Achieving Correct Exposure - Part Three

 Twilight, Squeaky Beach, Wilsons Promontory, Australia

This is an old image, from the archive. I guess I made it about ten years ago. It was originally processed in Adobe Photoshop 7. That's right, the one before the initial version of the Creative Suite (we're now onto version 6, that is CS6). It was made with 120 film on a Hasselblad medium format camera and features Squeaky Beach on Wilsons Promontory in South Eastern Victoria. The image was made under dull twilight conditions. I used an off-camera flash to reveal important shadow information in the foreground. It looks a bit dodgy by today's standards. I must return as Wilsons Promontory is a very special place for landscape photography.

Exposure Bracketing - A Definition

There are two different kinds of bracketing available to the photographer. The first, let's just call it bracketing, simply means you are making more than one photo of the same subject or scene, at the same exposure (i.e., brightness) so as to provide some insurance against, for example, wind blown trees or people blinking at the moment the exposure is made. The second kind of bracketing is known as Exposure Bracketing. In this case you set your camera to make a series of images, at different exposures, in the hope that one of them will be of the appropriate brightness for your needs. This article deals with exposure bracketing and its relevance in the days of digital photography.

While I can understand when and why this approach is beneficial I always thought that the practice of routinely utilizing exposure bracketing, outside of commercial/advertising photography with transparency film, was just plain dumb. A basic understanding of the Zone System, by which I mean managing exposure, contrast and processing, and an understanding of the common mistakes that all camera light meters make when measuring reflected light is what's required.

Folks who routinely employed exposure bracketing for people and landscape photography likely did so for a sense of security and, if they believed themselves to be technically minded, may have been seduced by this functionality. My view is that, by doing so, they were not only demonstrating an inability to understand exposure but, by trusting the camera, they were preventing themselves from gaining expertise in this most fundamental aspect of photography.  

Improve Your Odds

Imagine you're photographing a child and you want to make a picture with the child laughing, but you only have 3 frames to do so. If you understand how to achieve correct exposure then, potentially, you'll be able to ensure that the best expression matches the optimal exposure. But, with exposure bracketing engaged, you now only have a 1 in 3 chance of matching the best expression with the right exposure. As I same, just plain dumb.

Of course the world is full of better, more successful and, if the truth be known, taller photographers than me. But how do any of those realities change the basic tenant of my argument. They don't. And the reason many folks would argue the point is simply because they feel a need to defend the way they work. And the more entrenched that particular workflow is the more strident their view. After all, if you go about doing something, in a particular way, long enough it must be right. Right? Their whole point of view is likely not based upon what's best, nor even what's most appropriate for their own circumstances, but upon a sense of security they've gained, over time, through repetition and, on some level, success.  

Old Habits Die Hard

It's true what they say about old habits: they did hard. But in the days  of digital photography there's just no reason that I can see, for the vast majority of photos we make outside of a High Dynamic Range (i.e., HDR) workflow, to employ Exposure Bracketing. In fact, prior to the uptake of HDR photography, I considered the inclusion of Exposure Bracketing in contemporary digital cameras as little more than a legacy function. In other words it seemed to have been brought over from film-based cameras to provide certain old school photographers with a sense of comfort and the appearance of continuity as they move over from their older film-based systems.

What About HDR?

One of the greatest problems faced by the photographer relates to dealing with reality. After all we're talking about recording the reality, as we perceive it, of a three-dimensional world within the bounds of a two-dimensional photographic image. In particular I'm referring to the inability of our camera's sensor to record what we see when working under high contrast (i.e., a large difference in brightness between shadows and highlights) conditions. One solution is the incorporation of a High Dynamic Range (HDR) workflow.

Central to a HDR workflow is the recording (I don't like the word capture) of three or more different exposures from the same scene. Those images are then blended together, via appropriate software, into a single new composite image that displays a far larger dynamic range than any of the individual camera exposures is capable of.

The best way to record the three individual exposures in the HDR workflow is via Exposure Bracketing. It allows you to record each exposure quickly without having to move any dials or change any settings in the camera between each exposure. As a result the three images are more easily aligned together, without any one of them being forced out of alignment by messing with the camera between exposures.

So, yes, Exposure Bracketing is the right way to go about recording an image, as part of a HDR workflow, with an extended tonal range by making a series of different exposures and then using appropriate software to blend them into a single composite image. But the notion of making a series of different exposures, at specific increments, every time you make a photo as a way of having more choice on the desktop is, to my way of thinking, nuts. Do you really want three times as many high resolution files on your computer or external drive? 

Conclusion

Use it if you like, but just because it's there doesn't mean it's important or, in this case, even appropriate. For those who don't regularly employ a HDR workflow you'll find that, by moving away from Exposure Bracketing, you'll get three times as many photos on your memory card and computer/external hard drive. From my point of view it's a no brainer. But each to their own. If you disagree feel free to comment below. I'm always interested in feedback.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru