The human eye can capture an impressive range of nuances, colors, lights, and shadows. Even though digital cameras can yield amazing results, auto exposure often covers a limited tonal range and can make some areas look too light or too dark. To fix this, you can use bracketing.

Photo by wiggijo licensed under CC0

What is Bracketing in Photography?

Bracketing is a photography technique that consists of capturing the same shot three or more times with different camera settings. You can then combine the different images and control the optimal exposure level for each element of your shot.

What is Exposure Bracketing?

Exposure bracketing is the most common application for this photography technique. You can capture three or more frames with slight differences in exposure, including a shot that is slightly underexposed and one that is overexposed.

Auto Exposure Bracketing

A lot of digital cameras have an auto exposure bracketing mode. If you select it, your camera will snap three or more photographs with different exposures. You can choose how many frames you want to capture and control the exposure range to cover.

Manual Exposure Bracketing

You can perform exposure compensation between each shot manually. It’s best to use a tripod to capture the exact same shot. Shooting manually allows you to work with a broader range of settings, but it’s difficult to get consistent results.

Why We Need Exposure Bracketing

This technique allows you to capture the full tonal range of a scene. Your camera’s auto exposure mode might not capture enough details for the darker areas of a landscape, and clear skies often look overexposed.

How Exposure Bracketing Works

With this technique, your camera is going to capture three or more frames. One frame will use an exposure setting that captures all the details in the highlights range, one will capture the mid-tones, and a third underexposed frame will show the shadows in more detail for exposure compensation.

You can then combine the different frames to reproduce the full tonal range of your composition and control the tonal levels of each area of the shot individually.

How to Bracket in Auto or Manual Mode

Not all cameras have an auto bracketing mode, but if you have one, you will be able to adjust the number of images you want to capture and their exposure settings.

If you’re into manual photography, you will have to change the exposure settings between each shot you take.

How to Bracket Photos for HDR

It’s best to use a tripod to keep your camera stable and capture the same image three times. Look for the bracketing mode in your camera’s menu and select the number of frames you want to capture and the exposure settings.

Use a timer if you can. Pressing the shutter button can cause your camera to move slightly.

snowy landscape

EV Exposure Settings

Figuring out the correct exposure value settings is often the trickiest part of this process. With EV0 being the default exposure for the shot, you can choose EV-1 and EV+1 to divide the amount of light by two and double it in your underexposed and overexposed shot. These settings are a good starting point if you’re new to bracketing, and they will work well for shots with medium contrast.

Merging Bracketed Images into HDR

Once you have captured different frames with varying settings, you can merge them. There are different apps and tools you can use for this process.

ACR/Lightroom

Select the bracketed images you want to merge, click on Photo, and Photo Merge. Select the HDR option, and Lightroom will create an HDR image. You can use the deghosting options to clean the result.

Photoshop

Open the photographs in Photoshop, click on File, and Automate. Select Merge to HDR.

You can also create different layers with your frames: click on Edit and Auto-Align. You can then combine the layers by clicking on Edit and Auto-Blend.

Other Options

You can use other options like Photomatix, Aurora HDR, or Enfuse to combine different frames into an HDR image.

Manual Merging with Luminosity Masks

Luminosity masks are a more complex technique you can use to isolate the different luminosity channels of an image. This manual method gives you more control over how you blend the shots, but there is a learning curve.

More Types of Bracketing

Even though bracketing exposure is the most common type of bracketing, there are other options to explore.

Flash Exposure Bracketing

Flash Exposure Bracketing or FEB is a setting you will find on some external flashes. It allows you to capture a series of bracketed shots with different control settings for your flash.

Focus Bracketing

Focus bracketing is a convenient technique for macro photography. If you’re having a hard time finding the optimal point of focus, adjust this setting to capture shots with a slightly different depth of field.

Using Body Positioning

Use the manual focus mode on your camera and take your first image. Lean back or forward to adjust the focus before taking another shot.

Using Lens Focus

You can use the focus ring to control this setting. Move it by one increment to adjust focus.

Focus Stacking Images

Open your different images in Photoshop and set them as your different layers. Click on Edit and Auto-Align, and then Edit and Auto-Blend. Choose the Stack images mode, and use the soft brush to edit the result.

