To the right of your histogram that is. You do remember how to read one, yes? Slightly, ever so slightly exposing all of your photographs to the right of the histogram, which is to say slightly overexposing them, should be your goal, 100% of the time.

Why? Because there is more data in the brightest few stops of sensor attenuation than in the rest of the entire range, which is to say that there will be more detail, less banding, less noise, and so forth, within the brightest areas than there will be in the darkest ones. But you’ve observed that before, right? You’ve seen how terrible shadow areas can look when you try to brighten them up.

“It’s better to overexpose a photo than to underexpose it.” —Will Greenwald

Then there’s this guy Will Greenwald. He just posted a whole article about this in which he says “it’s better to overexpose a photo than to underexpose it.” Awesome, I agree. But neither of us are saying you should “blow out” any of your image; definitely don’t do that.

Strangely, most of the people who commented on Will’s article disagreed with him. Those people are amateurs.

Why would I say that? I don’t even know them, and I am not prone to hyperbole or dirt-kicking. I’m really not. I’m also sure that all of those people are well-versed, smart individuals. It’s just that… I guess they don’t “get around” much in digital photography circles.

You see, I know something they don’t, and I learned it from an article by Michael Reichmann written some time back around 2003. I don’t need to tell you who Michael Reichmann is, do I? This information is not bleeding edge, it’s not new news. When Chris Blake and I teach our photography workshops, which I plug on this blog shamelessly and regularly, one of the first things we talk about is “exposing to the right,” and we’ve been doing that for three years.

Michael’s article is titled, with tongue pressed firmly into cheek, Expose Right. He means “to the right of the histogram” as much as he means “correctly.” Read that article if you want all of the technical “nitty gritty” involved in digital sensor attenuation and so forth.

You’ll read about how Michael was chatting with Thomas Knoll. You know, the guy who wrote Photoshop. You’ll learn about how they came to agree upon the fact that more detail lives in the brightest areas of an image than in the darkest ones. That’s all you need to know. You don’t need to get any deeper into the technology in order to use this rule.

Okay, so…

How do you use this rule?

I’m glad you asked. This is all you need to remember:

If possible, increase your image’s overall exposure until the histogram almost touches the right edge.

There are plenty of reasons that you may not be able to do that including subject motion, lack of light, and so on. Do the best you can. Tend toward the right of the histogram.

The image shouldn’t be clipped, which means that if your camera shows little blinking spots where things are overexposed, that’s still bad, but get that graph to move over to the right as far as you can without compromising the image.

If, like me, you operate in aperture-priority or aperture-value mode (Canon Av, Nikon A) all you have to do is use your “exposure value,” or EV, setting to increase the exposure of the image as far as you can up until the histogram data nearly touches the right edge of the graph. If you can’t get it all the way over there without compromising the shot, don’t worry about it. This is a rule of thumb only.

Then what?

Then you take your photos home and import them into Lightroom and use the Develop module to adjust the overall brightness of the image using the exposure slider and curves and anything else you need to until it looks good to you. That’s really it.

Here are some things that you are going to complain about, and why you shouldn’t:

  • On your camera’s LCD screen, an image exposed to the right may look very bright, and may look desaturated. It’s OK. There is just as much color data in the image as there was when it was center-exposed, and when you bring it into Lightroom you can draw that color out, but this time with more detail than ever.

Okay, so that was only one complaint. If you have other complaints, leave them down there in the comments!

Do you expose to the right already? Do you like it? Do you hate it? Leave a comment and let us all know!