right!

  53. amz 17 August, 2010 at 08:44 Reply

    Typically “expose to the right” – works great getting detail out of the highlights with Lightroom/ACR. Better signal to noise ratio, and maximize dynamic range information.

    Technical reason – linearity of CCD/CMOS chips and each f/stop halves the light the previous one recorded. In a 14-bit picture, you can resolve 2^14 tonal values (16,384). So, in the first f/stop (brightest) you have 8192 tonal values. As you go down your f/stops, you keep halving the tonal value possibilities – i.e. 2nd: 4096, 3rd: 2048, 4th: 1024, 5th:512, 6th (darkest – assuming a 6-stop dynamic range): 256 tonal values. As can be seen, the brightest f/stop has 32 times more tonal values to “play with” than the darkest one; that is why we can recover so much out of the highlights when exposing ‘to the right.’

    • Scott Cramer 17 August, 2010 at 09:53 Reply

      Well stated AMZ! This is precisely why one should give as much exposure without completely blowing highlights ( unless the highlights are unimportant as subject matter. Usually I find I can purposely give up to 2/3 to 1 stop “extra” exposure knowing when I adjust exposure slider to the left that all of my “clipped” highlights will easily come back. It’s not so much that I’m “recovering” highlights because that information is actually there. I find once adjusted, this image with extra exposure looks way better than a straight “correct” exposure. Shadows have more and better detail as well as less noise. Sometimes, yes, color saturation/vibrancy has to be adjusted slightly to taste.

      At the inception of digital photography, everyone assumed that they should shoot similarly to transparency film – mainly because most people were shooting jpegs in camera. Now that most pros shoot RAW , it’s best to expose like we did when shooting negative film – moreless exposing for shadow detail.

    • A Friend 7 September, 2010 at 19:55 Reply

      This is by far the best response in the entire thread. Newbies of digital recording devices (this holds for digital audio too) should read this and learn from it. Well said!

  54. Paul McLeod 17 August, 2010 at 08:29 Reply

    Hello Matt.

    Several months ago I read a similar article to the one you’re referencing. The other suggested “over exposing” your images so to gain greater detail in post. I tried this and was very happy with the results I was achieving in my landscape work. I have found that my D300 tends to under expose my shots and that this technique provided great results.

  55. Thomas 17 August, 2010 at 08:22 Reply

    “So we have to make a choice – underexpose to make sure you capture all of the highlight detail or overexpose to make sure you capture the shadow detail? ”

    Why not do a correct exposure from the beginning?! That’s not even a choice for you?

    • Brandon Ikerd 17 August, 2010 at 09:06 Reply

      Matt, I feel for you. I read this question and knew it wouldn’t be long before some tool came and tried to be smarter than the rest of us and asked this question. Me personally, I tend to expose to the right a little – overexpose if you will.

      Thomas – the rest of us got it but since you seem slow today, I think Matt was asking when the metered exposure doesn’t work for you, what do you do. I could be the only one Thomas, but when I’m outdoors, I’m rarely able to just point my camera and shoot with the metered exposure and be happy with it. I always have to push it one way or the other. Maybe the faces are too dark or the sky is too bright. Perhaps you have the secret though, but the best response you could come up with today was “Why not do a correct exposure from the beginning?”. Really? (eh hem… prick! – sorry matt you can delete that part if you want to).

    • Mike Padua 17 August, 2010 at 13:26 Reply


      Unfortunately, many times it’s NOT a choice for me to expose “correctly.” But this is mainly because light levels of what I shoot are incredibly disparate, so much so that if I expose “correctly” to a person’s face, everything surrounding him will be lost in inky darkness.

      Sure, if you’re in controlled environment where you control lighting, it benefits one to expose “correctly”, but personally I rarely find myself in that situation, and everybody’s shooting situations are different.

    • Chris 17 August, 2010 at 15:01 Reply

      Sorry dude but we all have to make choices when metering a subject to expose it…correctly (I know what your getting at). One of the other comments could have been a bit less….um harsh? We’re always learning something new -no need to be dicouraging.

    • Zac Grimaldo 17 August, 2010 at 18:37 Reply

      Sometimes you don’t shoot the correct exposure, because its not the RIGHT exposure. Light meters and histograms can always be tricked and sometimes the correct technical exposure is not right for the aesthetic. But this is only something that you only get with experience. Keep shooting Thomas.