Dynamic Range

Dynamic range is an important concept in photography. The human eye has a high dynamic range and can adjust to high contrast and register details in light and dark areas.

A camera has a narrower tonal range. While mid-tones might look crisp and detailed, the white balance might be off, and shadows might look too dark. You can take your photography to the next level by combining different shots and getting more precise control over the tonal range of your images.

Single Exposure HDR

You can create an HDR image from a single shot if you weren’t able to capture different frames during your photography session. Photomatix lets you create a tone map if you have a RAW image file, and you can then control the light and tonal range of each area.

Photoshop allows you to darken and brighten an image to create an underexposed and overexposed version that you can then combine.

Digital Dodging and Burning

If you want to photograph a landscape with a lot of areas that call for different exposure levels, take as many pictures as you can with different EV settings.

You can then open your images in Photoshop and set them as your layers. Use the dodge and burn tools to expose different areas for each layer and get complete control over the high dynamic range of your image.

city scape

Why Not Just Take It in RAW?

A RAW image file stores more information. It allows you to brighten or darken some areas of your shot when you edit it, but it’s possible to run into noise and other issues. It’s best to use bracketing to capture more information and control noise when editing.

HDR vs. Exposure Bracketing

Some phones and cameras with an HDR setting can combine different images. There is no need to use post processing software to merge the images.

Devices with an HDR mode typically work well with landscapes, scenes with a lot of sunlight, and shots with low light.

Using exposure bracketing and merging the images yourself gives you more control over the final results and can prevent the hype- realistic effect you sometimes get with HDR settings.

Your Shortcut to HDR: Your Smartphone

If you own a recent flagship phone, your Smartphone might have a built-in HDR or Rich Tone setting. Your phone will capture three shots and blend them automatically with this setting. You can also download apps that give you more control over this process.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

Here are some common issues and possible solutions:

  • If the blended image lacks sharpness, use the auto-align setting in Photoshop, or invest in a tripod.
  • If the result looks hyper-realistic, try working with a smaller range of shutter speed settings.
  • If you can’t find the bracketing mode on your camera, your best bet is to capture three shots manually.
  • If your camera’s auto exposure mode is off, upgrade it with an external light meter.

Related Questions about Exposure Bracketing

Here are some common questions about working with exposure levels and photography.

Should You Use Photo Bracketing All the Time?

The answer is no. Bracketing doesn’t work well for shots with movement, and some low contrast shots don’t call for this technique.

What’s the Best Way to Manage Exposure Bracketing in Post?

Use the shot that is closest to the result you are looking for as your base. Blend it with the other images until you get a result you’re happy with. Don’t delete the original frames you took so you can go back and start over if you need to.

Is Exposure the Only Thing that can be Bracketed?

Exposure bracketing is a popular technique, but you can use this technique to control settings like flash, focus, or ISO.

lake

What Is ISO Bracketing?

With ISO bracketing, a photographer captures images with varying amounts of noise to combine them and control the amount of noise in the final result.

Is Auto Exposure Bracketing Necessary with RAW?

Not always, but it gives you access to a wider tonal range when you edit the image. One of the benefits of shooting in RAW is that you capture more data, and bracketing gives you access to even more data.

What Is the Difference Between HDR and Bracketing?

Bracketing describes the shooting technique itself, while HDR refers to post processing your images together.

How Do You Set Exposure?

You can adjust exposure thanks to three different settings:

  • The aperture controls the size of the area through which light enters the lens.
  • The shutter speed adjusts the duration of the exposure.
  • The ISO setting determines the sensitivity of the sensor.

You can use your camera’s auto exposure mode or use the menu to adjust these three settings manually.

What Is Bracketing on Nikon Camera?

Some Nikon cameras have a BKT button. Press it, and a menu will open where you can control how many shots you want to take and the exposure range to cover. 

Conclusion

Bracketing is a technique that allows you to work with a wider tonal range and control how light and details appear with precision. Modern DSLR cameras make it easy to capture a series of images with different settings, and most image editing programs have settings that help you blend these images. Use exposure bracketing to create more realistic images.