Bracketing or single exposure?
I always work from a single exposure, which is opened as a "smart object",and adjusted in RAW.
Whenever I use bracketed exposures they seem to turn mushy when blended.
When you shoot bracketed exposures, what would be your normal bracketing?
My camera (Canon 5DIII) will do some brackets (-1 / 0 / +1 etc) automatically, but, as I say, this doesn't really work for me.
When I shoot, I often take multiple pictures of the same subject with different settings.
That way I can decide at home whether I want to continue with a simple image, or more.
Also, I always work with Smart Object as it gives me the best editing options.
Danish landscape photographer.
Shoot with Pentax.
When you say mushy, what do you mean?
I usually bracket at around 2/3 of a stop between each exposure. Almost always shift my exposure compensation down between -2/3 and -1 stop with the brightest image not more than +1/3 to +2/3 stop. I normally do 5 bracketed exposures, though sometimes only use 2, 3, or 4 of the exposures depending on whether there's any value in using all 5 or not.
For blending its good to have the difference between exposures at 1 or less stops, though 1.3 stops might work ok with the right image/lighting.
If I'm doing a sunrise/predawn shoot, I normally keep ISO 50 - 100 and f/8-13 depending on the lighting conditions, as the sun comes up and there's more light, I usually will add a 3 or 10 stop ND filter, depending on what look I'm going for. With the 10 stop I'm usually switching to Bulb mode, meaning full manual timing as the exposures can need to be more than 30s. I then bracket on timing, based on calculating the exposure times using an app.
Processing these I normally don't use Smart Objects and usually don't do much to the RAW files in ACR, just clarity, texture and white balance. Everything else is in PS and RP.
There's no right or wrong way of doing these things and experimentation is the best way of learning.
As @grant-swinbourne wrote: what do you mean with mushy? Do you have an example?
Concerning the bracketing:
First of all it depends on the situation and its dynamic range. E.g. for a sunset I need more than one exposure, because the cameras dynamic range isn't wide enough to capture everything without losing details. So I have to take more than one exposures.
But how many?
Well, there's is a very simple workflow I figured out a couple of years ago. You can measure the brightness of your brightest spot and your darkest spot in the picture by using the spot tool of your camera. The brightest sport should be somewhere around the sun, where you still can see any detail. The sun itself is just bright 😉 Then you got two different values for the shutter speed (because ISO and aperture is always fixed, so shutter speed is you variable). Let us say 1/250 sec for the bright spot and 1/15 sec for the dark spot in you picture. Then you can count the amount of exposure you need to definitely capture everything in that moment by taking 1stop steps. In this case that means 1/250s, 1/125s, 1/60s, 1/30s and 1/15s. If you not really sure you can add more exposures to extend the range. By the time you will know how many exposures you need for similar situations. I like to be safe on location, because once you left the situation you never get the chance again to capture that very moment.
Then, later at the computer, you can decide how many and which of those exposure you will use for blending. If you blending looks a bit flat or mushy, maybe it's because the masks aren't different enough, too much grey and not really clear separating the exposures. It would be helpful to see your picture and your mask(s) in Photoshop.
There are rare exceptions when I can use only 1 single exposure.
If the scene is well illuminated from the front, then I may be lucky, but if I shoot against the sun or have backlit subjects, then multiple exposures are a must. Sure, I can still use one single exposure, but I may end up with blown-out areas and/or underexposed areas. While I can recover in ACR some of the blown-out areas, sometimes may just not be enough information. For underexposed areas I can use Fill Light in ACR, but with the downside of having too much noise, therefore multiples exposures come in handy to properly ensemble the scene.
How many exposures I use depends on how much contrast exists in the real scene. Most of the times I use 3 exposures at 2/3 - 1 stop between them, but occasionally, when the scene is too contrasty, I use 5 exposures at 1/3 - 2/3 stops between them, just to be certain I have enough information for every blown-out or underexposed spot. As Achim said, if your images are mushy after blending, it's because the masks are not different enough.
When choosing which mask to use, I look at my normal exposure and I try to identify the areas that are lacking details (whether blown-out or underexposed), and then I select the masks for the bright and dark exposures that are the closest match. If the masks that I choose extend too much beyond the areas where I need details, then the details in my normal exposure get replaced with details from the other exposures resulting in a very dull image, or mushy as you call it.
There were times when I had difficulty choosing the right mask, and in those situations I adjusted the mask afterwards, either by increasing/decreasing the contrast (Raya Pro 5.0 makes those adjustments easier now with the sliders), or by manually painting over on the mask leaving only the areas where I really need details from the other exposures. I have to admit that even now, from time to time, when I have a well exposed image overall, but it has only one single blown-out spot, or one single underexposed spot, then I simply mask out the other exposures almost completely leaving only the spot(s) that provide me with the missing details.
Each of us has its own way of doing things, but like Grant said, experimenting is the best way of learning.
what do you mean with mushy? Do you have an example?
Not to hand at present, I don't save those that I've mucked up! By mushy I mean flat in tone, and lacking dynamism, bland.
I think my problem may stem, in part or whole, from being hand held shots when bracketing.
ok, handheld shots are always not the best idea 😉