PHLEARN MagazineExposure Bracketing: The Ultimate Guide to Bracketed Photography

Exposure Bracketing: The Ultimate Guide to Bracketed Photography

“In photography, there are no shadows that cannot be illuminated.”

– August Sander

Many photography techniques are revered for their ability to capture beauty. Learning these skills enables us to use points of light to capture tiny balls of light like in bokeh photography, highlight a brief moment in time, as in high-speed photography, or capture the grace of a speeding object as in motion photography.

Exposure bracketing does have the capacity for producing a striking image. This technique can help bring portraits, commercial shots, landscapes, and street and urban scenery into sharp focus by capturing each fine detail with light evenly spread throughout the shot.

It can also serve as a useful tool for real estate, architecture and even interior design photographers, since light within a room can be as inconsistent as it often is outdoors. Exposure bracketing allows you to capture detail by shedding light into more areas of the photograph, making it highly practical as well. Bright days may be the perfect time to use this technique, or when your scene contains highly contrasting light.

What Is Exposure Bracketing?

This method is simply a way to ensure you’ve captured a scene with the ‘best’ exposure possible by taking a series of three to seven photos with varying exposures. For example, if you are taking three photos, you:

  • Take one that’s underexposed,
  • One that’s overexposed, and
  • One with the best natural exposure.

After your photoshoot, you can select which of your images has the ‘perfect’ exposure and discard the rest or put them aside for another day and project.

Alternatively, you can amalgamate all of your photos with varying exposures in Lightroom or Photoshop to create one photo (more on this later).

How It Works

Our eyes and brains take in a great range of light. When we visually take in a scene, we can see details in a large range of light. But, our cameras can’t. It’s especially difficult for them to etch out the details in scenes where there is a high degree of variability in light – for example, on a sunny or a snowy day.

So, when we take a photo with highlights, midtones and shadows, we can have a great deal of detail in one light range, but must sacrifice detail in other light ranges. Exposure bracketing allows us to catch more of the fine details that we see when we look at a scene.


Tip

Instead of using this method, you could purchase a Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filter and attach it to your lens (or buy a holder that allows you to use multiple filters). A GND filter is comprised of a clear area and dark area. If you place the darker part on the brightest area – say, the sky – then it will darken that area, which will help to even out the light range throughout your photograph.


In this guide, we’ll talk about:

  • What dynamic range refers to
  • Can’t I just shoot in RAW?
  • HDR: A wash of perfectly even light and detail (and the ‘quick route’ – Hint: it’s your smartphone)
  • Process makes perfect: How to take a bracketed shot
  • How to use this technique in auto and manual mode
  • Common struggles in becoming acquainted with the technique

And then, we’ll take a quick run-through of:

  • Flash bracketing
  • Focus bracketing

Dynamic Range

As we discussed previously, man still beats machine (ie. your camera) in being able to decipher a scene in one look (or click!). This is because our eyes have a much higher degree of dynamic range than the sensors in our cameras.

We can understand dynamic range by thinking of the world in grayscale, where everything is either the whitest of whites, blackest of blacks, or somewhere in between these two extremes in lighter or darker grayscale.

A smaller dynamic range may only cover a dark gray to a light gray area. In photos with a smaller dynamic range, there would be shadowed areas which could even appear to be slightly black and lighter areas that may verge on looking like a blown out white. On the other hand, a maximum dynamic range would cover the darkest black to the lightest white. This would result in a evenly lit photo uncovering plenty of detail in the shot.

Digital or film cameras can only capture a certain amount of detail within a range, which is why you may want to make use of bracketed exposures.


Tip

Because they have larger sensors, DSLRs and mirrorless cameras naturally have more dynamic range than compact cameras.


Why Not Just Take It in RAW?

After reading the previous section, you might have questioned why we can’t just use one RAW photo, which has more dynamic range than a JPEG, to heighten the dynamic range of our photos.

While we agree this would simplify things, a single RAW photo still doesn’t give us as much information/data as multiple photos do.

Technically, you could take a single RAW photo, make a couple copies of it in Lightroom, and then adjust the lighting to accentuate the dynamic range. However, when you adjust the lighting heavily in your copies of one RAW photo, you are also going to get a lot of noise in that area of the photo. There just is not enough data in that one RAW file to supply you with the type of quality you may want in your photos.


Tip

If you are using RAW photos for this technique, you may want to choose a higher dynamic range than you might have previously in your film camera. During your processing, you’ll be able to either find that perfectly exposed picture, or, when you’re compiling images for post-processing, you will have a larger range to play with. This will help to fill out even more details in your finished photo.


HDR

As you know now, exposure bracketing is a great way to give yourself a greater chance of getting the ‘perfect’ shot. But to ramp up your lighting and, in turn, the amount of detail highlighted by that light, you will have to look into creating high dynamic range (HDR) photos.

Let’s take a peek into the world of HDR by looking at a few examples of these types of photos:

Using these visuals, you can see how this method of compiling photos, and setting them on top of each other, creates a sharp, detailed portrayal, sometimes even fashioning a surreal look.

