Bracketing in the digital age

Poppy With a View, Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Canon EOS 10D
1/90 second
ISO 100
24 mm

Remember the uneasy days of film, when we never knew whether we had exposed a scene properly until the film was processed? As insurance we’d bracket our exposures, starting with the exposure we believed to be right, then hedge our bets by capturing the same composition at lighter and darker exposure values. Today digital capture gives us instant exposure confirmation, yet the practice of exposure bracketing persists among inexperienced photographers.

Film shooters carefully budget their shutter clicks because they pay for film and processing by the exposure; digital photographers paid for their exposures when they purchased their camera. In other words, while every film click costs you money, every digital click increases the return on your investment. This means that using a digital camera, you can shoot to your heart’s content with little to no added cost, a great opportunity get the most out of your significant hardware investment and grow as a photographer. These “free” captures may also explain the persistence of exposure bracketing by so many digital photographers who think nothing of tripling the number of shutter clicks. But unless you plan to blend images later, exposure bracketing is a waste of time, shutter-cycles (the shutter is often the first thing to wear out on digital SLRs), and storage. Instead, trust your histogram and spend your extra shutter clicks on a more productive approach: composition bracketing.

Composition bracketing is “working” a scene by capturing composition and camera-setting variations to be decided upon later, when you review your images on a large screen. If you shoot your scenes both horizontally and vertically, you already composition bracket. But don’t stop there: Before looking for something else to shoot, shoot the current scene wider and tighter, move around to change the foreground or background, experiment with depth of field and motion blur, and so on.

For example, a few years ago I spent a couple of days photographing wildflowers in Point Reyes. Visualizing a solitary poppy with the coastline soft in the background, I was pleased to find this fearless subject clinging to Chimney Rock’s precipitous west slope. From my vantage point above the poppy, the background was a mix of dirt and weeds, but dropping down to poppy-level instantly juxtaposed it against the ocean. A blue ocean was better than dirt and weeds, but I wanted coastline so I rotated (with one eye on the cliff) until the poppy was framed by the curving shore. To fill the frame with the poppy and achieve the narrow depth of field I sought, I added an extension tube to my wide (24-70) lens.

Here I am refining my composition for this poppy. I ended up dropping lower and closer before bringing in my tripod. (The slope was as steep as it looks here.)

Dropping low enough to place the entire poppy against the surf put me too low for the tripod I was carrying. But since nailing the focus point is particularly essential these shallow depth of field images, I don’t even consider hand-holding close focus shots. In this case I placed my tripod on its side and carefully rested the lens on one of the legs, using my bunched jacket to cushion against vibration and my remote release to click without disturbing the precarious equilibrium. As you might imagine, because this was in the days before live-view, composing was an exercise in contortion and patience.

Exposure was easy, a fact confirmed by my histogram. But after going to all this trouble to set up my shot, I wasn’t about to fire off a single frame and move on. So I bracketed my compositions, timing several exposures for different background wave action, a surprisingly significant frame-to-frame change. And even though I believed minimal DOF was best, I knew that my postage stamp sized LCD wouldn’t tell me if I’d achieved the best DOF. So I followed my initial wide-open shot with several frames at a variety of smaller f-stops (and a correspondingly slower shutter speeds). Good thing, because the background in the original f4 exposure was far too soft–the frame I ended up choosing was at f8. While the exposure was identical for each frame, I attribute my satisfaction with this image to the choices due to my calculated composition bracketing.

9 Comments on “Bracketing in the digital age

  1. This post contains a simple idea. But a useful and insightful one. We can always count on Garry Hart to show us clever, sensible and productive techniques. I do.

  2. Thanks for these easy-to-read tips and explanations of how you make such great photos.
    My guess is the more narrow f-stops probably didn’t allow a good DOF for the entire flower. Am I right?

  3. Enjoy your posts Gary! They are a great help in this age of Digital!

  4. Hi Gary – I want to re-read your blog notes tonight from home..all the words ring so true, but I always like to re-read your narratives and instructions because they really sink in to this old brain better that way;-) I am proud to say that I truly love to “work” a scene and subject, as well..I look vertically, horizontally, “in and out” (double entendre with the burgers that I miss so badly) but still I want to review your text because it is always so full of inspiration.
    Because of your closeness and perspective here, this beautiful poppy has an unmistakeable feel and appearance of a wax candle formed into the shape of a poppy flower, rolled up…the little green “base” is a further convincing element that compels me to believe this impression that I have…The texture and depth, and the impression that this gives, just brings forth a comforting and peaceful emotion! The ocean is so dreamlike and the darker bottom of your frame is a perfect “foreground element” in itself!
    There is an old song that I love, especially the arrangement performed by Cal Tjader..the song is “You Stepped Out of a Dream.” Well, to me, that’s what this image sings…So wonderful Gary…thank you – Be well sir!!

    • Thanks, Denny. And thanks for the Cal Tjader reference. He lived in the town where I graduated from high school and was a client of the company I worked for during and after college. His son was a good friend of my brother’s. Great musician!

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