Exposure Bracketing: The Art of Obtaining Perfect Exposures in Difficult Light

exposure bracketingRick’s new digital SLR camera is a top-notch one. He is proud of its looks and proud that he finally managed to buy it for himself. Now he would be able to show off his photography skills (learned with this course) to his buddies.

However, there is a slight problem. For some reason, he is unable to get the kind of results he saw in the advertisements and reviews. E.g., whenever he is shooting sunrise or sunsets, somehow, one half of the image is always darker than the other. He could not figure out how he can make the whole of the scene appear properly exposed, like he normally sees them with his named eyes while photographing.

Sounds like a problem you have faced as well? You’re not alone! This is something that is synonymous to all types of photography and not just digital photography. You cannot hope to get a good exposure if one part of the scene is properly lit and the other one is not. This is usually the case when you are shooting into the sun and the ground / beach is not properly lit or when you are photographing a mountain in the early hours of the day and the foreground is completely dark. So, is there a way to overcome this problem? Yes there is and it is known as exposure bracketing.

Today, we’re going to go over exposure bracketing. Once you’ve mastered this skill, check out our full Advanced DSLR course.

But before we jump to it, you ought to know that there are not one but two methods to bypass this problem and ensure that you get good usable exposures. One of them involves the use of Graduated Neutral Density filters. However, in this article, we shall look only at the other method. So, pick your camera gear and let’s head outdoors.

What is Bracketing?

Exposure bracketing denotes taking multiple exposures of the same scene but with different exposure compensation used. Meaning, you use different exposure values to shoot each of the different frames. The ultimate objective is to combine all the exposures in-camera or in the computer, using some photo editing software, and to attain one perfect exposure. This process of combining two or more images shot with different exposure values and creating one single properly exposed image is also known as HDR or High Dynamic Range.

Usually, this involves a minimum of two exposures. One of them is taken at the metered value which the camera gives you and one at a stop under or over it. Film photographers have been doing this for years and in fact, the term bracketing has been borrowed from film photography.

Why Do You Need Photo Editing Software?

The final step is to combine the three exposures together using a photo editing software. If your camera has a built-in software that can combine the three exposures together (such as the Nikon D5100) then you can achieve this in-camera. Else you will have to head home, download the images on to a computer and use your editing skills to achieve this. Sounds simple? Yes and No.

What Else Do You Need?

If you have a DSLR and a tripod you already have everything that you need to use exposure bracketing. Some cameras like the D7000 comes with a dedicated bracketing button. Others have an option buried deep inside the menu. If you are unsure, this is the time to find the box your camera came in and locate that manual that it came with. Look for something that says, exposure bracketing or HDR. Check how to reach that option in your camera.

Apart from the DSLR you will need a tripod. The reason you need a tripod is because you are going to shoot two or more exposures of the same scene and then combine them together. That means you cannot afford to bump the camera and change the composition! What if you don’t have a tripod? Well in that case use a table, a chair, a ledge, a wall, your camera bag; anything, really, that can hold the camera steady while you are taking the pictures.

Exposure Bracketing Buttons and Their Use

For those who have a digital camera that has a button that reads ‘BKT’ you have an easier time with this. Ever wondered what it does? Well it is the tool that you will use to get some exposures of the scene with different exposure compensations applied. Sure you can do this without using the Exposure Bracketing / ‘BKT’ button but that would involves some real precision handling. So to be on the safe side use the BKT button. For this example we shall be using the controls of the Nikon D7000.

Turn on your camera and switch to aperture priority. Set, the camera on a tripod. Now press the BKT button. Once you press the BKT button, and if you are looking at the top LCD panel, you will notice the letters ‘OF’ and ‘0.3’ light up. ‘OF’ denotes that currently there is no exposure bracketing used. ‘0.3’ denotes that the increments and decrements in exposure for each frame has been set at 1/3rd of a stop. These are the default values for Nikon D7000. For your camera please check the manual. You can turn the main and sub-command dials to change these vales as per your requirement.

Pressing the exposure bracketing button and then turning the main command dial will change the number and type of exposures. For example if you turn the main command dial towards right the letters ‘3F’ will appear. This means 3 exposures will be taken and they are – under, normal and over. If you turn the main command dials towards left, at first the letters ‘-2F’ will appear followed by the letters ‘+2F’, if you turn it further. ‘-2F’ means 2 exposures will be taken and they are under and normal. ‘+2F’ again means 2 exposures will be taken but this time one will be normal and the other over.

The sub-command dial also has a critical role to play in exposure bracketing. Pressing the BKT button and turning the sub-command dial allows you to change the amount of exposure bias that will be used. E.g., the default values for exposure compensation on the D7000 is 0.3 or 1/3rd-stop. Turn the sub-command dial and you can change it to 0.7 or 2/3rd-stop, 1 or full 1-stop and so on. On the D7000 you can spread the shots at up to2-stops. Please check your camera manual to see how much you can spread the shots on the specific mode you have.

Please note that exposure bracketing is a sticky type of function (just like exposure compensation) in Nikon DSLR cameras. That means even after you have switched the camera off the settings remain locked. You will need to remind yourself to turn the command dials and reset the bracketing values to nil to be able to shoot images normally again.

What are the Ideal Situations to Use Exposure Bracketing?

Exposure bracketing works in situations where it is impossible to nail the exposure in one single shot. Difficult lighting or not there could be a hundred different situations where exposure bracketing can come handy. If you are shooting in aperture priority mode and want to deliberately shoot over or under you will need to use bracketing.

Exposure bracketing works fine when the subjects you are photographing are stationary. E.g., if you are shooting a sunrise or a sun-set or shooting architecture photography, exposure bracketing tends to give you the best results.

When Not to Use Exposure Bracketing

Conversely, exposure bracketing is not suitable for use when the subject is moving about. Let’s say you are shooting photographs inside an indoor swimming pool or let’s say when you are shooting portraitures, or even pets. As the subject is never still at one place, you can’t hope to use exposure bracketing and get away with two or more quick shots.

Can Exposure Bracketing be Used in Manual Mode?

Yes! And in fact in manual mode you have the option to take as many shots as you want. If you don’t know how to use the manual mode on your camera check this great photography course.

To use exposure bracketing in manual mode you will need to switch your main shooting dial to ‘M’. Now meter the scene so that the metering indicator is aligned at the center to indicate that the exposure values are optimum. Take a picture at this settings. Now turn the main or sub-command dial to either change the shutter speed or the aperture values. Anyways, change only one of the values and not both to keep things simple. Let’s assume that you are changing the shutter speed. Move the main command dial to either left or right to increase or decrease the shutter speed. Align the exposure meter to where -1 is to indicate you have now reached a negative 1 stop of exposure compensation. Take a picture at this setting. Now move the main command dial to right until the meter is aligned with +1 indicating a positive 1-stop of exposure compensation. Take another picture. You have now taken 3 pictures using the manual exposure bracketing method.

The final task is to combine the exposures into one single image. For that you shall have to use a photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom. This great tutorial on Adobe Lightroom might just be what you need to learn how to do this.