Some of you may have heard this term before, some not, but for everyone, it’s a great tip for optimizing the quality of the image coming from your sensor. So to understand how to shoot to the right, first we need to understand the camera’s histogram.
Virtually all DSLRs and many higher-level compacts have what’s known as a histogram display. A histogram is basically a graph showing the distribution of light in your images, from the shadows to the highlights. The left side of the graph represents the darkest shadows in the image whilst the right side represents the brightest highlights. A good exposure is one that keeps all that information within the confines of the graph. If the graph is sliding off the scale to the left, you are losing shadow detail, conversely if it is sliding off to the right you are “blowing” the highlights.
A classic “shot to the right” example
So, how does shooting to the right give you the possibility of better image quality? Well the technicalities are quite complicated and relate to how a sensor captures the light. Put very simply, the CCD or CMOS sensors found in digital cameras are more efficient at capturing the light at the brighter end of the exposure and less efficient at capturing the darker end and therefore by getting the exposure more to the highlight end, we are maximizing the use of the sensor.
Before we go any further, you should be aware that you need to shoot in the RAW format of your camera for this to work, as you will need to correct the exposure later in a RAW convertor. Shooting jpeg means you have already limited the dynamic range and compressed the image so any advantage of shooting to the right will have been lost.
So to the practicalities of how you go about shooting to the right. First, you need to compose your image and meter the exposure. Take the shot at the metered exposure and using the histogram function in your display/review mode, see where the highlights and shadow details lie. What you are aiming for is to have the bulk of the exposure lying to the right side of the histogram without any of it bleeding out of the right side and blowing the highlights.
If the bulk of your histogram is to the middle or left of the graph then you need to increase the exposure. If your image is already off the right side, then you are clipping the highlights and need to reduce the exposure to bring it back. You are aiming to have the highlights just inside the right side of the histogram.
The top image shows “shot to the right” uncorrected. In the bottom image, I have corrected in the Raw convertor revealing details in both the ice and the dogs fur.
Visually on your camera screen and in your editor, the image will possibly look over exposed. The trick now is the correct the exposure using the levels controls in your raw convertor to move the left side of the histogram to the left edge and the mid tones slider to correct the overall look. Because you have shot to the right, you will find that you can get a much better black without introducing extra noise to the image. You may also find that you can pull back the highlights to a much greater degree as well. (In post production, it is much easier to pull back highlights without introducing noise than to brighten the shadows which does introduce noise).
So that’s about it, a simple way to maximize the quality of your image.
There are a couple of things that can help, firstly if your camera is capable of showing an RGB histogram, then use this as it will show if any particular color is off the histogram scale. Also it is better to use the histogram on the exposed image rather than using the live histogram that some cameras have, this will give you a more accurate result.
Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. You can follow him on Facebook or visit his site, The Odessa Files. He also maintains a blog chronicling his exploits as an Expat in the former Soviet Union
Thanks. I have been guilty in the past of not using the histogram enough so interesting to read your perspective on how to use it better
Really helpful tutorial. Thanks, Jason, and thanks again, LightStalking.
For the counter argument to this, check out the following link:
great tip. I had always aimed more towards the center. Will give this a try.
The camera’s histogram reflects light in the JPEG it renders in its screen, not the RAW.
Shooting to the right or really any type of exposure optimization does not only apply to raw format. In fact, I would argue proper exposure is even more important with jpeg since you have less latitude after the shot to fix exposure problems than you do in raw.
This is a very useful explanation of something that can be tough to get a handle on. Very helpful. Thanks
can someone help me with how i can check the histogram for my nikon p500? please
@ vaishysiva: try googling “histogram nikon p500″https://www.dcresource.com/reviews/nikon/coolpix_p500-assets/screen-play-info.jpg
Great article. I am a big fan of shooting in RAW. Also, shooting to the right in composition-wise looks great.
Great tips. I tend to under expose which does introduce some noise if you’re not careful. I will try this out on my next shoot. You just have to be careful not to over expose when shooting landscapes with a nice sky in the background bc you might lose that sky detail.
I read about this method earlier this year and, having taken time to try it, I can say it has certainly improved my images.
That is the most detailed yet simple explanation I have heard regarding histograms.
I thought it was just the opposite, and shooting to the right was for film and shooting to the left was for digital, because digital loses the details when over exposed?
Would you recommend shooting to the right even when the histogram looks “perfect” with most of the piles in the middle of the histogram? It sounds counter intuitive.
This might be good advice for Canon or other models, however, Nikon shooters often do the opposite by adjusting the EV to -1.0 or even -2.0 in very bright conditions. The ability of the Nikon sensor to extract detail from underexposed image data is one of its strength plus you achieve two other objective, 1. It prevents the highlights from burnout that is far more difficult to recover and 2, especially for wildlife, nature and sport is by setting a negative EV, it either allows a reduction in ISO or an increase in shutter speed. Shooting birds with white feathers often result in highlight burn out if you overexposed in contrasting situations, shooting to the left, under exposure protects the highlights and detail, contracst and color can be extracted in Post Processing
This is really important when using an Olympus 4/3rds. Brining out shadows can introduce noise even at ISO 400.