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[This article on bracketing is #5 in the series on exposure, in case you have been reading these in sequence.]
There is a tool that was very common among professionals shooting slide or transparency film where correct exposure is far more critical than with digital photography: bracketing. The term comes from gunnery. A gun crew would fire a shot that was too long and one that was too short and hope that the next one would be dead on target. In photography it means you take the photo at what your camera or meter or you think is the correct exposure, let’s say f5.6 at 100th of a second. But to be sure you have a correct exposure, you shoot the same shot at let’s say f8 at 100th (a stop under) and another at f4.5 at 100th (a stop over). Or, for finer accuracy, you vary the exposure by 1/3rd or 1/2 a stop instead of a whole stop.
While the need for bracketing exposure may be reduced in digital photography since minor adjustment of exposure is so easy to do when you are processing the photo in Photoshop or whatever photo editing program you use, it is still a very useful tool at times and one that you should be familiar with. Remember that the more you manipulate the photo after you have taken it, the more chance there is of image degradation as a result of messing with those pixels and you might end up with a photo that has lost a lot of quality when you come to print it. You’re far better off starting with a correct exposure and making as few and as minor corrections afterwards as you can.
Sometimes the LCD preview can fool you (particularly if you are out in bright sunlight or forgot your glasses), and when you transfer the photo to your computer and look at it you see that what you thought was a great exposure is actually way too dark or too light. Bracketing will cover you.
Basically if you want a rule it would be: If you are in doubt about the correctness of the exposure, BRACKET! And if it’s an important shot and you have the time and the subject is not running away from you, bracket a lot!
|Camera's Recommended Exposure||Two-Thirds Under|
You can bracket manually or in the case of many cameras, you can set your camera to bracket automatically. Dig out that instruction manual and look up “Automatic bracketing” in the index and it will tell you how to do it if your camera can. If it cannot, it doesn’t matter. It’s very easy to bracket the exposure manually using your exposure compensation dial or simply changing the shutter speed or aperture in manual mode. If you think your exposure is pretty close, try going half a stop over and half a stop under. If the subject is more tricky (a dark foreground and a bright sky for example), try a whole stop over and whole stop under or take five separate shots, one at the setting recommended by the camera’s meter, a second one at half a stop over, a third one at a whole stop over, a fourth one at half a stop under and a fifth at a whole stop under. Somewhere in there will be your best compromise and you can then tweak it in Photoshop or whatever program you use. If your camera has automatic bracketing it’s usually a menu item that you set up ahead of time and you can tell it how you want it to bracket. When you take the photo the camera will fire three or five shots in succession at the exposure variation you have set. Don’t forget to turn it off when you’re done bracketing!
If any of the terms used here about bracketing exposure are unfamiliar, then you need to find the earlier articles on exposure (#1 - #4) on this website where everything is explained in great detail.
Add exposure bracketing to your photographic toolkit and you will save some important shots that might otherwise have been a bust.
David © Phillips is a professional writer and photographer living in Seattle, WA. You can find out more about him and his work at www.dcpcom.com.
Photograph(s) in this article are © David C Phillips, All Rights Reserved.