Never Say Never

What’s the one thing that will guarantee that 2/3 of your shots will not be what you want? In a word, bracketing. I never bracket a shoot when I’m in the studio. Never. Think about it. If I bracketed when I shot kids, two our of every three frames I shoot will be off in exposure. With kids, that’s deadly, because you usually get one chance and only one chance. Little kids and babies do not yet have that “do over” gene. They will show you something that is brilliant; most of the rime while you’re changing film, and then it’s gone forever, never to be seen again. If you try and have them re-create that moment, that gesture, that look, you end up with a terrible, fakey photograph that even the kid’s mother wouldn’t like. And they like everything about their kid.

What some photographers do to avoid bracketing and to see what the film is looking like before any lab corrections is to do “clip” tests or snips on their film. That means sending the film to the lab with instructions to clip a piece of film, say two or three frames worth of a 120 roll or six to eight frames of a 35mm roll, and process just that small piece of film. When you see what that frame looks like, you then run the rest that roll and run similarly shot rolls at the same processing speed at the lab. That means if your chrome film is running a little dark, you can “push” the processing at the lab to brighten it up. It will in many cases also add a little bit of contrast. Enough so that some photographers always shoot their film a little underexposed so they can push the film, just to get that little extra contrast and “oomph.” I don’t like doing clip tests as you always lose one frame of film that the lab has to blindly cut into. And you always see just enough of that cut frame to realize that would ha ve been your best shot.

So what do I do when I shoot to get the film the way I want it? I use what we call “test” backs on my Mamiya RZ and a “test” camera body for my Canon 35mm. I’ll shoot one or two frames on every situation. Every time we change a light, change a model, change a lens, change a prop, I shoot a test frame. Medium-format cameras like the Mamiya have interchangeable film magazines that can be put on or taken off the camera in mid-roll. So one magazine is dedicated to my “test” roll. With 35mm, I dedicate one camera body to hold my “test” roll. One roll of film may have five or six different shots or situations on it. That roll goes out to the lab ASAP, or sooner. I have a two-hour turnaround at my E-6 lab. When I get that roll back, I send out half the film I’m holding. When I get that back, I send out the last half of the film. Why? Simple. I don’t trust the lab-any lab. This policy of never having all the film at the lab at once has saved my bacon three times in my career. Having saved the client’s shoot, or at l east half of it this way, has meant I still have a career.

The last key to this is keeping very good film notes. I’m a fanatic about that. The film notes tell me what test frame goes with which rolls of film. It tells me the film I used for that job, the batch or emulsion number, my exposures, the crew, and who is writing the notes. It also tells me how many rolls I shot for this job.

I have an example of my film notes in my “Commercial and Studio Photography” book and explain it a little more in depth.

The bottom line is “Don’t bracket!” Don’t lose good shots when you don’t have to lose them needlessly. Shoot smarter.

Now here’s the part that will drive you crazy. Even after saying the above, the next rule never to ignore is “Always bracket to get the ‘correct’ exposure.” When I shoot personal stuff on my 35mm, I bracket like crazy. I asked JayMaisel once how wide a range he uses when he brackets and he answered “From one end of the lens to the other,” meaning from the widest aperture to the smallest. Now knowing Jay and knowing the caught moments he captures of people, that isn’t always what he does. He’s too much a master of the medium. But I understood his point. You never know what a good exposure will be. It could be two stops underexposed or three stops overexposed. Experience helps when I’m our in the field and I wouldn’t have a test camera and I’m not going to clip test my film. But I also know that what the camera is telling me is skewed to produce what the camera thinks is a correct exposure. Experience tells my brain to override the meter and over- or underexpose to get the effect I want.

So the point of this column? For every rule in photography, there is an equal and opposite rule. And each one is absolutely correct. Never bracket. Always bracket.

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