Not long after delving into the world of landscape photography, on YouTube I started to notice a popular accessory being used – filters. In particular, graduated ND filters. The answers to so many of my questions seemed to lie in these graduated filters, so of course I spent loads of money on a set of Lee’s hard-edge grads.
I was already familiar with filters – ND’s, Circular Polarisers, and the UV/Protector filters many shops will try and upsell with lens purchases – but until then I hadn’t really seen or heard of grads. They’re a filter useful almost exclusively in landscape photography, usually to darken the sky in a scene, to balance the exposure throughout the frame. Time needs to be taken to compose a shot and position the grad filter in just the right place, hence they tend not to serve much practical use in most other forms of photography.
I adamantly used these grad filters in my landscape work for a good couple of years, using both the Lee and Formatt Hitech Firecrest 100mm systems. I learnt through practice exactly which density of filter I’d need for a scene and would always be carrying my full filter system on shoots wherever I went. But after a while the whole workflow became somewhat tiresome.
For me, filters became just another thing to think about when I was out shooting. I started concentrating less on my compositions, spending too much time thinking about accessories and how I could manipulate the scene to walk away with a more balanced, flatter looking RAW file. My filters were taking up the space (and almost weight) of a good-sized full frame lens, and they’d always need cleaning before shooting even if I’d cleaned them at home before leaving. That plus the cost of purchase for these pieces of glass and resin, really started putting me off using filters.
Then I started noticing the word “bracketing” among the photo community. I’m sure I’d noticed it previously, but I had no idea what it meant. After some research I discovered what the “BKT” button on my Nikon camera was for and I immediately started experimenting with the function.
Bracketing is exactly what it sounds like. Imagine in normal text, such as this blog post. We use brackets to emphasise or set apart other parts of the text e.g. “Ben Jones (28) is a photographer based in N Wales.” In photography we’re bracketing exposures. The “bracketed” exposure is the “correct” exposure for the scene you’re photographing, with exposures taken at either side of the correct exposure – an overexposure and an underexposure i.e. a brighter shot and a darker shot. You can do this in many different variations of exposure value, and can use any multiple of exposures of the same scene.
This exposure bracketing allows you to gather more information to work with for a final image. When you’re working with your images on the computer, you can combine information from multiple images to retain highlight and shadow detail, resulting in a more balanced exposure. You can do this on literally any digital camera. Many cameras have a built-in bracketing mode, where you can pre-set how many exposures you want to capture as well as how wide a range of exposures. I’ve since started using Lumix cameras as well as the Nikon, both of which have bracketing features.
You can also do this manually – as long as you’re using a tripod and shooting in manual mode (M). Keeping your ISO and Aperture at a set level, set your focus and then switch into manual focus – this will prevent the camera from trying to re-focus between shots. Adjust your Shutter Speed to find your correct exposure using the camera’s light meter. From here, move your shutter dial 3 clicks to the left and take a shot. Move back to the “correct” exposure, take another shot, and then move another 3 clicks to the right to take the final shot. This will give you three exposures – one underexposure, a correct exposure, and one overexposure.
Why 3 clicks? The vast majority of digital cameras measure shutter speed in 1/3-stop increments. E.g. 1/250, 1/200, 1/160, 1/125 where the difference between 1/250 and 1/125 is one full stop of light. Using this 3-click method, you’re capturing three exposures each one full stop apart. However, you can select your increments to your choosing depending on how much data you’d like to collect in your RAW files, as well as the number of shots you’d like to use.
Merging these shots has become a surprisingly easy process using Adobe Lightroom. Once you’ve imported your shots simply select the images you’d like to merge, right-click on any of them, and select Photo Merge > HDR.
This will prompt Lightroom to create a preview of the HDR Merge, with options to Auto Align and Auto Settings.
I usually keep Auto Align ticked – this will match up the separate images in case there’s any camera movement between the shots. You can use the Auto Settings tab to get an idea of your improved dynamic range in the merged image, though I tend not to choose the option in favour of having a blank canvas to edit.
Clicking Merge will produce a new image in your catalogue, usually appearing among the original images. From here you can start editing to your heart’s content, taking advantage of a much broader available dynamic range.
I do still use filters - primarily ND (neutral density) filters and a circular polariser - though I’ve not touched my ND grads in over six months now. I find the bracketing process far more convenient, leaving filters to be one less item to stress about in the field, and allowing for more freedom both in the field and in post-processing.
Check out the video below to see my bracketing process! Have any questions about using filters? Feel free to leave a comment below!