Most cameras and phones have an HDR setting, so you can just switch to that and see the results instantaneously. To execute this technique manually, you use the same process for taking photos as you normally would with exposure bracketing (you’ll just combine them all in a post-processing program later), but there are a few key differences or elements to be aware of:

  1. Be mindful of which setting you use to vary the exposure in your shots:
    1. Don’t vary your ISO. The higher the ISO, the more noise in your shots. So, if you’re shooting with different ISOs, compiling all of your photos into one only heightens the noise level (and decreases the amount of detail in your shot).
    2. Don’t vary your aperture, as this will produce different depths of field.
    3. DO vary your shutter speed, as this is the best way to produce a similar set of photographs with different exposures.
  2. Consider purchasing a wide angle lens (one that can zoom out to 28mm or wider), since landscapes and cityscapes are often the focus of HDR photography.

Although we’ve covered exposure bracketing thoroughly in this guide, when you’ve snapped all your shots, naturally, you may feel a bit lost when you open up Lightroom or Photoshop to begin blending your photos.

However, with the following tutorials, you’ll be able to jump right into this technique (or learn something new if you’re already familiar with the process).

First, here’s a video from Aaron on how to easily create an HDR photo by combining the photos you’ve taken and importing them into Lightroom:

And, If you create HDR photos automatically using Photoshop/Lightroom, you may end up with an artificial-looking final image. If that’s something you’re not happy with, check out this video to see how Aaron navigates this problem by creating this high-density look manually:

Your Shortcut to HDR: Your Smartphone

If you’re using anything newer than, say, a Samsung Galaxy 4 or iPhone 4s, your smartphone is likely equipped with HDR capability.

To start using it, turn your camera mode to HDR or Rich Tone.

If you’re using an iPhone, go to Settings — Camera

  1. Turn on ‘Auto HDR’ if you want your phone to make the call on when to use this mode.
  2. While you’re here, make sure you tell your phone to keep a copy of the standard photo as well (this way, you can compare your HDR photo with your standard photo and decide which one you like best).
  3. Then, click on your camera icon and choose HDR in the upper left corner of your screen.
  4. Take your shots!

Note: Keep your phone as stationary as you can, since your phone will be capturing a few shots at once and needs to stay steady during this time.

For even better, higher quality photos and a stronger effect, you can also download apps – try the Pro HDR X app for iPhone or the HDR Camera+ app for Android.

Process Makes Perfect: How to Bracket in Auto or Manual Mode

You can use both automatic and manual settings for exposure bracketing. Before getting into that, however, let’s cover a few basics:

We’ll start with a brief discussion on stops, because this is how people often refer to measuring the distance between exposures.

A stop is a relative measurement, meaning it’s a measurement based on comparison. In exposure bracketing, that relative measurement is between two levels of brightness. So, when we say “stop down/-1 stop”, you cut the light in half from its original position, and when we say “stop up/+1 stop”, you double the amount of light that hits the camera’s sensor.

Let’s take a look at how all of this theory about stops works out in practice in this technique:

If you’re photographing a scene with a medium contrast of lighting with the normal exposure set to 1/500th of a second, your -1 stop, 0, and +1 stop would be: 1/1000 sec, 1/500 sec and 1/250 sec (where shutter speed, of course, is the changing variable).

Alternatively, for a high contrast scene, you could try: -2 stop, 0, +2 stop, where if your normal exposure is 1/500, then this would be equal to: 1/2000 sec, 1/500 sec and 1/125 sec.

Auto Exposure Bracketing

Using a DSLR, you can automatically take bracketed exposures.

Start by setting your camera to:

  • Aperture Priority (keeps aperture steady where you choose, changes shutter speed automatically), or
  • Shutter Speed Priority (keeps shutter speed steady and changes aperture automatically)

Then, find a button labelled either AEB or BKT on the back of your camera or locate it within the menu. (Hint: If you don’t want to choose a priority mode, you can also just select this button first and then the exposure will automatically be set for you).

You will then see a scale – you can use this scale to indicate where you would like to set your stops at. You can choose either full stops or fractions of stops.

Then, press the shutter (typically three times) to take your bracketed shots.

Ideally, use a tripod to make sure you are capturing the scene from exactly the same angle and to avoid camera shake. You can also use continuous shooting mode and hold down the shutter button to take photos one after the other.


Tip

You can use our brief tips, but make sure to browse through your model’s manual as well. You may find some surprising features. For example, some cameras are equipped to auto bracket five or seven shots, which will help you capture even more detail.


Manual Exposure Bracketing

More advanced photogs may want to have more control of their images. If this is you, you can manually bracket exposures by:

  1. Sticking to one shutter speed and adjusting your aperture.
    OR
  2. Keeping the aperture steady and changing the shutter speed.

Of course, this may prove to be a bit trickier than using automatic settings. For example, if you’re performing the technique by adjusting aperture, you may still have to play with your shutter speed or ISO at times.

