How to Use Exposure Bracketing: Lesson 12

Learning how to use exposure bracketing will unlock even more creativity with your camera! First, you need to know where to find the button/menu and how to set up bracketing your shots. This will lead to my next post, “HDR (High Dynamic Range) Image Creation”.

What is Exposure Bracketing?

This is a method of photography where you can take several shots of the same scene at different exposures. The reason you may want to do this is for rapidly changing light in a scene or you intend to blend the exposures in software.

3 bracketed exposures
Three shots from a tripod with 3 different exposures. 1 stop underexposed, correct exposure per the camera meter, and 1 stop overexposed

Dynamic Range

Our eye’s dynamic range is approximately 11-14 stops of light. Some point and shoot cameras have a dynamic range of only about 5-7 stops, while high-end digital SLRs are around 8-11 stops.

What this means is the camera cannot expose some scenes to appear similar to the range of tones the eye sees. This is especially true if there is a wider dynamic range of tones, such as a bright sky in a landscape shot.

Have you ever looked at a scene and thought “how beautiful”, only to take the shot and feel some disappointment as it didn’t appear as you saw it? This is likely due to the limitation of the tonal range of the camera.

**Yes, graduated filters are used in landscape photography to even the exposures, but camera filters will be a topic I’ll cover later.

Use in HDR

I use exposure bracketing for HDR work. Taking several shots at different exposures and blending them together in an HDR editing program gives a wider tonal range. This means the highlights, shadows, and mid-tones are recovered and presented in that final image.

Amelia Island Bridge
The 3 exposure above merged into one file using Photomatix HDR software
1954 Mercury
1954 Mercury HDR image

Blending exposures

I’m often shooting a landscape with a brighter sky, and darker foreground. I could use a graduated filter but sometimes I’m without one. Metering on the sky, the sky is properly exposed but the foreground is dark without much detail. If I meter on the foreground, the foreground is exposed properly but now the highlights are clipped in the sky area.

It should be of special note that you cannot recover any clipped highlights, in a single image, but if you have an underexposed image of the same scene it may have preserved your highlights.

**If you need to review “clipping” I refer you to a short article I wrote about Exposure.

To remedy this, I take two shots, one with sky properly exposed and one for the foreground exposed. I load both images in an image editor and blend the properly exposed sky with my properly exposed foreground. This works much better if you have a horizon to gradually blend in the two exposures.

Sunrise Fernandina Beach
In this photograph, I blended the exposed sky with my exposed foreground in Photoshop

**This is a technique I will cover in a future post. If you would like to try this now or have questions about this you can always contact me.

Finding the Exposure Bracketing Button/Menu

Each camera brand and type is different in how to access the exposure bracketing setting. I’ll do my best to guide you in the right direction.

Canon cameras you can access this from the menu system looking for the Expo.comp/AEB menu. If you have trouble finding it, refer to your manual or do an online search for how to get to this setting.

Higher-end Canon cameras may also have a “Q” button which is a shortcut to this function.

Canon Rebel Menu
Canon Rebel SL2 Menu

Nikon users will look for Auto Bracketing in the menu. Again, if you can’t find it I refer you to your user guide or do an online search.

On higher-end Nikons, you may see a “BKT” button and acts as a shortcut to this function.

Nikon D5500 AEB Menu
Nikon D5500 Menu

Once you are in the Exposure Bracketing menu you set the EV’s (stops) apart you want for each shot. For example, if you want 3 exposures bracketed you might choose, +1 and -1 EV with the third shot being normally exposed.

Some cameras allow you to set as many 3-9 different exposures.

After you have set how many EV’s apart for each shot you can now frame your shot.

If you don’t intend on merging the shots together then a tripod is less necessary. If you are going to use them for an HDR photograph or blend the scenes together, a tripod is recommended.

A tripod is necessary for a low light situation where you cannot handhold your camera without camera shake or blurring.

Taking the Shots

If you are handholding, press the shutter release button fully down and keep it pressed until the camera finishes with that series of shots. By default when you are in auto-bracketing mode the camera will fire a succession of shots at different exposures as long as the shutter is held down.

Once it finishes, review your images to see if you are satisfied with the shots. Is there enough tonal difference? If not then increase the EV exposures higher, e.g. +2 and -2.

On a tripod, I recommend a cable or wireless release if you have one. Holding the button down on the release will fire a burst of shots just as if you held the shutter of your camera down.

If don’t have a release you can still press the shutter, but keep it pressed until the series of shots is finished.

What if the Camera Does Not Have Auto-Bracketing?

Some entry-level cameras may not have this automatic function, but you can still get bracketed shots by using the Exposure Compensation feature.

** If you need a refresher on Exposure Compensation you can read my post here.

This is a method I use very often when my camera is mounted on a tripod even if it does have the auto-bracketing feature. This does not work as well if you plan on making an HDR image handheld doing this.

Once the camera is mounted on the tripod, meter your scene for the correct exposure and take the shot. Now using the Exposure Compensation feature, make a change like +2 EV, then take the shot. On the next shot set the Exposure Compensation to -2 EV and take the shot.

You now have 3 bracketed photographs.

Finishing Up

Once you are satisfied with your bracketed photographs remember to reset the Auto Bracketing feature to OFF or reset your exposure compensation.

This will spare you enormous headaches if you forget. You’ll be wondering why every exposure changes with the next shot.

Any time I am done using exposure compensation or bracketing I reset my camera immediately. After taking my camera out of the bag again for another outing I always take a few minutes to check the settings on my camera for things I may have left on, and ensure it is set for what I have planned.

Summary

Bracketing your photographs can open up new possibilities of what you can do in your photography. It takes some planning and practice, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes pretty easy.

I think this will lead nicely to more advanced techniques in photography. In my next post, I will discuss in detail how to create your own stunning HDR images. I’ll present several ideas and as well as using paid and free software that can accomplish this. So, don’t miss this.

For an assignment, try the auto bracketing feature or use the exposure compensation method. Review your images on your computer and see how your scene looks with different exposures.

**If there are questions, or something was not clear, feel free to use the contact form on my site.

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As always, happy shooting!

How to Use Exposure Bracketing: Lesson 12

Jimmie

Welcome! My interest in photography spans 40 years and started with the purchase of my first SLR. Since then my passion has grown to landscapes, beach scenes, and travel photography primarily. Photography techniques I particularly enjoy are long exposures, and what I call splash art. You can see these on my gallery page if it interests you. Currently, I live on Amelia Island in Northeast Florida with my beautiful wife and our wonder dog, Fuji.