Bracketing - What Is It and What to do with the Images?

Bracketing – What Is It and What to do with the Images?

What is Bracketing?

Mark Upfield   -

Mark Upfield –

In short, bracketing is taking the same photo more than once using different settings for different exposures. Why would you do this? Say you’re photographing a mountain landscape. The grass would require one setting to be properly exposed, the mountains would require another and the sky yet another. But you can only choose one setting for one photo. Shoot! Now what? Try bracketing!

If you know about exposure, you’ll know the different ways to adjust your camera settings to manipulate your exposure. One is to change the aperture, another is the shutter speed and the third is ISO.

What I’ve just suggested poses a problem. How are you going to take three different photos exactly the same if you’re moving your camera to change your settings? A tripod? Yea, but what if it’s your kids on the beach and you want to bracket to get your kids, the sand, the sea and the sky all exposed properly? Your DSLR has the answer!


Automatic Exposure Bracketing is a function most DSLRs have to take three photos with only one click of the shutter, each in different exposures. The result will be one photo a bit too bright, one just right (depending on which part you’re looking to expose properly) and one a bit darker.

You will have to consult your camera’s manual (or just Google it exe: “AEB Canon 7D”) to discover how to access this function.

Now What?

So now you have three of the same photo. What do you do with it? Well, you may just discover that one of them was just right even though it wasn’t the settings you would have normally used and you’re thankful that you used AEB to help you out. Another way is to do something like in this tutorial for PS where the author shows you how to combine more than one photo to use the best bits from each one to create a perfectly exposed shot. Btw – for us PSE users, a little tweaking of the method will be required since we don’t have layer masks but that’s really not a problem here.

Another method for using bracketed images is called ‘exposure fusing‘ . It’s really unfortunate that this is such a new technique that there isn’t yet a very easy way of doing it but keep your eye out because I think it’s going to be big news very soon.

A very popular method for blending bracketed photos is called HDR and it’s all the rage. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and it’s purpose is to take an image where there are extreme lights and extreme darks and properly blend the two together to create an image with a…well…high dynamic range! But HDR doesn’t come without a bit of controversy. There’s a bigger battle over whether HDR is good or bad than the argument over Canon vs. Nikon. Why the controversy? Well, mostly (and simply) because many people who practise HDR overdo it to create images which are quickly identifiable as HDR images and many photographers judge that this is a cheap trick.

Sure, lots of HDR is ‘overdone’ and bizarre, but if that’s the photographer’s vision and goal, then it doesn’t matter. I feel very strongly that photography can only be liked or disliked but cannot be judged in the ways people try to judge it.

The most popular way to combine three or more bracketed images in the HDR style is a cheap program called Photomatix and this tutorial will show you more about how to do it.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Elizabeth Halford is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

Some Older Comments

  • Jack Donbavand April 30, 2012 11:12 am


    SLR is Single Lens Reflex, and describes the way a camera uses a mirror to show the image through a view finder, then flips when you take a shot to reflect the same image onto the sensor. D is for digital, and means your using a sensor and not a film camera (DSLR). A tripod is helpful for bracketing static images, but you could just hold a camera and shoot in RAW to increase the dynamic range of a moving scene like kids on a beach. You would need a raw processing program like Adobe Camera Raw to do this. I'd suggest you spend some time with Youtube....its a great resource for learning, and there's plenty about bracketing, HDR and DSLR photography.

  • Peter April 29, 2012 12:11 am

    You wrote: How are you going to take three different photos exactly the same if you’re moving your camera to change your settings? A tripod? Yea, but what if it’s your kids on the beach and you want to bracket to get your kids, the sand, the sea and the sky all exposed properly? Your DSLR has the answer!

    I dont understand. It is possible or not without a tripod ? What the heck is DSLR ? I hate when reading articles like this that gives just a hidden riddle hint to the answer!

  • McKenzie Barnum August 26, 2010 09:07 am

    the tutorial links don't work. I am just starting to bracket and i need to figure out how to put all 3 of my shots together.
    any help or tips?

