Making Sure You've Got the Shot
Thank goodness I shoot digital these days. In prehistoric times, great rolls of film stalked the land, 36 frames at a time, before returning to their darkened labs to see what developed. You never really knew what a roll of images would look like until what lay with its chrysalis-like canister ultimately saw the light of day. Only once exposed and permitted time to develop could the latent potential of a frame of film transform to look like a butterfly. Or the sun setting on a mountainside vista. Or whatever you were trying to photograph for posterity that day.
My metaphorical abandon seems to have gotten the better of me here, but I do have a point. When I shot an image on film, I had to trust that my skill and understanding of photography would guide me and that the photos I got back in the mail would look as I hoped when I shot them in the field. It would be days before I would be home and could gauge my success and admire my work. Learning film photography was far more complicated than with digital today. By the time we saw the result, it was almost always too late to go back for a second shot if our efforts didn't do things justice. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who occasionally wasted a precious roll of film on some silly blunder. I don't recall ever leaving the lens cap on, but one time I shot an entire roll with an obvious trailside marker sign in every frame. I employed some pretty long exposure times to illuminate my subject adequately by the first blue light of daybreak. But that same accumulation of twilight also revealed a directional marker sign on the far side of the mountain tarn.
Digital cameras provide the means of seeing results while still on location, often with plenty of time to make adjustments and try for a better shot. A glance at the version on the LCD back and the corresponding histogram provides a rapid means of feedback and confirmation I would have died for back then. Some deride this process as "chimping," but I fully extoll its benefits. There isn't always time, but when possible, nothing beats fixing a mistake without dedicating another week of vacation to travel there again next year. Or at least having a chance to. Maybe you can't do any better, but perhaps you can.
Prevailing wisdom says to use bracketing to safeguard against exposure problems in tricky lighting situations. Together with frames shot at slightly below and above expected brightness, our odds of having an acceptable exposure improved significantly. It was better to waste two shots to make sure we got the shot in the third. The addition of automatic bracketing to cameras wasn't just a marketing gimmick. It was a potential lifesaver.
But I still see a lot of photographers using bracketing with digital today. The camera display may tell you that an additional stop of exposure would open up the shadows more while still not burning out the highlights. You don't need to guess and hope for the best. Nor do you need to shoot blindly at surrounding exposures, bracketing both in the helpful direction and in the one with even darker shadows. If time is of the essence, let your camera bracket a few versions for you to cover your bases. But if you can afford the time, you can do a much better job with chimping. It only takes a bit more time, and your chances of success improve dramatically. That only stands to reason, given that you can learn from each iterative effort instead of having to settle for the statistical advantage of bracketed efforts.
But a modified form of bracketing does form the basis of digital technique I find immensely useful. By merging a planned series of exposures into a single composite image, HDR (High Dynamic Range) imaging makes it possible to combine the best-looking parts from the lot of them. Digital darkroom software can work magic. Automatic HDR tone mapping rarely looks that natural, but it can overcome seemingly impossible exposure challenges when used with finesse. Try doing that with a graduated neutral density filter.
But as my dimly lit signpost fiasco should make clear, exposure isn't the only hurdle in the way of making killer images. A wonderfully exposed image of a distracting eyesore is of no use beyond serving as a sign of what to avoid. If you'll pardon my pun, that is.
The first step on the road to getting the shot is to point your camera in the right direction, composed and focused. It's easy to complain about the time needed for bracketing or for chimping, to say nothing of the arduous nature of HDR photography. But spending time on the fundamentals seems a bridge too far for some photographers. Forever in a hurry to move on to the next possibility, they neglect to realize the potential of any idea. Getting the shot has a lot to do with the details. A tree branch poking into the frame is only modestly less problematic than a trail marker. Framing and composition matter.
Learn to use your camera. Don't assume that modern will make better decisions than you can. Cameras are helpful tools but tend towards mediocre images without a skilled operator. Decide what matters and work to control those variables. Let your camera help deal with the rest to save time and not get overwhelmed. Not all those controls and options would be there if fully manual control was always the best answer. Like bracketing, most go beyond mere marketing fluff. There are a few I doubt I'll ever find the need for, but perhaps you may. At least someone apparently wants them. If you care about getting the shot, make the most of your camera as an assistant.
Yet despite our best efforts, images may benefit from a bit of optimization post-capture. If you nail everything about a photo, a jpeg is entirely satisfactory as a master for printing or other use. But if you find yourself inclined to perform any edits, you want a RAW capture. You can change color balance and certain other factors without loss. And you'll have considerably more latitude for editing others when you start with RAW. How far you go to save a shot is a personal decision. I'd probably draw the line at painting out a signpost in the middle of the frame, but might take on a pesky tree branch intruding on the sky in the corner. I'd certainly be comfortable with some changes to levels and curves.
Getting the shot consistently involves a lot of elements. Circumstances and gremlins may still get the better of you occasionally, but there are strategies and tools available to help you be as sure as you can.