Category: Sunsets

Reading between the brackets : Scripps Pier, San Diego

“Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself.”
-Desiderius Erasmus

What is Bracketing????

Exposure bracketing or Bracketing as it’s more commonly known is the process of taking multiple exposures of the same scene, which results in a series of images ranging from dark to bright. This is usually achieved by varying the Aperture, Shutter speed or ISO or even combinations of these parameters. Typically, the most common way of bracketing is to maintain the Aperture and ISO constant while varying the shutter speed. This is done to preserve the Depth of Field (DOF) across the shots. However, based on your needs or intent, you can bracket by varying the other two parameters as well. As you can see, the images here are a series of bracketed exposures and vary from dark to light. Next, we will delve into why we need to bracket exposures and when it is necessary.

Need for Bracketing :  The Why and the When

The dynamic range  ( The ratio between the brightest intensity and the darkest intensity) of the camera is very limited compared to that of the human eye. Additionally, humans use other visual cues to perceive more information in a scene. If we consider the dynamic range to be measured in f-stops, a typical camera has a dynamic range of about 8-10 f-stops, while the human eye has around 24 f-stops of dynamic range. So where am I going with all these stats? In a nutshell, a camera cannot accurately capture all the tonal variations in a scene if it is beyond a certain dynamic range. So, if the highlights in the scene are beyond the brightest brights that a camera can capture, they are rendered pure white. Similarly, if the shadows are beyond the darkest darks that a camera can capture, they are rendered pure black. This is called clipping. As  a result, pixels in the image that are clipped lose their information and tonal values and are approximated are pure white or pure black, depending on whether they are from the highlights or shadows.  More often than not, dramatic light situations often have a very very high dynamic range. So if you want to capture the scene as it appears to your eyes with all the tonal information intact, it’s almost impossible to do so in a single exposure of the scene. Camera meters are getting more and more intelligent each day, but the best lighting situations often confound the smartest of cameras. So what is the solution then? The answer is quite simply to bracket multiple exposures of the same scene to accurately record the highlights, shadows and the midtones. The best way to do this is to keep the Aperture and ISO constant, and vary the shutter speed. In effect, this keeps your image sharp ( assuming you focused well), keeps the noise at bay and gives you detail from end to end of the histogram. Remember, you don’t always need to bracket your shots. For example, if most of the tonal values in the scene are located in the midtones, and you don’t have extreme highlights or shadows, you could do with a single exposure of the scene. An easy way to check this is to look at your histogram after taking a shot. If both highlight and shadow areas are not clipped, then you don’t need to bracket. Bracketing helps when you can’t get all the information from the scene in a single shot. Additionally, you could also bracket for creative effects, which we’ll discuss in the following sections.  The image below shows what the camera thought was the correct exposure for the scene, and the associated histogram. As you can see, the highlights are badly clipped. As a result, there is no detail in the sky areas.

 Exposure Clipping


Bracketing : How do I? How Many? What about software? Aaaaaaaaaah so many questions!

There are many questions that are asked about bracketing exposures. I’ll try to address some of them here.

  • What you need : The most essential equipment that you’ll need is a sturdy tripod, one that doesn’t shake or vibrate when winds are blowing or if waves hit it ( err at a reasonable force). Most cameras these days have an auto-bracketing function so I don’t want to include that explicitly. However, check your camera manual on how to setup Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB). In effect, what this does is that it makes your camera automatically capture multiple shots in a row (similar to burst mode), but at different exposure levels. In fact, you can even customize the spacing between exposure levels, i.e., +1/3 E.V or +1 E.V and so on. Some cameras even allow you to choose how many exposures you’d like to take, say 3,5,7, etc. I’d highly recommend reading your camera manual come to grips with this functionality atleast. A remote shutter release is very useful too. It ensures that you don’t shake the camera and can also help you take customized hand-calculated exposures if you don’t or can’t use the auto functionality in the camera. For example, if you are trying to bracket exposures at either during dusk or dawn, chances are, the exposure times would be north of 30 seconds. In such cases, you would need to use a remote release to manually bracket your exposures. To summarize you need : 1) A camera with AEB 2) A sturdy tripod 3) A remote release cable.
  • How many bracketed shots do you need? : This is probably the most asked question about bracketing! Umm should I bracket three shots, or 5, or 7 or 9? Well sometimes, even two shots might be enough. There are two factors that should be considered here. First, the spacing between the bracketed shots. I’m referring to the E.V spacing. Typically, a smaller spacing between bracketed shots would result in a larger number of shots, while a larger E.V spacing would result in a smaller number of shots. There are of course exceptions to both cases. Not clear? Let’s assume that the scene in front of you has a dynamic range that can be covered in the -1 to +1 E.V range (But we don’t know this yet ). Well say that you decide to have 1 stop between your shots and you take 3 shots at -1, 0 and +1 E.V. Let’s say you repeat this exercise with a spacing of 1/3 E.V. You would then have shots at -1/3, 0 and 1/3 E.V. In the first case, you have covered the entire dynamic range of the scene in 3 shots, while in the second case, you are going to need more than 3 shots to get the entire tonal range of scene. Comprende? Second, the histogram. If three shots at -1, 0 and +1 E.V get you the complete range of shadows, midtones and highlights, then that’s all you need. You don’t need 7 more shots of the same thing! Sometimes, you may need just two shots, one for the highlights and one for the shadows. So how do you decide? First take a shot that the camera thinks is the correct exposure. More often than not, it’s wrong for a scene suffering from High Dynamic Range Syndrome. Now look at the histogram. Are the highlights clipped or are the shadows clipped. To know what’s clipped, just see which side of the histogram has spikes smashed against the histogram wall. If it is the left side, then it is the shadows. If it is the right, then it is the highlights. This tells you whether you need to bracket for the highlights, shadows or both. Next, choose the spacing between your shots. Typically you could start at a spacing of 1 E.V and then fine tune it based on the histograms that you get from the bracketing process. The end goal is to get the complete range of shadows, midtones and highlights in an image. As long as you do that, you’re good.  For this image, I needed only 4 brackets to capture the complete tonal range. You can see them below. The brackets are -2, -1, 0 and 1 E.V in case you were wondering.

Bracketed Series

  • Why don’t I use software to create multiple exposures later? : Post processing software has shown tremendous advances and the stuff you can do with such software these days is quite mind boggling. One very attractive tool that software gives you is the ability to make multiple exposures from a single RAW file. By adjusting the exposure slider, you can create any number of bracketed shots that you need. Another thing you could do is use a software based graduated neutral density filter to even out exposures. While these tools are no doubt useful, they only work well when you have the tonal information in an image intact. If you already have major clipping to begin with, you cannot recover that by any combination of slider yanking. So that’s why it pays to nail the exposure in the field and not be a lazy bum and rely on software to help you later. So the next time you think, I’ll do it in photoshop, think again. If you give a severely clipped image to photoshop, you will get a severely clipped processed image out! The histogram above really helps understand this. If I had just decided that I could use what the camera thought was the correct exposure and then use software to generate the other brackets, I would not have a sky to work with at all!
  • Creative Bracketing : Sometimes, you can bracket to capture different aspects of a scene that you couldn’t catch in a single shot. For example, say that you take a shot and you love the way the clouds look. But the waves and water look bad. No problem, take another exposure when the waves look good and then blend them as they were bracketed shots! Photography is about condensing time and space into a 2D canvas. It’s definitely ok to capture different aspects of the scene in their best light and then render them as one entity. More often than not, that usually enables the viewer to experience the scene, rather than just see it. For the image below, I waited for the clouds to be lit up by the sun, so that they would glow and used one such image in my final bracketed series. I also picked a bracket for the flowers where they weren’t moving in the wind. This made blending easier.
  • Some Final thoughts and Footnotes : While bracketing, it’s important to pay attention to movement. Anything that moves can mess up your blending later on. Not that you can’t do it, but it becomes a much more painstaking process. So be careful and aware when you take your bracketed shots to ensure that there’s as minimal movement as possible. Apart from exposure bracketing, there are other kinds of bracketing as well. For example, there’s something called Depth of Field (DOF) bracketing, where you take multiple shots of the same scene, but with different depths of field. You can then blend the sharpest areas in the bracketed images together to create an end to end sharp image. The possibilities are endless. So the next time you are confronted with a High Dynamic Range scene, you know what to do. Fire away those brackets!

Until The Last Moment

Processing the Image : A quick time-lapse!

Below is a quick video timelapse of how I processed a bracketed series of shots. More detailed videos will come in the future. Stay tuned!

Comments, Questions or Suggestions? Feel free to drop a note below!

Let the Light Charm you : Windansea beach, San Diego

“Light is the first of the painters. There is no object so foul, that intense light will not make it beautiful”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Isn’t light amazing in so many ways. Emerson’s quote really brings out what I’ve had in my head about the wondrous power of light. In photography, light is king. Without the right light, even the most beautiful object would look mundane and boring. Light has that magic touch which changes how anything looks, how you perceive the world around you and the emotional response that something evokes from within you. Composition is one thing and I’ve talked about that in my previous post. But you can have all the elements in your scene perfectly arranged, you could have the most amazing set of elements in the scene, but without the right light, the image would fall flat on its face.

When I first took up photography, I was very keen on getting a cool shot, one that had people stop and say “Wow! That’s awesome”. During this phase, what I didn’t notice was that the shots that people around me liked were the ones where the light was awesome. I didn’t know what constituted great light at that time, given that my intentions were solely on clicking away at anything that felt good inside. What really helped me was finding out why I felt that urge inside to take the picture at that precise moment. For me, it was (and still is) all about the light. To really understand light, you must first let the light charm you. I say this in no light sense (Pun unintended).

Ask any landscape photographer for a term that’s thrown about a lot these days and most of them will respond thus, “The Quality of Light”. So what is it then? In a very broad sense, it is the nature of the light in the scene that has a certain impact on the shot. The quality of light changes the emotions that you evoke from the viewer of your photograph. Therefore, the quality of light is just as important as composition when it comes to shooting. The Quality of light in the scene is defined by three attributes, namely, the direction of light, the size of the light, and the color of the light. Each of these characteristics have a significant impact on the final image.

Look at these two images. These were taken at the same location, using the same camera and lens, at about ten feet of each other and with the same camera settings. However I took these images 30 minutes from each other. Can you see how dramatically the light has changed over 30 minutes? Each image has a different emotional impact and evokes a different response from the viewer. In fact if you look closely, you will see the same ship in both images (though in different positions). Also note that by waiting for some time, I was able to bring in the moon into the composition. I like both these images just as much, but the impact that they have on me (and You as well I hope) is very very different.

While I will discuss these briefly here in this post, I will dwell more on each of these aspects in individual posts in the future. This is because there is so much to be said about each of them.

Direction of light: The first factor that affects your image is the direction of light. This decides which parts of your image fall into the shadows and where your highlights are. For example, the sun was setting to the right of these moss covered rocks. Consequently, parts of the rock on the right were illuminated more, which brought out the textures in those areas, while the other areas are more “hidden” so as to speak. A midday sun provides the harshest light while the sun positioned low on the horizon provides soft diffused light. Think about how you’d want the light to hit your subject the next time when you are out shooting.

The Size of the Light Source: How big or how small your light source is defines in some sense the transition between shadows and highlights in your image. A larger light source produces more even diffused light, while a smaller light source produces a “hard” focused light, which makes the transition between shadows and highlights more abrupt. For example, shooting at noon is something you’d do well to avoid, as it produces really harsh contrasts that are very hard to correct in post post-processing. Why? Because the sun is right overhead and is a small light source ( It’s millions of miles away from the earth). Therefore it produces focused beams which really don’t light up all parts of the scene in the same way. The same sunlight during the sunrise or sunset is more soft and diffused and lights the scene evenly.



The Color of the Light : The third characteristic is the color of light, which is how “warm” or how “cool” the light is. In fact a better term would be the temperature of the light source, but I feel “Color of light” is easier to grasp. The warmness or coolness of a light source is actually not the literal temperature, but a measure of the dominant colors and tones that the light produces. For example, red, orange and yellow are warm colors and these are characteristic of a “warm” light source. Typically, you encounter these colors during sunrise or sunset. Blues and violets are characteristic of cooler light sources. One can see these tones in the blue hour ( duh!) after the sun has set or during midday. In the two shots shown here, you can see how much variation there is in terms of color temperature. One of the shots was taken at sunset and another after sunset.

It’s really good to know what kind of light to expect when you are going out for a shoot. So here’s an exercise that you can try out to get a better grip of how light affects your picture. Pick a place/object outside your home and shoot the same composition during the following times:

  • 30 minutes before sunrise.
  • At Sunrise.
  • 30 minutes after sunrise.
  • Middle of the day.
  • 30 minutes before sunset.
  • At sunset.
  • 30 minutes after sunset.
Use the same camera settings as much as possible ( it’s practically not possible), use the same camera and lens combination. Once you’ve shot these images, look at them side by side. You will see an incredible difference between them. Also pick your favorites among these shots. If you are like most people, you’d pick the ones closer to sunrise and sunset. This period of time is called the “Golden hour” when the light makes everything look magical. That’s why so many photographers line up during the wee hours of the morning or during sunset. It’s an incredible experience to see how quickly the light changes and how this change makes your pictures almost surreal. Remember, let the light charm you, and your pictures will charm others!

Comments, Questions or Suggestions? Feel free to drop a note below!


It’s all about the Lines : Scripps Pier, San Diego

The clouds are back in town and as a landscape photographer, I couldn’t feel happier! I’m picking up from where I left in my last post, and this time, the focus is on lines. Why lines? I’ll get to that shortly. A lot of times, you would have planned ahead, looking at tide charts, or thinking of interesting compositions, sometimes even visited the scene the previous day and so on and so forth. However,  the shot that awaits you when you reach the place on the day of the shoot, is almost invariably different compared to what you had in your mind. Once again, I repeat, a good photograph is not taken, but made.

So, you are left with two options then. I do know some photographers, who are very very picky. Unless the conditions are perfect for their shot, they will not take it! They’ll come back on another day. I truly salute their perseverance and single minded resolve. However, sometimes, you can get lucky if you stick around and try to use the conditions around you. For instance, let me tell you the story of this shot. I had started planning for this one three days in advance. I had looked up the tide charts, sunset times, where exactly the sun would set and also where to park! On the day of the shoot, I used the pier camera for looking at how shallow the tide was and how the light would impact the sand. Everything was in order, and I was quite thrilled that I would actually be able to pull the shot off.

Enter two couples on a wedding engagement shoot. Yes, not one but TWO, on the same day! Add two more assistants to carry fans and flashes. To this concoction, add some thick clouds blocking the sun completely and finally add all the kelp you can find to garnish. A perfect recipe for disaster. I could have just said “Exit, stage left” and returned another day, but something told me that there was a good shot waiting in the wings. My original idea, was to use the reflective sand on the shore to mirror the sky and the pier and I had planned a composition using that. The clouds though, had ensured that the sand wouldn’t be as reflective as I wanted them to be. So when you are thrown a curveball, what do you do? Sunset was 10 minutes away, and I had to think fast. Plan B then! I decided to use the waves as foreground interest and then use the lines they generate to lead the eye in. There was a small hitch in Plan B as well. I honestly believe that a huge ship had docked on shore and dumped all the kelp available in the Pacific right on the shore and then taken off. I couldn’t find a patch of sand that was free from kelp!

My iPhone isn’t too good with high dynamic range ;)

What you see here is Plan C. I decided not to use any of the sand as part of the shot. Instead, I focused on using the waves, the pier and the sky. It was not the ideal composition, but it was the best available that day. Meanwhile, the two wedding photographers were furiously clicking away behind me and the assistants were using the fans like TV antennas. Right then, the setup. When you don’t have any foreground interest in a shot, you can create some by just shooting from a lower angle. I set the tripod up quite low, almost splaying its legs on the sand. Next, the shot itself. I strayed away from the conventional rules of composition, although the pier ends on one of the rule of thirds intersections. I placed the horizon almost on the center of the frame and then just waited. I wanted the sun to peep through the clouds, and secondly, I needed the waves to line up properly. Both these things had to happen simultaneously.

It’s often a case of trial and error, but if you know what you want from the shot, things get a lot easier. It took a couple of takes, but I finally had the shot I needed. The sun looked through the clouds and the waves lined up quite nicely. Once I had the shot canned, I raised my hat to the two assistants who were still diligently holding the fans and left.

In post, my goal was to bring out the experience of the place. I always try to convey the idea of how the place feels, as opposed to telling people this is how the place looks like. If I have made you feel like you were there in the scene, the waves flowing over your bare feet, a cool breeze wafting as the sun casts its last few gazes over the sea before calling it a day, then I have done my job.

Often, the tones you choose in an image, convey the mood of the scene. The tones here are hinting at the onset of twilight (NOT the movie by any stretch of imagination!), and the waves show the dynamic nature of the scene. The lines from the pier and the implied lines from the waves lead you to the clouds and the sun. Like I said, it’s all about the lines. Until next time, have a good one guys! Cheers.



Questions, comments, suggestions? Feel free to post below…