  • VickiD March 23, 2010 04:22 am

    I find it amazing that people give their opinions as if they are gospel. Prejudices for and against HDR abound in these comments. Someone said, "You should clarify that the main purpose of Bracketing is not create a HDR image, but being able to choose the best picture based on the exposure… otherwise is better to shoot in raw and adjust the dynamic range settings in post processing …" What gives that person the right to decide what the main purpose of bracketing is? People really need to be open-minded about HDR and other aspects of photography. It's bad enough that the non-photographic world doesn't see us as legimitate artists without the in-fighting.

    We can like or dislike different processes, but it doesn't make them less than legitimate. Just opinions, folks.

  • Warren Walker March 10, 2010 10:56 am

    @Karen: if the dynamic range of the scene you are photographing exceeds the range of your camera, no single photo can capture what your eyes can see. Underexposed shadows will be noisy or even black. Overexposed highlights will be white. Adjusting exposure in RAW will not restore these areas.

    I like to take long exposures of waterfalls. Usually the contrast between the white water and the dark rock is too great for a single exposure. I will take two shots, one exposed for the water and one for the shadows. I adjust the exposures in ARC until the histograms match. This leaves me with a picture that has noisy shadows and details in the water. The other picture has clean shadows but white patches in the water. I overlay the two images and manually mask to create an image that I could not capture in a single photo. I could do HDR but this works for me. If I needed to merge more than two images, I would likely try HDR.

  • BunnyKissd March 2, 2010 06:30 am

    Thank you for sharing this! I had no idea about bracketing, although I had learned some about HDR and was interested in trying it out. Come to find out, I actually have the auto bracketing feature on my camera, and took some shots today! I can't wait to try blending them in PSP and seeing how it comes out! ^-^

  • Jack Donbavand February 28, 2010 05:33 am

    Noise is an inherent side effect of HDR processing anyway - regardless of how you achieved your bracketing or how "noise free" your original images look. Imagenomic do a decent noise reduction add on for Photoshop (, this or any noise reduction software would be an essential when working with bracketed images.

  • Malcolm Sutton February 27, 2010 06:53 pm

    In forums I've read that only whole ISO numbers are set in the camera. Any increments in between are calculated from the next highest "whole" ISO value. so, in theory, a value in between the whole values has the noise of a higher IS0 value. If the under and over exposure values are achieved by changing the ISO, are the images noisier than they could be?

  • Jack Donbavand February 27, 2010 08:20 am

    Doesn't even have to be landscape, or even outside.....

  • Jack Donbavand February 27, 2010 08:18 am

    Another attempt at the beach.

  • Jack Donbavand February 27, 2010 08:10 am

    One of my first attempts but I had to use a RAW image and played with the exposure in RAW conversion. The Mexican Government wouldn't let me use a tripod!

  • Jo LeFlufy February 27, 2010 07:55 am

    I totally agree with you about photography being liked or disliked, but not judged the way it tends to be judged. I think that too often this is what causes some photographers to start believing their work is so much better than other people's. It's totally subjective and I believe this should be respected.

  • Tomas Sobek February 26, 2010 08:42 am

    If you prefer free (as opposed to proprietary) programs, you can process your images in a bit cryptographically named Qtpfsgui. One of the many tutorials is here.

  • Alastair Seagroatt February 26, 2010 08:01 am

    There's a great free programme for the Mac - HDRtist (, which makes it easy to play around with images. It aligns photos as well so even without a tripod you can get some good results - some examples are on including snow photos which I've always found awkward before. For me the challenge is to usually to use it to get a natural looking (to me) image.

  • Krishna February 26, 2010 01:44 am

    I have a couple examples of my bracketing.

    My personal favourite...

    [eimg link='' title='Talbots in Forum' url='']

  • Mark Upfield February 25, 2010 11:38 pm

    Great read and really does some up how to exposure blend properly. Its exactly the same as how I did process the image… Great read Elizabeth

  • Zack Jones February 25, 2010 10:50 pm

    @james: setting an exposure compensation of -1 tells the camera even though you think you know the correct exposure I want you to under expose the shot by 1 stop. What bracketing does, assuming you've configured the camera to use 1 stop is take one photo using the normal exposure, then take one photo underexposed by 1 stop, and finally take a third photo overexposed by one stop. The great thing about bracketing is it allows you to experiment with different exposure settings the the press of one button instead of taking a shot, adjusting exposure compensation, taking the next shot, adjusting, etc.