  56. Jase 17 August, 2010 at 08:02 Reply

    Hmm this is really interesting as I was always -1/3 or -2/3 on my Nikon D80 – and have used the fill light to bring up the dark areas of the photo

    Might do as Steve said and try bracking at -1/3 0 +1/3 to see what the resuls look light and which I like best

    Thanks for making me think Matt 🙂

    • Paul 17 August, 2010 at 10:15 Reply


      I have done the very same thing on my D80, having read a blog indicating that the metering is off on this camera. It does raise an interesting question about the metering consistency from one camera to the next and what, if any, compensation should be applied. Perhaps Matt can offer some insight into metering comparisons from one camera to the next and at a minimum we could apply his theory of compensation consistently without individual camera metering characteristics playing a role in the final exposure.


  57. f/8nate 17 August, 2010 at 07:56 Reply

    i have personally been struggling with this lately as i was “exposed” to the idea of ETTR and HAMSTTR a while back -but the idea seems to be not very successful for making sunrise sunset photos as i’m trying to show the sky colors and the foregound elements and +1ev blows out too much sky so i’ve even been going-1ev then doing noise reduction. i should stop that tho huh? trying to leave hdr behind. have a nice day.

  58. Mark 17 August, 2010 at 07:46 Reply

    It depends on what I’m shooting. I love concert photography and I always expose for the face of the performer. If you blow out the face I find it harder to get the skin tone to look good. Everyday shooting I try to keep it to the right as much as possible.

  59. Shawn 17 August, 2010 at 07:42 Reply

    I find that if the scene has more dark tones I expose to the left slightly and if more light tones to the right slightly. This allows me to get the exposure perfect every time negating the need for exposure adjustment. Exposure rules I learned with film serve me well today.

  60. Bryan 17 August, 2010 at 07:35 Reply

    I have heard of this rule but still experimenting with it. But I haven’t heard about losing some of the colour information in the RAW file, is that really the case? Being from a techie background I understand the theory behind more information being held in the right half of the histogram but wonder what might caus the colour info to be lost?

  61. Chris 17 August, 2010 at 06:56 Reply

    What most people also tend to overestimate is the quality of their cameras display. I use a Canon 5D Mark II, and while the histogramms look fine the actual picture showing on the display looks way blown out sometimes.

    Coming back to Lightroom then and a decent monitor makes things look much better and the raw headroom gives me a good portion of information in the highlights.

    Final word: snuggle histogram to the right…at least!

  62. Tomas B. 17 August, 2010 at 06:56 Reply

    I tend to overexpose as much as I can. But there is one downside of this strategy. The colors are not that vivid when you dial down exposure in the Lightroom. It is probably hard to explain, but when you overexpose you can get the fine gradation back, but you will inevitably loose some of the color information.

    • Erol 18 August, 2010 at 04:52 Reply

      Yes. Most of the time when I bring back the highlights with higlights slider the colors gets flat. Especially the skin tones. I’m using a d300. BR Erol

  63. Omar S 17 August, 2010 at 06:26 Reply

    Yes, I overexpose just enough that the histogram doesn’t go off the right side, and for the same reasons as you mentioned above. taught me this 🙂

  64. steve Wetzel 17 August, 2010 at 05:12 Reply

    I typically expose center on my D300 but I think I am going to try bracketing at 0 and +0.5 on my next shoot and then compare some photos after post processing. I have heard this in the past Matt but I forgot about it. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention!

  65. Barrie Spence 17 August, 2010 at 04:54 Reply

    I try to expose to the right, but I generally don’t force it unless I’m in a studio setting. Of course, there are times where I don’t get it right and have to boost in the exposure in Lightroom 🙁

    I think ETTR is a good concept, but I don’t think it really holds up in practice when shooting at high ISOs with the objective to reduce noise – I’ve set high ISO and I’m probably shooting wide open to get a reasonable shutter speed and at that point I don’t have scope to overexpose!


  66. Ludo 17 August, 2010 at 04:51 Reply

    I have also read that ‘rule’ many times, and I often take two shots, one ‘perfectly exposed’ with the histogram in the middle and one overexposed. On the computer screen it happens that I like deep colours and the overexposed photo is my least favourite. I think it’s about trying not to clip the blacks and clipping as little whites as possible. It is indeed very effective to bring the exposure down to recover a lot of detail in the highlights.

  67. Martin 17 August, 2010 at 03:32 Reply

    I set my camera to overexpose by 1/2 stop and my default Lightroom import preset is set to -0.5 on the exposure slider. The images are therefore correctly exposed on import even though I’ve taken advantage of the ligher levels of information in the lighter tones.

