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Bracketing Does NOT Mean HDR!

Posted on | January 16, 2010 | 1 Comment

If I see one more photograph of a dirty toilet basin processed via Photomatix with a caption like “Toilet, Bracketed”, I’m going to pop a blood vessel.

Bracketing is a safe guard when using something like the zone system (or your own adaptation of the zone system) with film and some digital cameras to ensure that you need not revisit the spot where your picture was taken. Its used when you take your best guess, from experience, to guess the camera settings needed to bring out not just all detail, but an emphasis on the best detail of a photograph. Film photographers are willing to waste up to nine exposures to make sure they got what they want, good digital photographers don’t trust their LCD and keep going until the histogram says they got the shot that they want – then they take some more.

First, you take the picture the way you think it should be taken.. then 1/3 stop (or 2/3, or a full stop) lower, then back to the original exposure, then the opposite on the higher end. This ensures that one of the three to nine exposures you take home is going to be the shot that you had in your mind when you took the trouble to set up your camera and actually tickle the shutter.

People that do landscapes for a living will also wash, rinse and repeat this technique while doing the same thing with their aperture setting.

Gustave Le Gray realized (somewhere around 1840) that high contrast shots tend to suck unless you spend a serious amount of time composing them, waiting patiently for nature to give you just the perfect light.┬áThen an idea dawned on him: “What if I take a step underexposed and sandwich it on top of the one I just took? THAT should tone down that pesky sky and clouds!” Brilliant idea, at the time when things like grad filters were existentially challenged and people shot with film that took up to ten minutes to expose. Photographers used to use braces to prop up their subjects at the time that HDR was first utilized because people could not naturally stay still long enough to be photographed. You’ve all seen pictures from the 1800′s that have ‘ghosts’ in them. The HDR technique was brilliant back then, but not practical. There was no way to compensate for things changing between exposures.

Now, its the new digital craze.

I don’t have anything inherently against HDR. Take a look at one of my friend’s work. That’s artistic, intentional and he knew what it was going to look like once done. Everything is blown out of visual proportion, intentionally. I intend to use it to a degree in a shoot I’m planning for next week where most subjects will be shady, textured crumbling concrete and steel.

Then we have this where a photographer grappled with a sky that had the same tones as his subject. To avoid a total wash out, an underexposed version was desaturated and laid on top. Boom, we have the sky, the lighthouse without the surreal effects that usually accompany HDR. The effect of the wide lens is the first thing you notice. If he hadn’t done that post process, the light house would have been a total wash against the sky. This is the exact same usage that Le Gray first conceptualized.

If you shoot a film camera or (wisely) don’t trust your LCD, use bracketing, there’s a good chance that you’ll bring back the best exposure. If you are shooting something specifically for the purpose of producing a HDR image, please stop calling it bracketing. Bracketing is done in camera, HDR + the usual tone mapping is done on a computer. And yes, I know Nikon lets you sandwich RAW output.

To recap:

HDR – Sandwiching sometimes 9 shots into one, correcting tone and ghosts then declaring your toilet as a national landmark because you made art from it. I’m just kidding, but it is worth noting that a lot of people are using it without an understanding of what they’re actually doing.

Bracketing – Being not so sure of your exposure you take some more ‘safeties’ at a step higher and lower. If you intend on making a HDR image post processing, you need to bracket the shot.

The thing that’s blowing my cork is that people are substituting the word “bracketed” when they really mean “HDR”. Almost every shot I put online is bracketed, I upload the best exposure out of the series and trash the rest.


One Response to “Bracketing Does NOT Mean HDR!”

  1. Bracketing Does NOT Mean HDR! | NO CARRIER | Laboratory contrasting photos
    January 16th, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

    [...] VIEW [...]

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