Home > Underwater Photography Tips > Photo tips: Bracketing

Photo tips: Bracketing

I touched on bracketing in the previous photo tips post.  Bracketing was used (back in film camera times) to make sure that one of your shots from a sequence was correctly exposed;  you take a sequence of shots at varied settings and hope that one was correct.

As an example – if you set your camera in full manual, and at f/8 and your meter reading told you to use 1/60th, then you’d shoot one at f/8 – 1/60th, one at f5.6 – 1/90th and one at f/11 / 1/30th (back then we didn’t have 1/3 stops).  This was based on your strobe power being correct for f/8, from the table printed on the side of strobe.  By using varied f-stops you could manipulate your exposure, and maintain the same background ‘blue’.  Those days are gone so there’s not much point in going back through the nostalgia of developing your film and spilling chemicals all over yourself, so don’t worry if you don’t get all that right now – if you shoot manual for long enough, you will understand it.   In our modern iworld we have digital and it is supposedly easy.  Except you have to organise everything (that blog post will come when I’ve worked out the best way to be organised, which isn’t going to be anytime soon) and these days we tend to just expect things to work, sadly this isn’t the case for underwater photography, it needs human input to flourish.

Bracketed Frogfish

These 4 shots were bracketed with strobe position (lowest power setting). This gives different shadow positions. I checked after every shot so I can remember which shot had which position. No 4 was my favourite, so i stopped there.

To be completely honest, Bracketing in the sense outlined above is pointless in the digital era, you have a screen on your camera and you can check – so you don’t really need to shoot all these combinations of settings for each subject.  If you did the above for 5 minutes on a piece of rubble at the distance you normally shoot a subject from (it doesn’t normally change much in Lembeh) you will know the setting you need to start from for almost every dive here – that’s your benchmark setting and everyone has one. I actually have 4 benchmarks depending on the setup:

  • DSLR, TTL Strobes, working distance 5 – 15 cm:     ISO 160 :: f/18 :: 1/100th, flash ev -2/3 (on camera setting).
  • DSLR, Manual Strobes, working distance 5-15cm:  ISO 160 :: f/18 :: 1/100th, 2 flashes set to 1/2 power
  • Canon S95, manual settings,  working distance 5 – 15cm:  ISO 100 :: f/8 :: 1/100th, flash set to 1/2 power
  • Canon S95, Aperture Priority, working distance 5 – 15cm: ISO 100 :: f/8, flash set to ttl and camera set to -2/3 ev.
Bracketing Coral Scenes with F-stop

Bracketing Coral Scenes with F-stop, F/10 on left, F/13 on right, everything else constant.

What we have to bracket these days if we are shooing auto or semi-auto is different effects: different lighting angles, different coloured backgrounds (exposure), different depths of field. Very rarely should you be bracketing exposure whilst shooting a subject on a macro dive.  If you are spending ages bracketing your exposure on a pair of mating bluerings whilst other people wait, something is wrong. Same applies to Pygmy Seahorses, practice on the fan with no pygmies to get your settings somewhere near correct, and remember what you did for the photo that turned out good.

I think what is key to take from that ancient era of bracketing, is the mentality.  You never trust your camera, you fully expect it to not be perfect and that you, the user, has to make it work.  In the old days, bracketing 3 shots from your max 36 was quite a commitment. That would give you 12 subjects in a dive with 3 shots per subject.  You had 2 choices, blast away and never get any better because you had no idea why the shot was good, or put some effort in.  This is the other important thing to take from the old-timers.  THINK BEFORE YOU SHOOT.

There’s nothing cool about taking 100’s of shots of the same animal.  An underwater photographer hopefully will not blast the heck out of a subject because they have a new set of batteries and a 32gb card, I’m not saying don’t use a flash; just think about bracketing on something not too fragile first if you are not confident with your settings (try taking 20 flashes from your underwater strobes with them 10cm from your face – i bet you stop at 3). A good underwater photographer will look at the subject and think first.  If the positioning of the critter isn’t good, then it might be best to move on – think back to your library of images, do you have a better one of that same subject already?  Try this as a routine:

  • Angle of approach to the subject
  • Metering / camera settings
  • Strobe positioning
  • Strobe power
  • Pull trigger

This still applies these days,  taking those 5 steps to make sure all your settings are good makes you cool in my book.  I say that with humour but I mean it, it is genuinely cool watching a seasoned pro select the subject angle, tweak a few things, take a photo, tweak again, shoot again, and move on.  They got to that level by pushing themselves to remember settings and techniques.  They used their brain and read books.

Bracketed Banded Pipefish

Bracketing a Banded Pipefish with strobe power, shots i would not have attempted with film unless I was very bored.

From my example photos you can see I have bracketed on a subject, but it is a variance of less than 1 stop, so all of them are useable because I shoot raw format and you can tweak them in the computer.

If we are to re-jig those 5 bracketing options from the old days, and say like most people you are using automatic strobes and can get the correct exposure to within editable standards then that leaves these 3 options:

  • Angle of approach to the subject
  • Strobe positioning
  • Pull trigger

Obviously the 3rd one is quite simple (or is it?).  The first 2 will be the subject of my next blog post.

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