It seems as if my article on ETTR has fanned the flames of a long-smoldering debate on optimizing exposure. Part of the problem is that optimization means different things to different people. It is not the same thing as maximizing. Optimizing means achieving the best overall solution even though some elements may be substantially below maximum value. Each photographer must decide which elements of the target image are most important and how much time and effort should be devoted to capturing a specific scene or event.
For some professionals, precision in measuring complex lighting is a necessity 100% of the time. For the high number of photo enthusiasts faced with limited time and resources in photographing outdoor scenes it is often a matter of achieving best results while constrained by limited time and resources. My article was directed to those who seek simple ways to improve their output without restraining spontaneity and the flexibility to capture short-lived special moments.
During my film years I calibrated my camera and lenses and routinely took multiple exposure readings with a one-degree spot meter. Setup time wasn’t overly long. But color photography is more complex and can be more time-consuming to determine accurate exposure. After I went full digital in 2002 I sought a simple but consistent exposure method that would produce good balanced results for most prevailing lighting conditions, as I often shoot all times of day in many types of weather. But, sensor and camera technology seems to have developed that reliability in the last four or five years.
For the record, I always shoot in RAW and pay attention to histograms, particularly when increasing ISOs beyond 400. When photographing outdoor scenes, I rely on aperture-preferred mode. I don’t subscribe to the viewpoint that camera exposure data is de facto unreliable, and therefore adding exposure time to the camera’s readings is therefore pointless. Reviews of my image inventory suggests quite the opposite.
It is likely that camera manufacturers deliberately lower the point at which overexposure takes place. Understandably, they have different objective than do their customers. Passionate outdoor photographers continually push limits in search of unique and more vibrant renditions of their subjects. However, prudent camera manufacturers must always consider the downside and provide margins of safety to avoid customer complaints. They seek to minimize chances of overexposure and blown highlights particularly since high dynamic ranges allow acceptable exposures at one or two EV’s below optimum level. So, photographers should run series of exposures for varying light intensities and light qualities to find where those optimums are. In other words, calibrate your camera. By doing so, you will get better exposures by consistently adding back the margins that the manufacturers take away out of self-interest (though they won’t admit it and will offer other explanations).
Developing such a procedure still leaves exceptions at least 25% of the time. This is where experience in recognizing higher contrast lighting and more reflective elements in the scene should ring warning bells. Those conditions require exposure bracketing or at least returning the exposure compensation dial to neutral as a starting point.
Three days ago, a rare lighting condition occurred in Sedona which I had seen before. Following two days of intermittent rain, this extensive weather front began to dissipate. The air was saturated with moisture and fine droplets, and the sun strongly illuminated major rock formations while shadows took on an inky cast. Over-exposure of the light colored rock in direct sunlight was more likely. I doubted that my +1.0 EV starting point would hold up under those conditions, and therefore bracketed my exposures.
I was surprised though. The best look for the image occurred at +0.7 EV, even though the final image allowed some dense black areas in several foreground trees. This could have been moderated by adding light to the shadow areas in post edit, but at the expense of producing a more dramatic image with more mood. I am attaching a copy of the image to illustrate how experience and judgement adequately covered the bases, though artistic objectives made the final decision. Yes, good images are made. But the challenge is to massage the variables to reach an optimal solution according to one’s objectives.