Also, it may help to remember these formulas:

And here’s a quick reference on how to find out where your camera thinks the optimal exposure should be:

  • Start by finding your exposure level indicator in your viewfinder (it is the dotted/dashed line with a short vertical line or 0 in the middle); you’ll also see a range of numbers.
  • Depending on the model you’re using, there could be:
    • a little hash sign on the 0 when you’ve hit the best exposure point, or
    • a dotted line that gets longer if the image is over or under exposed.
  • To find out precisely the type of system your model uses, adjust your aperture or shutter. You should now be able to see how your camera indicates exposure.

Tip

It’s easier to shoot your exposure brackets by changing the shutter speed because it has less of an effect on other aspects of your image, so you may want to start there when you’re first learning this technique.


Troubleshooting Common Issues

Problem: You’ve blended a gorgeous landscape photo, but are aghast at the ghostly halos floating across your image.

No, you have not witnessed supernatural activity: you just took a shot where a subject or subjects were moving. Perhaps the wind was moving through the trees, or the person you were photographing flinched. To prevent this, make sure your subjects keep as still as possible. Of course, you are not in control of the wind, so circumvent this issue by checking the weather forecast, or maybe use the GND filter we suggested in a tip above.

Problem: You’ve purchased an expensive camera, but there’s no auto bracketing mode.

Hopefully, you’re reading this before you’ve made a major purchase. Don’t assume that every model has this feature, and ask before you buy. If you’ve already made your purchase, you can still practice the technique in manual mode (more on this below).

Problem: You’re using a tripod, but your image still looks blurred, as though there’s still camera shake.

You could be creating the shake when you hit the shutter button. Use your remote to get around this issue.

Problem: Your HDR photos are looking very artificial and surreal.

Pull back on the effects you’re using – sometimes less is more.


Tip

It’s true that you can experiment a lot with this technique, but the one thing you shouldn’t try to capture is a moving (or speeding!) object, like a runner, or a moving train. You would need to use a technique designed to capture just one frame for movement like this, instead of multiple ones as in exposure bracketing.


More Types of Bracketing

As you’ll begin to see, while exposure bracketing is one type of bracket, there is more than one technique under the bracketing umbrella.

Flash Exposure Bracketing (FEB)

Exposure bracketing helps you to find the perfect flash exposure for a given shot. To quickly obtain the perfect amount of flash exposure, you can apply flash bracketing. You may want to do this if you feel uneasy about the lighting in the room you’re in or if you’re unsure that the light falling across your subject is appropriate. FEB allows you to apply bracketing in increments of +/- 3 stops.

Here’s how to practice this technique:

  1. Press the FEB button on the back of your flash
  2. Set the scale
  3. Take your shot
  4. Select the photo with the perfect exposure

Focus Bracketing

Focus bracketing becomes especially useful when shooting in macro (or with a large aperture lens that’s fully open). This technique is very useful, mainly because the shallow depth of field involved in macro photography makes it very tricky to achieve a proper amount of focus.

Focus bracketing can be a bit different than other photography techniques, as you may have to get a little physical by changing positions, or less physical by manually adjusting your lens. It’s worth trying both techniques and then deciding what works for you.

Using Body Positioning

  1. Set your focus to manual
  2. Lean your body back a hair and snap
  3. Stand straight up and snap
  4. Lean forward a smidgen and snap

Using Lens Focus

  1. Move focus ring to the right a bit and snap
  2. Move focus ring to middle and snap
  3. Move focus ring a touch to the left and snap

A World of Possibilities with Exposure Bracketing

Exposure bracketing is not what it used to be. For starters, now that we have digital technology, the technique is much less wasteful, as our unwanted shots don’t get printed. With the advent of technological advancements, you can take a deep dive into exposure bracketing; you may start by taking a series of three to seven shots, but then HDR may reel you in.

Who knows what will happen once you get started, so why not completely immerse yourself in the world of exposure bracketing?

Educator
PHLEARN Staff

PHLEARN is the #1 source for Photoshop education online. With millions of students from over 146 countries, we are proud to offer both free and industry-leading PRO Tutorials.

RELATED ARTICLES

 

25 Tips for Perfect Photography Composition

This in-depth guide is designed to help you start consistently taking better photographs, no matter what subject you’re shooting. Follow along as we talk about how to balance technique and creativity, and guide you through 25 simple and highly effective tips for perfect composition.

 

Bokeh Photography: The Ultimate Tutorial

Ever noticed those little balls (or shapes) of light that look like they’re dancing lightly across a photo? That’s called bokeh. It’s a beautiful effect, but there’s so much more to it than just the obvious shapes you see. This guide will show you all the amazing things you can do with bokeh in your photography.

 

Rule of Thirds: How to Use It in Your Photography

Learn how to see your scene in thirds before you compose the shot. Our comprehensive guide on the Rule of Thirds will teach you how to utilize the rule and compose eye-catching images that draw the viewer in. We also demystify the “rule” and offer scenarios when it’s ok to break it.

 

25 Greatest Tips for Street Photography

Ready to leave the safer world of still lives and nature to capture a bit of real life on the street? Great! We’ve put together 25 of the best tips for getting yourself ready to do street photography at a high level, by learning to blend photojournalism with fine art and documentary storytelling.

SUGGESTED TUTORIALS