Exposure: Get it Right in Camera or Fix it Later?

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Exposure: Get it Right in Camera or Fix it Later?

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Recently, I received a very interesting question from a dPS reader about exposure. The question was, “How much does it matter about getting the exposure right when the photo is taken, as opposed to fixing it later in Lightroom?” It is a really interesting question, and it became even more interesting to me the more I thought about it.

Toledo-Overlook

Options for achieving the best exposure

Let’s start off by looking at the possibilities here. There a few different ways you can approach this, and they each have their advantages:

#1 Get it right in camera:

The first way is to make absolutely sure you get it right in camera, without resorting to post-processing software, unless you absolutely have to. Historically, this is the way it was done, largely because changing exposure levels was much more difficult than it is today with digital photography. Any professional photographer worth their salt, would tell you to get it right in camera.

Even today, however, there is still a lot to recommend this strategy. If you don’t use post-processing software, then obviously this is the only answer for you. Further, if you are someone that takes a lot of pictures, and do not want to spend all your time editing them, then this approach still has merit as well. There is just something that feels right about getting it correct in camera. It also avoids surprises later.

#2 Rely on Lightroom:

At the opposite end of the spectrum, is the idea that you should not worry about exposure so much while shooting, and instead get it right in Lightroom. When I say “not worry about it so much,” of course I do not mean you should just haphazardly twist dials to any exposure setting and blast away. Obviously, you need to get the exposure somewhat close to what you want. In addition, you cannot let your highlights get blown out, or your shadows turn pure black. But programs like Lightroom and Photoshop give you a lot of flexibility to deal with exposure settings later. As long as you get it close when you are shooting, you can take your time in front of a computer and get it exactly right.

#3 Do both:

Then, of course, there is a median way.  You can try very hard to get the exposure exactly right in camera, and then tweak it later in Lightroom, when you are in front of your computer. In this approach, basically you are just always trying to get it right. You are taking advantage of all your tools. You may get it right in camera, which avoids time in front of the computer later, and avoids any surprises. If not, you can take your time and tweak it later.

LR-controls-Graphic

To me, as I thought about it, the median way seemed like the right answer, I expect it did to you too. Except the more I thought about it, the more I realized I don’t really do that.

My approach to exposure

Instead, I tend more toward the “don’t worry about exposure so much” end of the spectrum. I tend to just get it close, knowing that I am going to fix it later in Lightroom. Am I just being lazy in the field? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

It is just that when I am out shooting, I am usually trying to focus all my attention on composition. I think that is ultimately what matters in creating great photos. For me at least, that topic requires virtually all my mental energy. You have everything from your choice of subject, to how you will be placing things within the frame, to the perspective you want to use, to making everything balance, etc. That’s not to mention shape, leading lines, and other compositional elements. There is just so much to think about. Therefore, the more I can eliminate distractions from anything but composition, the better. I try to keep exposure from intruding on that process too much when I am out shooting.

Further, this approach toward exposure just lends itself to my way of shooting. I’m not someone that sets up on a tripod and stays in one place for a long time. It seems like I’m always on the move, chasing the next shot. My time spent on each shot is pretty limited. Further, while I take a lot of pictures, I edit very few of them, so I don’t mind spending whatever time is necessary, tweaking exposures in Lightroom. I often bracket my pictures as well, which gives me a little leeway for my exposure settings, and means I won’t have an unpleasant surprise later.

Sometimes you are set up on a tripod facing a static scene with unchanging light - which means you can spend all the time you want making sure you have the exposure the way you want it.

Sometimes you are set up on a tripod facing a static scene with unchanging light – which means you can spend all the time you want making sure you have the exposure the way you want it.

Anyway, thinking about how my approach toward photography as a whole affected how I approach exposure, made me realize that your particular method or style of photography probably has a lot to do with your approach to exposure.

Which should you do?

So, how should you approach exposure – by getting it right in camera, or relying more on Lightroom? There is no right answer here, as far as I can tell. As mentioned above, I believe it depends a lot on how you approach photography.

For example, a street shooter who is always on the move, trying to capture fleeting emotions, might not have time to devote toward getting the exposure exactly right. On the other hand, someone who spends a lot of time in one place may have the time. There are a lot of other factors as well.

. . . and other times you have only a second to get a shot before conditions change or your subject walks away - in which case you might spend very little time thinking about exposure and just tweak it in Lightroom.

