Bracketing digital style

Dogwood, Merced River, Yosemite

Film shooters used to bracket high dynamic range scenes because there was no way to know if they’d nailed the tricky exposure until the film was processed. For some reason this bracketing approach has carried over to digital photography, when it’s a complete waste of storage and shutter clicks (not to mention all the unnecessary images to wade through at home) that shortens the life of media cards and cameras alike (the shutter is usually the first thing to wear out on a DSLR).

The histogram gives digital shooters instant, accurate exposure feedback with each capture. Today the only reason to exposure bracket is if you plan to blend images later, yet the practice persists. I suspect the persistence of exposure bracketing can be attributed to a subtle but significant paradigm shift introduced by digital capture: With film, each shutter click cost money; with digital, each shutter click increases the return on your investment.

Film shooters use exposure bracketing sparingly, as a last resort for important shots with a small margin for exposure error, but digital photographers get lulled into complacency by the (apparent) free ride digital capture offers. While the invisible per-click cost creates great opportunities, it has also engendered bad habits in digital photographers who either don’t trust their histogram, don’t know how to read it, or simply are too lazy to take the (simple) steps get the right exposure. (I’m not saying you shouldn’t adjust and reshoot when the exposure is off, I’m saying you should try to get the exposure with the first click and only reshoot when you miss.) And I suspect these photographers leave many shots on the table.

On the other hand, I’m a huge advocate of thoughtful application of digital’s “free” click paradigm. In my workshops I encourage students to take lots of pictures, with one proviso: Always have an objective. The objective doesn’t even need to be a good image; sometimes it can just be a “what if” game to educate yourself. But for me the greatest benefit is the ability to work a scene and capture composition, depth, and motion variations that can be selected later with the aid of time and a large monitor.

I apply this approach in virtually everything I shoot. When I find a scene that works (near, far, or in between), I work it obsessively. Compositions wide to tight, orientation horizontal and vertical, depths shallow to broad. And when there’s motion in the scene also vary its effect. Sometimes that means using a variety of shutter speeds; sometimes it means timing the motion differently with a variety of clicks. Ocean waves are a perfect example of this, as is the dogwood image above.

For example

My general approach in the field is to find a subject to isolate and juxtapose it against a complementary background. This is pretty straightforward when everything’s stationary, but when things are in motion I don’t always know what I have until I click and check my LCD. And when things are moving fast, I don’t have enough control over the result to get it with a single click. In May, while photographing dogwood around Yosemite Valley, I found this dogwood branch with two perfect blooms jutting away from other nearby branches. Positioning myself on the Pohono Bridge with my 70-200 lens all the way out to 200mm, I was able to isolate the blooms against the dark green of the Merced River.

With a slight breeze waving the branch, I increased the ISO to 400. To limit depth of field (and help the blooms stand out more) I selected f4, then spot-metered a bloom and dialed my shutter speed until the meter indicated +1 (above a middle tone). I composed so the branch cut diagonally across the scene, clicked, and checked my LCD. The exposure was dead-on (dogwood perfectly exposed against an underexposed river), but what caught my eye was the glistening bubbles whizzing by in the background. They flew by so quickly that I hadn’t really registered their compositional potential, but as soon as I saw them on my LCD I knew I had the potential for something cool.

With the exposure dialed in and my composition still sitting there on my tripod (don’t get me started on my whole tripod rant again), I didn’t need to change a thing, I just needed to time each click for the bubbles. I quickly realized that I could anticipate their arrival by looking upstream, so that’s what I did, timing my exposure and checking the result. After the first few clicks I started to recognize and anticipate patterns.

For the next ten minutes I just stood there on the bridge watching bubbles, timing my click for when they entered the frame. I must have at least twenty versions of this composition, exposed exactly the same, but each with a completely different background. (I also just had a blast.)

11 Comments on “Bracketing digital style

  1. I really appreciate this Gary. I struggle with lighting and I wonder if you can recommend the best training to seek out locally here in Portland. I have to say, I seem to do very well over the years with my exposure and lighting, but it is instinctual not technical. I would like to become more intentional and skilled at my efforts. Thank you, MJ

    • Thanks, Mary Jo. I can’t really offer a lot of help on local training in Portland. There are good books out there that might help–I think John Shaw’s books are real good at giving beginning photographers a strong foundation without being overly simple. And photo workshops are great way to ramp up your skills in a hurry. Of course I offer many photo workshops in California and Hawaii, but there are lots of excellent workshops offered by other photographers as well. You might also want to look at the offerings on betterphoto.com.

  2. The dogwoods are beautiful but the highlights add emotion that makes the photo special. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. I must say I agree with you when it comes to bracketing. Even though the digital frame cost nothing, there’s no need to shot the same frame several time.

  4. Very informative and insightful Gary. I love reading your blog. I’m a newbie in dslr photography and I find your posts really helpful. I just wanted to ask if taking a photography workshop is really worth it? I am now reading a book for dslr beginners (very helpful too) although I’m still thinking if I should still take a photography workshop- if I will, what’s the recommendable timeframe? is a few hours or a day good enough for a beginner like me? or should I take a class longer than that?

  5. Great little tutorial – you are an excellent teacher and the image is exquisite. And now I’m going to delete many of those bracketed frames as they just sit there taking up space.

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