ETTR or Try it before you buy it

There has been a lot of discussion of ETTR (Expose To The Right) on photographic blogs, websites and all kind of other publications. With this method you expose as high as possible with histogram touching the right edge. Here is one article that goes in depth on this method:

The idea is that this produces maximum quality digital negative. Often this produces image that looks overexposed and later in post-production supposedly you can lower exposure to get naturally looking image but with higher quality.

While it looks reasonable that this may reduce signal-to-noise ratio, I noticed that this results in images looking too flat and with washed out colors. On my last trip I took two images one normally exposed and one exposed to the right. The scene is extremely simple which helps illustrate the difference in result. In post-production I reduced exposure of the ETTR image to match exposure of the first image. No other adjustments were done to either image. Here are results side-by-side:

_MG_4863 _MG_4864

Guess which one is which? The one on the left is taken with normal exposure, the one on the right is taken with ETTR and then reduced back exposure to match exposure of the first image. As you can see ETTR image results in less color and less contrast, i.e. lower dynamic range. To confirm this here are the corresponding histograms:

_mg_4863 _mg_4864

Just by looking at histograms you can see that the range of tonality is greater in normally exposed image as well as greater separation of colors. This seems to disprove the statement that the article I linked at the beginning does that ETTR image has greater dynamic range.

I don’t know about you by I’d rather expose right than expose to the right. This is just another case to demonstrate my main principle in photography: do what you like, what feels right to you. And no matter how convincing a new idea you read somewhere sounds, try it before using it, get your own feeling for it. If you really like it, use it, just make sure it is because you got your own understanding of it not because someone else told you to do it.

UPDATE: I’ve got requests to include original ETTR image with histogram. Here it goes.



Too Many Eggs in One Basket

I just got back from 3 week vacation and… it is a second time I lost all vacation photos.

First time I lost vacation photos was due to hard drive failure in my laptop close to the end of the vacation. The problem was mechanical, thus recovering disk content was just too expensive ($2000). I had an external drive with me to make backups but never got around to actually do them. From that case I told myself I’m going to do backups every night on my trips.

A few years forward. This time I have done backups to two external hard drives. Both laptop and hard drives as well as some other valuables were in one very important bag – the most important bag, the only bag not to lose. And I lost it in an airport. Later I was contacted by airport authorities that the bag was found and everything but laptop was in it. I have not got the bag back yet and I can only hope that I eventually get it back with hard drives undamaged. But I was not very persistent about backing up to external hard drives every night and thus a lot of photos are lost for sure.

What I have learnt from this? First, backup should be simple and done consistently during a trip. Second, those backups should be placed to different bags to decrease probability of losing all photos as a result of loosing one bag.

What camera should I buy?

I get this question asked a lot “What DSL should I buy?”. I understand why I’m asked this question. I’m a photographer. I must know a lot about cameras and photographic equipment. That’s true I know some but not a lot.

What camera to buy is a question that you and only you can answer. What camera or lenses to buy depends on what you’d like to do with it. It takes some time to learn that. So, my answer is always buy the cheapest. That’s what I did when I started.

I don’t follow what’s current in photographic equipment. Rather than follow the latest trends in cameras and gear I spend time learning history of photography, work by old and contemporary photographers, reading books about photography. It is more satisfying to me and allows me to grow myself, my vision, rather than acquiring more gear.

And if you’re in photography because you are into photographic gear. I’m not the right person to ask for an advice; there are plenty of photography gear magazines and websites out there.


With all the advancements in technology I still find that in a lot of situations it is easier to set exposure and focus manually. It does not mean my camera is broken. The camera simply does not know what I want to photograph. I always have white balance on manual and often use manual focusing. During last trip at some point I’ve also realized that I was fighting with automatic exposure with compensations, and eventually gave up and set it to manual. After that I could do much more and better photographs easier.

This reminds me when back in high school I had completely manual rangefinder camera. Then my parents gave me SLR with a built-in exposure meter as a birthday present. I was relying on it completely… and have not had a single frame with good exposure.

Automatic settings are great for casual photography but when I try to get an image as close as possible to the one in my mind’s eye automatic settings often get in my way.

Hand Waving

Photographer’s hand is a very useful tool. And it is useful not only for pressing a shutter button. It can also be used to create a shade for lenses to avoid lens flare. Or it can be used to block out sun that gets into a corner of a frame.

It can also be used as a gradient neutral density filter. With a long expose you can simply block out part of the frame for some time to reduce amount of light that gets into the frame. That’s exactly what I did when I took the photo below. While composing it I put my hand in front of a lens to cover sky down to horizon and took a note of how “deep” my hand should go to cover the sky. I pressed the shutter and started waving my hand in front of the lens, so my hand is not recorded but it blocked out enough light to produce dark moody sky.

Sure I could actually use gradient neutral density filter but it would not be so much fun. At some point I understood that photographer is a human and can carry only so much weight on his back. I started lightening up my backpack, gradient neutral density filters were one of the things that went away. In some way it actually made photography more interesting to me as I would spend less time unpacking my gadgets and preparing for a shot and spend more time seeing and connecting with a scene.

Kauai. Early Morning. Storm is comingKauai. Early Morning. Storm is coming

Demilitarization of Photography

I find it a bit disturbing the amount of military words used by photographers. Shoot instead of take picture. Shot instead of a photograph. Weapon of my choice instead of camera and lenses. Just today I’ve read interview of one photographer where while talking about his street photography he said “I keep my weapon close [referring to camera] ready to fire”. Why so much aggression? Aren’t we supposed to make our world better with our art?

I avoid those word in my language and use real photographic words when talking about photography. For me photography is a peaceful experience. Let’s declare photography a demilitarized zone. Are you with me?

Trusting Equipment

Since when have we started trusting our equipment to the level when we don’t use our brains anymore?

On my recent trip to Yosemite I was taking photos of a waterfall and saw a man taking a photo of his lovely wife and daughter with the waterfall in background. I was in a very good mood and decided to help him get a better picture. I gave him an advice to use fill flash to lit up their faces, since waterfall in background was bright and the sun was slightly behind. The man turned to me and said that he has a new camera that can detect when background is too bright and will pop the flash automatically.

I did not want to argue with him but found it very interesting that we started trusting equipment more than our common sense. I guess I must resist an urge to help anyone with “smarter than human” camera.