Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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The terms push and pull come from the days of film processing, and there's more on that here and here, but essentially they refer to increasing or decreasing the chemical processing time to account for intentional or unintentional under/over-exposure of the film roll.

When it comes to digital, we're no longer bathing films in chemicals, but are adjusting the exposure compensation knob on the camera, or an exposure slider in Lightroom/Aperture/Photoshop/etc. So I'm wondering if these terms are still relevant to digital photography, and exactly how they can/should be used—they certainly seem to be used by experienced photographers, so I want to make sure I'm understanding precisely what they mean.

First, which way is which? and is there a simple mnemonic or trick to remember?

Second, can these terms be used to refer just to intentionally over/under-exposing a photo (relative to the recommended metering) for artistic effect? Or do they always refer to a two-stage process of under/over-exposing in camera, then a corresponding & opposite adjustment in post-processing?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The terms push and pull are still relevant in the sense that they are still used and understood by many enthusiast photographers. But they are probably not as common as they once were. New terms, such as expose to the right describe the same concept using different words.

If you underexpose when taking the shot, then you push the exposure in editing to raise it. Conversely, if you overexpose when taking the shut, then you "pull" the exposure back down in post. Although there may be those who use push or pull when referring to intentionally over or underexposed photos that are not corrected at some point in the workflow in my experience they seem to always be used in the context of offsetting adjustments.

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Yeah, ETR is a good equivalent of shooting for a pull (contrast/tone management), but the only real analog for push is "I'm out of ISO and will have to try to fix it in post". You can easily get the contrast boost, grain, etc., in "development" without any of the bad that comes with underexposure. –  user2719 Mar 26 at 16:49
Thanks for those explanations. For the memory device, I'll think of someone standing at the zero point (left) of the histogram in the post-processing tool, either pushing or pulling the histogram to return it to correct exposure, and in the camera it's about getting the histogram at the end ready for that push/pull. –  drfrogsplat Mar 26 at 23:20

Along other expressions like unsharp mask etc. they are used in the digital environment in an analogus way to their classic usage.

Most common is "pushing" by correcting to the plus, preferrably while "developing" (another of these expressions) a jpeg or tiff out of a raw. Correction to the minus corresponds to "pulling".

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