Why do you still use filters? Why not just bracket?

In Equipment & Technique, Landscapes, Polarizing Filters, Scenes & Scenarios, Water Features by Brian Rueb

My grandmother still handwrites letters. My mother still makes all her desserts from scratch. When we make pasta, I still grate the cheese by hand. I also use filters when I take photos. What do all of these things have to do with one another? I’ll tell you.

I’ve used filters for most of my twenty years in photography. A Singh-Ray polarizer was the first filter I ever purchased, once I saw how it enhanced images, and provided some much needed contrast in my monochrome images. I was absolutely hooked on that filter, and to this day, if I am shooting from sunrise to sunset, a polarizer is on my lens 90% of the time.

When I learned about graduated filters and the way they could balance out an exposure in the field, it was a mind blower. It was at a time when I was struggling to get those balanced exposures, but I was SEEING others do it. It was driving me CRAZY. I tried bracketing and throwing the images into some software to that would balance it out, but I never liked the results.

I felt like there was some secret to this universe that I was not privy to… and when I found out it was all because of a little piece of optical quality resin darkened at the top, well, I felt like I had found the secret to the world. I noticed almost IMMEDIATE results and improvement in the images I was able to take.

I could combine these grad filters with my polarizers, a solid ND and achieve any number of possibilities within an image. With what I was able to do in the field, it changed how I processed the images when I got home… because so much more was possible. Having the quality in the field forced me to learn how to do it justice in the digital darkroom.

With the increased capability of newer digital cameras and software, it seems a lot of photographers are turning away from using filters in favor of bracketing a large variety of shots and exposures, then blending them using software. I get a lot of newer photographers (and even some pros) who ask me “Why do you still use filters? Why not just bracket?”

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I have several reasons for still using filters. It relates to writing letters, making things from scratch… and grating cheese.

People seem to be too inclined to go with the fast way of doing things, even if the results are not the best. “You mean I can NOT mess with a filter, or any real settings, just take 12 shots, put them in the computer… and not have to worry about much else? SOLD!”

After all, the real fun is the shot, not the effort it takes to make it. The quick way isn’t what I’m used to. It doesn’t work for me. I need to be involved with the photography making process. Using graduated filters allows me to be involved. I don’t use a holder and I’m able to angle filters, move them slightly during exposure to reduce any transition lines. I can add other filters, mess with angles and length of exposure, and find the creative balance I need to make the image I have in my head.

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I find it somewhat discouraging watching people bracket images in the field. These people arrive, set up their composition, and then just fire off an obscene amount of frames over and over and over again. I also see somewhat of a connection that people who aren’t willing to put much time into the details of the settings, in favor of the easy way… also tend to do likewise with their compositions. Bracketing can be great for neutralizing wind blur, extreme depth of field issues, or the rare occasions where that epic sky has storms, sun, and all areas in between and one filtered shot can’t cover it… but that’s rare.

I’ve found that using a filter will almost always give you a histogram that will deliver the range of values you’re looking for in processing. Images are SUPPOSED to have shadow areas. If you need a little bit more exposure in them, and you have a good histogram you can simply reprocess that image a bit brighter and use some simple processing techniques to add detail back in. It’s true there are a few instances of very extreme light that may require some bracketing, but that can almost always be accomplished by bracketing only two images max.

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Let’s put it this way, 90 images out of 100 are possible with just a graduated neutral density filter. Nine might need to bracket two shots… and one of every 100 images might need three shots. To me, using a large amount of bracketed images is a lazy way out of trying to get the best in-camera exposure possible. Granted, this is new world of photography in which everyone has their own way to shoot and create, but it seems that many photographers today just take the easy way out, rather than devote the time and effort to really learn how to use the tools they can carry with them.

When I take a picture and process it, I know I put in as much of my own effort as I could. I didn’t rely on the tonal range to be covered by a multitude of images and then throw them into a software program that magically blends them all together. I try to keep the process as much my doing as I can. I’m also a little ADD, so if I’m not directly involved with the creation of an image, I’d tend to wander off and forget about the camera – and that’s how cameras get knocked over by the wind or waves.

There’s nothing wrong with getting down and dirty and being a part of the image making process. Ask yourself this, if you ran into Ansel Adams in today’s world, would he be bracketing eight shots and tossing them into Photomatix? I think he would be more organic in his approach to gathering the data and processing it and a big fan getting the best possible exposure in one frame. And, if he absolutely needed it, maybe a second frame.

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Using filters like my trusty Singh-Ray polarizer and Rowell grads, and processing images manually takes longer, but it’s worth it to me. It’s like writing a letter by hand vs. sending a text. It’s making cookies from scratch vs. buying a box at the store. The end result is almost always better, and certainly much more gratifying, at least to me.

I’m a strong believer that the more involved in the process you are, the more you’ll appreciate it, the more you’ll understand it, and the more you can do to improve your odds the next time. That’s why I use filters. They help connect me to the process of making an image. When I create an image, I know I did it. I know what my vision was and exactly how I got there. I never have to scratch my head and ask myself “Did I make that picture or did my computer?”

Photography is art, so it’s up to each of us to make our own creative decisions. For me, I’m just going stay on the slow, steady path.

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