Do you find that bracketing your photos is still in general a good practice, or has photo editing software greatly reduced the need for this?
I'll put it this way: I've often regretted not bracketing, but rarely regretted bracketing.
Meters still make errors, and data which exceeds the dynamic range of the sensor is gone forever, regardless of post-processing software. I recommend bracketing any images which have complex lighting or any particularly important images, certainly until you understand very well how your meter behaves in the situation.
The alternative is chimping and checking the histogram, which provides immediate feedback but slows the shoot and is prone to error (as the histogram shows data processed as if for JPEG even if you're shooting raw).
Bracketing still has its uses, and is encouraged for HDR images (High dynamic range).
It remains the case that it is better to get things right in-camera, but using tools like the histogram that most cameras (at least those that support brakecting) can be useful to tell whilst you're there and see if you've got the exposure right, which does reduce the need for bracketing.
I've tried bracketing once, and was annoyed about all the extra pictures. It wasted a lot of my shooting space and cost me a lot of time in postprocessing, filtering the images.
Now I pay way more attention to get my exposure right on set, so I'll don't have extra work in postprocessing.
There had been some rare occassions where I would like an additional underexposed image, but for me these are not worth the extra space needs and work.
When to not Bracket
- If the situation involves even illumination with good lighting with no excessive shadows or blow-outs.
- High resolution quality is not paramount.
- You need to do your photo shoot quickly.
When to bracket
- If you have a complex lighting situation such as a bright foreground and dark background, you may get lots of image noise. Bracketing and using an HDR will help alleviate the problem.
- If quality is paramount and or you plan to blow up the image, use bracketing.
- When noise elimination is paramount.
RAW processing indeed allows you to recover a tremendous amount of detail in your pictures but only to a point. In post processing, my experience has shown me that excessive boosting of the exposure or brightness will get noise to rear its ugly head.
Certainly, there are many great applications that deal with noise, but I find they all weaken the quality of the image in some way. The best you can do is get the best image you can when you're on site. If the dynamic range of your principle photo is poor, you always have the back-up exposures to enhance the quality of the image.
Don't rely on your Camera's LCD or the histogram screen to determine if you got the entire dynamic range in your shot.
It is painful to think that I've had to waste excessive time to fix cruddy images only to wish that I had taken alternative exposures to enhance them. To save time in post processing and to deliver a better product, I highly recommend bracketing.
I don't bracket with digital unless I'm blending multiple exposures to get greater dynamic range. A quick look at the histogram tells me all I need to know about whether the exposure is good or not, and I either adjust exposure and reshoot or move on to the next photo. The histogram is like having a field densitometer.
I never use bracketing. I don't want the shot where the composition subject's expression is just perfect to be the one that got underexposed or overexposed by the bracketing. Minor adjustments in exposure can easily be made in post-processing. Telling people at an event to strike the same pose again is much more difficult.
I do regularly check the exposure after taking a shot and use exposure compensation to adjust the following shots as needed. I find that as long as I watch out for blown highlights, the metering and dynamic range of modern digital cameras is good enough that I don't have to throw away any shots because the exposure couldn't be fixed in post-processing.
Or maybe I'm just lazy. Exposure compensation can be dialed in directly and set in small steps on any serious camera. The amount of overexposure and underexposure used by bracketing is usually buried in some menu.
I think in addition to the other answers this can boil down to a philosophy for your own development in your skill.
Some people feel if you are more conservative in the shots you take you will learn more. I know I have taken a bunch of shots thinking that "I will study them and figure out why the one that is right was the best" and just don't do that. If you only take a couple shots and miss what could have been a great shot because you didn't chose the best settings you really remember why that happened. The emotional impact of a failed picture helps make the impact in memory. This development can also help if you get involved in action photography such as sports or wildlife because you're chances to get the right moment are limited.
The flipside of this of course is that you will end up missing a shot that might have worked.
I rarely use bracketing, but not because I can fix it in post-production. It's because digital photography means I can take a test shot and check the exposure (including looking at a histogram) right there. With film, bracketing is a way to cover uncertain exposure situations; with digital, there's less uncertainty about what the result will be.
I highly recommend building into your gestalt a certain bat sense about when to use bracketing. I think you'll quickly figure out when, it's when your camera's meter is guessing every thing wrong and yet you still don't want to go full manual.
Another equally impressive type of bracketing is aperture bracketing [used together with a very steady hand, or tripod/monopod]. There's amazing things you can do when you have full control over how sharp your subjects are and how blurry/sharp your backdrops are. Aperture bracketing affords you that. It's a type of technique that finds themselves in more and more use in this age of almost mandatory photoshopping.