Hamlet's new D-SLR dilemma: to underexpose or not to underexpose?
By Rob Sheppard
Less Range To Work With. Just like the previous step, underexposure results in fewer steps of tonal range. This amazes me when people say, "But I'm shooting RAW." I have to think, "And you're not shooting JPEG, which has fewer steps of tonal range, because you can underexpose RAW to get fewer steps of tonal range, and which will require more work in processing.
Color Problems. When rich midtone colors are exposed as dark colors, they often lose saturation and chroma (their color quality). When you move them back to their proper tones in the digital darkroom, they rarely have the proper colors, so they need more work.
Lost Colors And Tones. As noted above, when dark tones and colors are underexposed, they can get to black, meaning they're lost forever as far as that digital file is concerned.
I believe in exposing for the needs of an individual shot and being sure I have the detail where I need it. Some still say, "But I shoot RAW, so I can do this." I have to be honest, I cringe at the idea that RAW cures all and that it should be underexposed.
RAW is limited by the sensor's capabilities just as JPEG is. You can often expose brighter with it than JPEG because you have more steps of tonality and color in the bright areas. (So again, why would one shoot RAW versus JPEG for the added tonality, yet underexpose to deliberately restrict it?) RAW gives you more flexibility in processing and in getting more out of bright and dark areas, as well more capabilities in doing strong adjustments without damaging the image quality.
Underexposing does make more work for you in your RAW converter and in Photoshop, plus you're often shifting colors. I got into this whole business of digital because I thought it offered great possibilities for photographers, not because it let me sit in front of a computer. I have no desire to spend additional time working files because I didn't expose them right in the first place.
People will talk about how they underexpose, use RAW, then choose Adobe RGB (1998) for its bigger color space compared to sRGB. I can tell you that I can probably get better colors with less work going to sRGB if I've exposed correctly than underexposure with Adobe RGB (with more work, I might come close). If you doubt that, just try it.
I never arbitrarily underexpose scenes unless I find through testing that a camera and its meter are consistently giving me too much exposure—and that's no different than when I shot film. And I admit that I've made mistakes in this area. I once screwed up part of a pro shoot many years ago because I didn't check how a new camera metered (but that's another story). And I'll guarantee that you won't find problems with my highlights and bright textures simply because I don't overexpose them. Not overexposing important bright areas isn't the same as underexposure.
For me, underexposure without a deliberate reason for a specific camera or image is poor photographic craft. I say this not from my own experience as a photographer, but from working with so many images and photographers who we publish in our magazines. With our magazines, we did a lot of trial and error with early digital image files and learned a lot about them. I also know from talking to our art directors and my book publishers that they consistently like working with my image files because they go to print so well.