    Don’t be too concerened about an indication of overblown highlights on the camera LCD. You’re not seeing the RAW file, only the jpeg interpretation of the RAW file. From my experience, quite a large amount of blinking (overblown) highlights on the camera LCD can still be easily brought back into control in Lightroom’s RAW converter (assuming you’re using RAW of course, and not taking images as jpegs).

  68. Sjoerd Booij 17 August, 2010 at 03:32 Reply

    I tend to expose to the right as much as I can. I decide with a test shot if the main subject of my photo is rightly exposed and don’t give a lot about the rest (obviously I also make sure all parts that add something to the photo are not blown out). Sometimes it just doesn’t matter that much if something is blown, as long as it’s not part of what you are trying to tell with the photo.

  69. Marc 17 August, 2010 at 03:30 Reply


    I overexpose by ~0.5 to ~1EV on my old Canon 300D (aka Digital Rebel) after having read a few years ago about how much data was available in the right side of the histogram. Sadly my DSLR is very bad with noise when you crank up the ISO so I often tend to underexpose in situations with not much light and not much opportunities to increase exposure. But most of the time I overexpose.


  70. UncleSam 17 August, 2010 at 03:15 Reply

    +0.3EV or +0.7EV in most cases. +0.3 is even a default one. I shoot in raw, Nikon D90. I tried ETTR, but it showed blown out colors in highlighted areas when I applied a stronger exposure correction, with tones remaining — which is so strange to see, e.g. when your blue sky becomew BW in bright areas. So I balanced down to what I noted above.

  71. Harald Felgner 17 August, 2010 at 03:15 Reply

    Coming from 35mm+ slide photography, I tended to underexpose. Last week I stumbled upon this “Do overexpose!” with David duChemin, today with you. Let’s give it a try.

  72. Luca 17 August, 2010 at 03:04 Reply

    Hi Matt and folks,
    this is absolutely true.

    Highlights can reveal lots of details using the recovery sliders or reducing the exposure on those area with the graduated filter or the adjustment brush.

    When trying to increase the exposure in shadows area the results sometime is blue-noise pixelate

    I often use the click-and-drag on the histogram that works fantastically bringing back amazing details with one command


  73. RON 17 August, 2010 at 02:59 Reply

    Hey Matt,
    Great question… I imagine there will be some “why worry, just shoot HDR” comment at some point. But I understand your question to be as though you only have one shot so to speak. I personally find shadow detail to be more important when shooting.
    Lightroom does a very good job bringing the highlights down and using a combination of Recovery, HSL Luminance, Graduated Adjustment, Adjustment Brush most of the highlights can be brought do to acceptable results. There are times that shooting for the highlights is priority. Like when whats in the highlights is your point of interest.

    Poling Results for me;

    75% shoot for Shadow Detail
    25% shoot for Highlight Detail

    Really depends on the shot in the moment though.


  74. An 17 August, 2010 at 02:52 Reply

    Usually I prefer underexposing, because I always thought that this would be easier to bring back more detail, and also, as Dominik said, to have faster shutter times.
    But since I’m shooting RAW, I notice in LR that also highlights contain much more information than I see at first.

  75. Victor Naumik 17 August, 2010 at 02:41 Reply

    I don’t fear to over-expose. Just need to properly expose by skin (I shoot portraits). And if sky becomes white — it’s sky’s problems, not mine =)

    And I just wanted to tell you about non-linearity if the exposure isn’t good, but ok, I wont )))

  76. Dominik 17 August, 2010 at 02:36 Reply

    Since I do a lot of concert photography with (often) fast movements and less light I tend to underexpose by ~0,7EV for staying in a reasonable ISO-Range but having fast shutter times. I know there can be lot of noise in the shadows after fill-lighting and increasing exposure, but that’s much easier to remove with the new LR3 than having High-ISO from my cam in the whole picture.

  77. Robert Jensen 17 August, 2010 at 01:48 Reply

    Matt, you might want to clarify that you are talking about shooting RAW and that shooting JPEG requires more exact exposure.

  78. brett maxwell 17 August, 2010 at 01:43 Reply

    I “exposed to the right” when I was a Canon shooter (40D, 5D, 5DII), but now that I’m a Nikon shooter (D700) I shoot pretty centered, and even shooting to the left in some situations. It’s not something I see commonly discussed, but the Nikon files hold up WAY better to bringing up the exposure/brightness/fill in post.

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