Other times you have only a second to get a shot before conditions change or your subject walks away – in which case you might spend very little time thinking about exposure and can tweak it in Lightroom later.

Therefore, I’ve started a little list of factors that would tend to put you in one camp or the other. Check it out and see which apply to you:

Factors that lean toward getting it right in camera:

  • You often stay in one place, and have sufficient time in the field to tweak exposure settings.
  • Your subject is fairly static.
  • You do not have post-processing software or just do not like to use it.
  • You shoot in high volume and the time needed to tweak exposure settings would be too much.

Factors that lean toward increased reliance on Lightroom

  • You are a consistent user of post-processing software to enhance your pictures.
  • You bracket your pictures.
  • Your subject is moving or the moment fleeting.
  • You do not edit large volumes of pictures.

Did I miss some factors? Do you have a different take? If so, let me know in the comments below, and tell me – which camp are you in?

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  • ??

    Quick way: magic lantern ettr + raw therapee (I don’t use unfree source software).

  • Harvey

    As my photography passion is candid street photography I usually don’t have the luxury of time and so often shoot with various auto settings that get me close to the correct exposure and correct on post. I agree with you that exposure is not the most Important factor in photography. My order is as follows subject matter, composition and then tell technical considerations.

  • Ved

    I guess shooting raw gives a little more flexibility but in scenarios where you have to shoot only jpeg to save memory and quick transmission these tips are extremely helpful. Thanks for sharing!

  • J Public

    Another vote for “both”. Even if you have large numbers of photos such as flying bird or running dog, it is easy to bulk amend the exposure by a stop or two in DPP, and I would guess same would apply to Lightroom etc. It is better to get it as close as possible to “right” in camera, sure, to save time and also because there seems to be some loss of picture quality if you change too radically in processing. The thing I really can’t get my head around is why you would want to get White Balance right in camera. I often fiddle about with it afterwards, but find that “auto” is almost always “right”, unless you want to change the mood or something.

  • Jerry Mathers

    Beyond creative control, I think the reason you set the white is the same you do for exposure. Batch edits. If you allow auto, your white balance can be everywhere. And if the camera gets it wrong, you will be in post hell trying to adjust all your shots. Especially if you are shooting an event in something like a hotel conference room (which, for some reason, seem to have a universally ugly color cast built into to all of them).

  • I agree with Jerry, and there is a place for getting white balance right if you are taking a lot of pictures under consistent lighting.

    That said, I almost never use anything but Auto white balance, which usually does a pretty good job, and then fix it in Lightroom or ACR if necessary. For me, white balance falls under the heading of “distraction” when I’m out shooting, especially when it is so easy to change later.

  • DavidR8

    I vote for both. Over exposed pretty much guarantees lost detail and too far under makes it hard to pull out the detail in the blacks. IMHO

  • Tarik Browne

    There is the third option, getting it right in camera to provide you with a raw file you can do the most with in LR. Making sure you are not too under or too over so that detail is present to be uncovered in the post tool of your choice makes a heap of sense. Also sometimes getting in right in camera may involve gear you dont have, powerful strobes, nd filters etc. by knowing how to maximise the files you get out of the camera so that you can get the image you have in your head when you shoot you can achieve things that would otherwise require the gear mentioned. some sculptors sometimes say the piece was in the rock the whole time, they just cleared excess stuff away.

  • Roberto

    I think that it’s the option for doing it right on both parts. The closest you get on camera the more detail you’ll get to tune it later on LR or PS or ACR.

  • Tim Lowe

    I teach photography. And we always start with film. Students learn to “get it right” with one sheet of film. Composition, critical focus and exposure need to be spot on to make an image. But this concept of “SOOC” is completely silly. What comes “straight out of” a 4×5 or 8×10 is a sheet of plastic with some silver (I always start with b/w too) more or less “excited” by exposure to light. There are so many more creative decisions to be made after the shutter goes zip! and the film holder comes out. Which developer and developing technique to control tonal range, contrast, negative density. And further when who either put the negative in an enlarger or scan it into CS, there are many, many, many decisions to be made in fine tuning contrast and dodging and burning to achieve the image the photographer envisioned when they pressed the cable release.

    This is not at all different from the approach for digital imaging. Get the composition, exposure and critical focus right in the viewfinder. “Develop” and “print” in the tools available. Cropping and fiddling with general exposure might be possible with a RAW file but the image quality suffers for it,

  • benkoerita

    Though provoking article, thanks for sharing your ways of shooting. One aspect that may lead toward the set it in camera-approach that most often we need to control depth of field, movement blur, blown-out and dark areas and noise level too. Sometimes it means that we need to give up some features to be perfect, sometimes it means that there is no possible way to get it right in camera. If the exposure is close enough, then it can be saved by image-editing software.