  • Karen Stuebing February 25, 2010 10:49 pm

    When I discovered that Photomatrix would not allow me to change the exposure in the RAW interface of a single photo, I uninstalled it. I just don't get that at all. Why isn't that the same as bracketing? In fact it could be superior to bracketing because there would be no movement.

    And I am not opposed at all to HDR. I did get a plug in for Photoshop from Photomatrix which is an HDR simulator and is fun to play with. However, it does not support more than 8 bits depth.

    I like the fantasy look of some of the photos I've seen. As the author pointed out, what appeals to one person may not appeal to another and we need to respect people's artistic visions whether or not we like them.

    @Massimo, your photos are beautiful and the HDR is very understated. Or not "baked" as the HDRers like to say. :)

  • Zack Jones February 25, 2010 10:41 pm

    @Greg: Great stuff in your portfolio. What do you use to merge your bracketed photos with?
    @Max: Velvet snow is a great shot!

    For Canon 40D users - bracketing is explained on page 94 of the manual.
    For Canon 5D users - bracketing is explained on page 93 of the manual.

    A couple of tips I've picked up that have helped me: (1) set the camera's drive mode into multi-shot instead of single shot. Using single shot you'd have to press the shutter 3 times to take the 3 bracketed photos. (2) use the self timer. I know on the 40D if you put it in multi-shot drive mode and use the self timer it will automatically take the 3 shots for you.

  • Mark Upfield February 25, 2010 10:34 pm

    Great read and really does some up how to exposure blend properly. Its exactly the same of how I did process the image... Great read Elizabeth

  • Hector Perez-Nieto February 25, 2010 08:29 pm

    Hi Jotasolano: You are right in the original reason for bracketing. Certainly Ansel Adams wouldn't have done it to make HDR images.


    However, compensating on RAW is only partially correct. If you compensate too much, even on RAW, you will start getting noise. It is always best to have the original image as close to the intended luminosity as possible.

  • Hector Perez-Nieto February 25, 2010 08:26 pm

    Hi James, regarding your question about exposure compensation: Yes, compensating -1 would "trick" the camera to underexpose. You can play with that AND bracketing, I do it quite often. For example, compensate -1 then bracket +/- 1 then you would get:

    a) An image 2 stops darker (-1 underexposed and a further -1 bracketed)
    b) Another one 1 stop darker (the original compensation with 0 bracketing)
    c) and the truly "correct" measurement (which is your compensated underxposure +1).

    Compensating is useful if you want to shoot an image that should be predominantly white (overexpose) or black (underexpose). For example shooting snow or a black cat. If you didn't compensate, your camera would force the images towards an 18% gray (cameras are calibrated at 18% which is the average skin density) making snow grey and the black cat grey too.

    This is an example of a compensated photo, I underexposed it to look like night, otherwise the camera filled it with ambient light:

  • jason February 25, 2010 05:23 pm

    "Photography can only be liked or disliked" - no. It's an art like any other.

    You certainly can like it or dislike it, but you can also analyse and judge it, and understand why you (or others) feel the way you do about it. You can judge whether it's an original creation, or a repetition of a cliche that adds nothing.

    It's like saying you don't recognise any difference beyond preference between Beethoven, the Beatles and an advertising jingle; or Shakespeare, Dan Brown and James Joyce.

  • johnp February 25, 2010 01:47 pm

    The free trial version of Photomatix lets you do photo fusion (not the full HDR - it has watermarks). It is a better and easier program than similiar ones in photoshop (e.g. PSE8) as it will align bracketed photos first before blending them. To adjust the result that not always is what I may want I have at times overlaid the fused photo back onto one of the originals in photoshop adjusting the layer opacity and blending till I get a result that looks right. I've been using that trial version for about a year now - sorry Photomatix!

  • Rick February 25, 2010 01:26 pm

    QTPFSGUI is an open-source software option if you'd like to try bracketing. That and GIMP is how I wound up with this multi-exposure shot set in Central Oregon last spring.

    [eimg link='' title='Shaniko Fire Truck HDR' url='']

  • