Filters or Bracketing? Which one should you pick? Both methods allow you to resolve the overexposed sky issues, which is the common problem that every beginner is facing in Landscape Photography.
So, what’s the difference between using filters and bracketing? Which types of filter are useful in photographing the landscape? And is it really necessary for us to get a filter If we can do bracketing? I’m going to answer all these in this article.
Let’s start with the filters.
To be able to capture a photo of a sunrise/sunset scene without overblown the sky, you will need a Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter. A piece of glass/resin that has half of it is transparent, and another half is darkened. Using the darken area of the filter on the brightest area of a scene (usually the sky) help to reduce the density of the lights for that area, hence balance the exposure between the sky and the Ground, so that your camera able to capture all the details in a single photo.
Other than GND filter, there are many different types, from UV filter that used to protect your lens’s front glass, colour filters that change the tone of the image to some special effect filters to have stars and fogs (Not joking) in your photo. I’m not going to go through all of them here, but focusing only two types of filters, which are Polarizing and Neutral Density filters so that we can have a showdown against the bracketing (exposure blending) method. (Most of the other filters’ effect can recreate in Photoshop, the Photoshop Magic!)
The best thing about having filters is that you can see the result instantly. By attaching a GND filter right in front of your lens, the effect directly shown on your camera’s Live View, which is great! You can perform any finetuning accordingly to get the right exposure that you want. On top of that, once you capture the photo, all the details will be captured in one single photo, no overblown sky or underexposed foreground!
Because of the reason as mentioned earlier, filters would do a better job than Bracketing in photographing seascape, especially capturing the smooth wave flows. To use the Bracketing method, you will need to take multiple shots of different exposure with the same composition. That can be impractical because of the on-going waves keep pushing and pulling your tripod’s legs, which can cause your tripod moved. That will be an issue later when you are trying to align all the bracketed shots for exposure recovery.
Besides that, if you are using a Neutral Density (ND) filter, which is a piece of black glass/resin, that used to evenly reduce the light that reaches the sensor. With that, you can use slower Shutter Speed to create long exposure effect, such as smoothing out the water, capturing light trails or adding motion on the clouds. You can even try out the Daytime Long Exposure technique, using one or more ND filters, which often use in Black & White Architecture Photography.
For bracketing user, you can still capture the same long exposure effect but with some restriction, as you can only using such slow shutter speed at a darker time when the sun is below the horizon without overexposed your photo. It is also not possible for doing long exposure photography during the daytime.
Another type of filters that I previously mentioned is the Polarizing filter. The filter can help in enhancing the sky colour and cut out the reflection. You can enhance the sky colour in post-processing, but you can’t remove the reflection. The polarizing filter is useful in taking photos of any scene with water.
The most obvious drawback is the additional cost to get the filters, a piece of a filter can cause you a few hundreds Ringgit Malaysia (RM), and you probably need a few of them plus a filter holder, which is going to be more than a thousand for starting. If you are using an Ultra Wide Angle (UWA) lens with a protruding front glass like me, then you are going to top up another few hundreds to get a special holder for your lens and bigger filters (150mm).
On top of that, the 150mm filters are also less convenient to use. They are bulkier, and I can only hold them on their flat sides, reluctantly leaving my fingerprints on the surface. (Not the filter’s fault but the lens design force to make it such way)
Having filters also mean that you have to take extra care of them, filters can be scratched or broken when accidentally fall on a hard surface, which is quite…common. Now a day, some brands like Athabasca has a certain level of scratch resistant for their latest filters. I had tested out their filters with my car key and unable to leave any scratch on those filters. Still, it doesn’t mean it won’t be scratched by other objects that are harder and sharper than the key, and I don’t want to try that out on my filters. A scratched filter can be a painful issue when shooting into the sun, which will produce a lot of flares.
Now let’s talk about the Bracketing, which we will take a series of photos with various exposure so that we able to capture all the details of the scene. After that, we will import the photos into any editing software and merge them into a single photo either using Digital Blending or HDR (High Dynamic Range). Digital blending is a manual merging technique, and HDR is an automatic merging feature from editing software. Some people prefer Digital Blending as it tends to produce a more natural result compared to HDR. If you are interested in reading more about how to capture bracketed shots and recovery an overexposed sky using Digital Blending technique, you can check out my previous blog post & video HERE.
Bracketing is more flexible and versatile. Unlike the GND filter that can only darken specific part of the scene (usually, the sky) so that it won’t get overexposed, bracketing can recover the details of any part of the scene. The scenes can be a photo of a city with overexposed lights of a building or an overexposed centre of a cave, as long as all the details are covered in your bracketed shots, you will have no problem in recovery all those overexposed areas.
Because of the above reason, the bracketing is useful for taking photos of cityscape.
Another reason for people to get into bracketing is that there’s no additional cost, anyone with a camera can do the bracketing, whether using camera’s built-in bracketing function or take the bracketed shots manually by yourself.
The problem of using Bracketing is that it takes more time than filters. Instead of a single shot, you need at least three photos and up to seven photos just for a single scene. (Some cameras offer you to go beyond seven photos, but I found out seven is more than good enough.) Imagine if you are taking a photo using 8 seconds Shutter Speed with GND filter, for a series of bracketed shots that contains five photos with one stop exposure incremental between each shot, you will need one minute to complete them. The photos will be using Shutter Speed at 2s, 4s, 8s, 16s and 30s. If someone (for my case, most of the time is myself) accidentally kick your tripod during the shooting, you will have to recapture all the photos again.
Other than more time in capturing, you will also need more time in processing the photos, using the Digital Blending technique to recover the exposure in post-processing.
On top of that, more disk space, which means more memory cards and more hard drives, because you are taking more photos! From my personal experience, I take around 200 to 300 shots per shooting session averagely. You may take more or lesser, depending on your shooting style.
To give you a clearer view of the difference, here’s the comparison table. 🙂
Even using filters, it doesn’t mean that there’s no need to go through post-processing. Filters help you in capturing a better photo directly out from your camera, but you shouldn’t just be satisfied with that, with the help of post-processing, even just some minor adjustment on contrast, colour and sharpening, it helps to make your photo a better work. Besides that, you can still make good use of post-processing to remove any unwanted subject like tourists by using the same Digital blending method or blending in several fireworks into one single photo to make the photo more interesting.
So, which one is better? Bracketing or Filters? For me, there’s no winner here, as either of them can be more suitable for a particular shooting condition. It really depends on your preference, for me, I’m using both. I would go for bracketing on photographing cityscape and use filters for long exposure shot.
Let me know which one would you prefer? And if you got any further questions on filters or bracketing & digital blending technique, feel free to leave a comment below.
If you wish to learn how to do Long Exposure Black and White Photography, you can check out my latest workshop HERE. 🙂
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