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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2009-09-03

It's all in the Details: The Exposure Dilemma
By Josh Lehrer

Photo by Josh Lehrer

Photo by Josh Lehrer

The original image, slightly cropped, but with the correct exposure.
In the course of working with many photographers, I have been given countless useful pieces of advice, to help me make the best images possible. With digital photography, one often hears the suggestions made by our peers, on the web, and at workshops, without actually questioning, or empirically testing, the results. In the past few months, I've heard from one established photographer that he always underexposes his images, in order to preserve highlights, and brings up shadows later. A few weeks later, another established professional tells me to always slightly overexpose and favor the shadows, and then bring the highlights back down.

In short, the end objective is to obtain the best image quality possible, with the least amount of noise and lost detail in both highlights and shadows. As digital cameras become more advanced and driven by better and better software, one might think this is irrelevant now. With the powerful processing offered by Adobe software, and others, it is possible to bring back shadow and highlight details like never before. Well this column wouldn't be about the details if I accepted either photographer just on their word, instead, I have to test it myself.

Using a Canon EOS 1D Mark III and Canon 24-70mm F2.8 lens, I set out to find an image that nearly fit within the histogram of my camera, meaning the entire scene was almost within my sensor's dynamic range, but not completely. This lovely living room scene might not be a terribly interesting photo, but it very accurately illustrates the point of this article. I then exposed both ways that I was instructed. One was to favor the highlights, and underexpose the image by about 1 stop. This would assure me that I would not lose highlight detail. The second image was over exposed about 1 stop, preserving full shadow detail.

The next step was to import these RAW images into Adobe Camera Raw (within Photoshop CS3) and adjust them using only the exposure and black point (shadows) sliders to match as closely as possible. I would not attempt to use any of Photoshop's shadow or highlight recovery tools.

Photo by Josh Lehrer

Photo by Josh Lehrer

The crop on the left was from a slightly overexposed image. The crop on the right was slightly underexposed. The difference in shadow noise is clear.
Without getting into the nature of sensor architecture, or going into tone curves, the simple answer is that it is always better to slightly over expose, and use whatever tools you prefer to bring back detail in highlights. With even minor under exposure, shadow noise goes from bearable to unacceptable, even at low ISO's on modern digital cameras. The images used in this article were shot at ISO400.

Regardless of advice you might get to the contrary, even from trusted professionals, the images speak for themselves. No amount of software will truly restore noisy shadows to the state they are in when the image is captured with a slight over exposure. It is very easy to recover highlights that have been over exposed, without compromising image quality in any way. This approach applies to all kinds of photography. Keeping a close eye on the camera's histogram is the best way to assure that you are "pushing" it as far to the right as possible.


(Josh Lehrer is a recent graduate from the advertising photography program at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He is currently working as a freelance photographer/assistant out of New York City; his work can be found at http://www.joshualehrer.com)

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