Why should you expose for the Highlights and develop for the shadows

Why should you expose for the Highlights and develop for the shadows

Unaltered original Nikon D850 RAW capture

I started in photography in the late 70’s. I was taught early on to expose for the highlights and then develop (print) for the shadows. The same principles hold true today in the digital era. If you over expose your highlights you will irrevocably lose detail in the brightest areas of your image. I pay close attention to my histogram as I shoot, taking care not to spike the highlights. When I later return to the digital editing tools I know that I can open up the shadows and harvest the information waiting for me in the darker areas of the image. This technique certainly has limitations, but their is quite a bit of leeway in a well exposed RAW file. If the difference in brightness between your brightest highlights ands darkest shadows becomes significant, this technique will become less successful. At some point we benefit from shooting a bracket (3 images one at normal exposure, one 2 stops bright and one 2 stops dark…at the most basic level) of images and later feeding those 3 images into dedicated software designed to identify and use the best portions of all three images and blend them into one. This is High Dynamic Range HDR photography. I shoot a fair amount of HDR brackets, but the image in this example does not require a 3 image bracket to successfully render all the detail.

I often use the various tools found in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic Creative Cloud (what a mouthful, let’s just call it Lightroom) to open up the shadows and reduce the highlights. For this image I exported the original to DxO’s HDR Efex Pro 2 and performed a single image HDR processing using the “bright” preset. I have used various versions of HDR Efex Pro since 2009 and love the results, but Lightroom would have gotten me to a very similar finished result.

Following my adjustments the image was significantly improved, as seen below.

Single image HDR
Processed using DxO HDR Efex Pro 2.

2 Responses to Why should you expose for the Highlights and develop for the shadows

  1. It depends on the sensor. On Canon DSLRs, you’re better off using the histogram and exposing to the right. In raw files, you have a lot more latitude in recovering the highlights in post. Doing this, will decrease the probability of noise in the shadows.