  • Rob

    Good article, I prefer to get it as right as time will allow, then tweak as needed in post. It sounds like I am on the same page as you are. Sometimes you have the luxury of getting it right, sometimes, events make you ‘wing it’

  • Chris Jensen

    I use the “both” option. Since I like to travel, I shoot anything that catches my eye. That means I take a lot of pix, many times with a limited time frame (people walk into your shot, some idiot with a phone does a selfie, and sometimes if I take a tour I am pressed for time to keep up with the tour). I only shoot NEF (RAW) so I always have to do some PP. If nothing else, sharperning needs to be added, once in a while a shift of contrast, tint, or tone for special effects, a little color maybe and shadow elimination or reduction. So, since I am always touching up every photo, even though I usually get good exposure I don’t worry too much. When I shoot stills (flowers, landscapes) I can take all the time I need.

  • Chris Jensen

    About the rock, that was the theory of Michelangelo. I guess he did ok using it!

  • Sean Money

    What is meant by “Bracketing” a photograph?

  • Howard Raver

    Having had my start shooting film, I tend to lean toward getting it right in the camera, at least in theory. In practice, though, I find that I do both. If I see any blown out highlights, I reevaluate my exposure, the same with all black. BUT, sometimes I actually want some all black, depending on my intent, but never all white.

  • Chris Jensen

    I think what they are referring to is a function in photo software and in some cameras, where a “frame” of some nature may be placed on the outside edges of an image.

  • Mark

    I think the problem has become less of an issue with the advent of mirrorless cameras. Once you have that live view of exposure with added zebras for blown highlights it makes it a lot easier to see where you are making sacrifices and get it ball-park in camera.

  • dude II

    Having started shooting over 50 years ago and exposed hundreds of rolls of slide film, I understand the importance of “getting it right in the camera”. Slide film did not provide good results if not exposed correctly and no matter how much you wished for, there was little if any “post processing”.
    The key word is UNDERSTAND (sorry for yelling) if you take the time to learn what is happening, then you can finesse the result. The assumption of going out and just blasting away because you can “fix it in post” will lead to disappointment. Knowledge is the key point to walk away with.
    If a photographer has to do jerk around the sliders to get an acceptable image to start with, the room for subtle changes is over. Better let it up to the cameras computer to make all the decisions for you, then you can blame the equipment instead of taking responsibility for the garbage you see on the screen.

  • Chef Mike in Burlington ON

    Shoot in both RAW and JPEG and fix with it later, its not 1987 anymore

  • Good point about the additional effects of aperture and shutter speed. I spend more time thinking about them than I do the actual exposure value, actually.

  • I think it is a really good point that people should know how to get a correct exposure all the time, even with the new post-processing tools available. I suppose there is a big difference between getting is close because you have a lot of different objectives and not a lot of time, on the one hand, and not knowing what you are doing, on the other.

  • Yes, I think we’re on the same page. And I think “get it as right as time will allow” is an apt summary of where we are.

  • Gary R Boodhoo

    Yes, I agree with this approach. Understanding and intentionality are everything. Even as someone deeply involved with computational photography, unless you are planning on radical transformations, garbage in is garbage out.

  • Pete L.

    This 100%. There is a difference between making it look good right out of the camera and getting the most useful RAW file out of the camera. For example, using a technique like “exposing to the right” without blowing highlights will not necessarily give you the most pleasing image right out of the camera but will give you the most useful RAW file with the most detail. Reducing exposure on bright (but not blown out) areas lends itself to better detail and less noise than increasing exposure in dark areas. Of course like all techniques, this is not a “rule” for every shot, just a technique to use at certain times.

  • Pete L.

    This is true. Shooting an event in a single room is a great time to use a custom white balance which will save time in post. I even hate using a TTL flash and avoid it if I can because it will make every photo just a little different exposure. Probably being too much of a perfectionist, but I think consistency looks more professional.

  • Jerry Mathers

    Agreed

  • 9MW

    For some folks what you want as a final result does not (perhaps cannot) exist “in camera”. Reportage vs interpretation. What you can attempt to do is to get the exposure “in camera” that best facilitates attaining the final result later.

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