Understanding Exposing to the Right in Photography Using Histogram

The amount of light that enters your DSLR’s image sensor is called Exposure. Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO are the three sides of the Exposure Triangle. These 3 settings play a key role in creating a properly exposed image.

Light Trinity

What is Exposing to the Right (ETTR) and When to Use it

Exposing to the Right (ETTR) is used only by experienced photographers to get better quality pictures by increasing the exposure/ overexposing the image in low light situations. This DSLR setting helps in capturing more (shadow) details in your image and reduces the noise (tiny coloured pixels or grain) in your image without losing any of the highlights.

It is called Exposing to the Right since it refers to the histogram of the image which should be towards the right side of the graph. You might be wondering what a histogram is and how to read it? Here’s how.

How to read a Histogram


Many a times, your DSLR LCD may not reflect the correct exposure of your image. Instead, it is always better to check the histogram of the image. In most DSLR cameras, to see the histogram – you will have to go to the image, then press the DISP/ Display button.

A histogram is basically a graphical representation of the pixels exposed in your photograph; it measures tones and exposure. The vertical line indicates volume of tones and the horizontal line indicates distribution of tones from darkest to lightest: 1) Blacks 2) Shadows 3) Greys/Exposure or Midtones 4) Highlights 5) Whites.

In the above picture – the first histogram is towards the left which means the image is underexposed. The second histogram is towards the right (Exposing to the Right) which means the image is overexposed.

For instance – in a photo with a female in black dress against a black background – there will be a peak in the left section of the histogram (Blacks) ; in a photo with a bride in white dress – there will be a peak in the right section of the histogram (Whites) ; in case of a  landscape photo where the tones are balanced – there will be a peak in the middle section of the histogram (Greys/Exposure or Midtones). Hence, there’s no perfect histogram – it will vary for every photo/scene.

We bring you ‘Jo & His Camera’ Comic Strips wherein a Magical Camera gives DSLR photography tutorials to Jo.

To understand ETTR, Click on the below Image to see the Comic wherein the Camera explains Jo, the concept of ETTR.

Exposure to the Right ETTR

How to Use Exposing to the Right (ETTR)

Remember, you will have to set the file format to capture/save images in RAW and not JPEG, if you want to use ETTR. When you save your images in RAW format, the images are saved as RAW meaning they are not processed by the DSLR. Hence, it is not recommended for beginners as these images have to be processed later in software like Lightroom. Since, a RAW image captures all image data recorded by the image sensor without processing it, the file size is heavy compared to JPEG.

You will have to overexpose the image so that the histogram shifts to the right. How do you do that? Experiment with the 3 settings/elements that form the Exposure Triangle: Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO. For instance, you can set the aperture to a small f-number 4 (wide aperture), slow shutter speed of 1/13 sec (use a tripod to prevent camera blur) and high ISO of 12800.

Once you have captured the image using ETTR, the image will look very bright but it contains a lot of details. You will now have to process the image in Lightroom to get it to proper exposure. The resulting image will be a high quality one, containing more details and less noise in the shadow areas without losing any highlights.

Click on the below Image to see the Comic wherein Jo experiments with ETTR Settings and succeeds in mastering ETTR.


Keywords: Photography Basics, DSLR Photography for Beginners, DSLR Photography Tutorials, learn DSLR Photography, ETTR, Exposing to the Right, Histogram, Histogram in Photography

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