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Some Thoughts on Bracketing

Learning exposure can be tricky. Many people make use of bracketing, or taking shots exposed slightly above and below the metered exposure, to increase their odds of getting a good shot. I'm occasionally asked if I bracket and whether there are any general guidelines for bracketing.

Personally, I rarely bracket exposure and think that some people rely on bracketing too much, but recognize that it does have its place as a form of insurance for when circumstances warrant.

Some people bracket more, some less, some not at all. About the only general guidelines I could offer would be:

  • Don't bracket when you are sure of your exposure, and bracket more when you are not.
  • If you find that you are missing shots due to exposure problems, either work on your procedures for determining correct exposure, or bracket more to make up the slack.
  • Bracket in smaller increments the more sure you are of your exposure. Bracket in larger steps or more steps if you are less certain. Don't let your bracketing routine degenerate into a guessing game though.
  • As you get better at exposure, if you find you are bracketing when you don't really need to, do so less the next time you are in that situation.
  • And lastly, when confronted with a once in a lifetime shot, bracket like crazy.

Slide film is fairly sensitive to getting the exposure correct and small changes of aperture or shutter speed can make a visible difference. As such, bracketing is a common practice for those first getting their feet wet with slides.

Bracketing with print film on the other hand should rarely be necessary since most exposure problems are fixed for you when the negatives are printed. You could easily take two shots with a full stop difference in exposure and get back identical prints. While this may sound like a good thing if you are struggling with getting your exposure correct, it can also be a frustrating thing if you'd really like to get the exposure you want rather than the exposure the automated one-hour lab thought you wanted.

Bracketing with digital is also rarely needed. Instead, those who are unsure of their exposure often use an iterative approach, taking one shot then reviewing the results and making any needed adjustments before taking a second or third shot until they are satisfied. If at first you don't succeed with digital exposure in other words, try, try again. That's different than traditional bracketing where you always take a shot above and below your metered exposure so you hopefully will have a good shot when you get back home. Don't try to judge your exposure simply based on the image on the camera's LCD screen since lighting conditions can make it look much brighter or darker than it actually is. The histogram, on the other hand should provide a reliable gauge of exposure in all situations.

If used correctly, bracketing can up your chances of getting a good exposure. The best way to get it right though is to start with the fundamentals and learn to do it right.

Date posted: September 21, 2003


Copyright © 2003 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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