With scene-referred when to adjust exposure?

It is my understanding that it is recommended to adjust exposure before turning on filmic. If I set darktable to none that is what I do. If I set it to scene-referred then exposure and filmic are automatically included in the history stack when I import a photo.

Okay, here is my question. Using scene-referred I open the imported photo and I may see that the exposure needs to be adjusted from the default that was already set. How should I proceed? Should I:

  1. Open the exposure module and adjust (even though filmic has already been automatically turned on)?

  2. Turn filmic off, adjust exposure, and then turn filmic back on?

Since the recommendation is to adjust exposure before filmic it sort of seems to me that going back and adjusting exposure after filmic is turned on may not be right since the image displayed and that you are looking at to set exposure already shows the results of filmic. But I am not sure about this.

Can someone please clear up my confusion?

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  1. Adjust exposure until midtones look good.
  2. White relative in filmic to recover highlights
  3. Black relative in filmic to adjust your shadows.

You should have a pretty decent looking photo by now.


As I understand it, Aurélian’s advice is to adjust exposure for the midtone brightness you want before doing any adjustments with filmic. It’s not a matter of turning exposure on before turning filmic on, but about which you module you make adjustments with first.

I think the idea is that you set the midtone exposure you want, and filmic will then look after adjusting the dynamic range to take account of that exposure setting.

(Edit: I see that @paperdigits gave a concise summary while I was replying.)

Yes, I understand that. But should step 1 be done with filmic turned on or turned off?

Leave it ‘on’ as it is when you start a scene-referred workflow.

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They get executed in the pipeline order so it does not matter. If your set them yourself then yes set your exposure then when you apply filmic it will look better…if you use scene referred the just go edit exposure. By default it adds 0.5 ev You might find a different number works better as a starting point for your camera

Filmic does not change midtones. So, if your subject is in the midtone range, having filmic on or off will not be an issue -> just leave it on.
If your subject is much brighter or darker than mid-grey, you may need a few iterations (adjust exposure -> adjust filmic black and/or white point -> this changes the brightness of highlights and shadows -> adjust exposure again). However, you have other tools at your disposal:

  • with the tone equalizer, you can brighten/darken regions (you can use it pixel-wise, as as simple curve tool, or for regions, preserving local contrast)
  • color balance has separate controls for shadows, midtones and highlights.

I think a key to the question asked was there was some thought or concern that the order would make a difference to the outcome…that is what I read into it anyway…

I was as baffled as the OP for the same reason, possibly because the suggested methodology for operating filmic has subtly changed over time. It is certainly my recollection that the original instructions for the early versions of filmic were to fix the exposure before starting filmic. This was how Bruce Williams described it at 1:35 into his original filmic video (episode 26 which I shall not link to prevent further confusion).

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Again: filmic won’t change midtone brightness, so it does not matter when you set those (before or after enabling filmic).

And, since the scene-referred workflow is unbounded (never clips), you use exposure exclusively to set the midtones, not caring about shadows and highlights.
You do tune filmic once the exposure is OK.


In earliest versions of filmic the “middle gray point” was used to tune the image. Now that value is (in principle) fixed, so the correction had to come from somewhere else, that “somewhere else” being the exposure module.
(Ok, this is simplified, exposure was used with the earlier incarnations of filmic as well).

I still enable the middle grey picker and often use it for a starting point and then shift it just as I would exposure…saves me having to leave the filmic module…

Okay, I gather that now it doesn’t matter which order exposure and filmic are turned on. So, as I said at the top, using scene-referred and after importing if I need to adjust exposure it is not necessary to temporarily turn off filmic in order to judge the screen image for exposure adjustment. Have I got this right?

It’s not necessary. Just see, if the mid tones seems to be right and the drag ghe midtones in the histogram until the appearance is ok for you.
But it makes sense to do adjust exposure before tweaking filmic settings since you might need to redo this after changing exposure.

Look at it this way:
you have an image which ‘as is’ has the highlights (say clouds in a landscape) just right. So nothing to do in filmic, but modifying contrast and black point.
But the foreground (for one reason or another) is way to dark, so you want to apply 1EV extra exposure. No problem, except that now you have to go back to the filmic module to correct your highlight, which also got that extra 1EV, and are now overexposed…

Exposure first, then filmic (this means exposure module is listed under filmic module).

Setting exposure with filmic enabled or not is up to you.

Changing exposure with filmic off might trick you in paying to much attention to what the shadows and highlights are doing. You really should ignore them. Highlights might me clipped to oblivion, then you turn filmic on and they are back :).

So,change exposure with filmic on to have a more complete final output while you change the slider. But it might be harder to understand why certain things are happening while you are changing exposure.

Changing exposure with filmic off might be harder for people because they see stuff in shadows and highlights happening which should be ignored. It’s midtones only.

I started with filmic on,now with color calibration in there I always leave it off until I set exposure and color- cal to a decent start.

The picker and the 'ai’options in color-calcan have a hard time with lots of your image completely clipped. So I always return to them to see if they do something interesting after I set filmic.

Can you please clarify? If scene-referred and modern are set in preferences are you saying that one should not turn off filmic to adjust exposure, but one should turn off color calibration to adjust exposure?

Bakubo you will generally need to go back and forth. Unless you specifically change the order of module execution…exposure happens early in the pipeline…filmic much later and inside the color profiles. no matter what order you complete them in your workflow or turn them off or on they will execute in that order. What @jorismak is saying is that it might be easier to tweak exposure with filmic on as what you view on the screen is the combined effect so if you do it with filmic off taking in to account shadows etc etc just how you like then filmic will change them…so its easier if filmic is already in place to assess your exposure tweaking. The initial exposure is only added as a guess to boost the starting point for filmic. In the past it was not added and people were freaked out about how dark or crushed their images were. Most JPG files have an ev bump and so this simulates this…filmic maps your dark and highlights around the point that you establish for middle tones…so hence the advice to add some exposure to get your mid tones right and then apply filmic…now following that logic even after adjustment filmic might leave you with the need to tweak exposure so just tweak exposure…there is no magic order…in fact I enable the old middle grey slider in filmic and use that so I don’t have to leave the module to tweak it…lower for lighter higher for darker…there are many ways edit but there is no magic effect of the order in which filmic and exposure are added the end calculation is the product of the two…its just a workflow suggestion you may prefer to set you preferences to none and then enable the modules in that order ie exposure and then filmic if that works for you…basically DT is trying to guess and set exposure and then apply filmic. Through experimentation you may find a better starting bump to ev for your camera and if so you can change that but there is going to always be some back and forth with filmic. I believe @jorismak is saying that he now prefers to leave filmic off and set exposure and color calibration and then enable filmic…not as you understood it…usually you will set wb then exposure in a traditional approach so you would do your color cal and then set your exposure and then continue from that base…

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Thank you. I think I am going to stop being concerned about this and just adjust exposure without turning off filmic and color calibration. :slight_smile: That is easier since they are already there and turned on when I import a photo.

Thank you to everyone who replied.


You need to take shadows and highlights into account to set the correct midtones - so it‘s helpful to optimize in some cycles with filmic is active. It‘s notabout absolute numbers, it’s about your perception of the image. But this is dependent on the overall view

from http://www.psy.ritsumei.ac.jp/~akitaoka/gilchrist2006mytalke.html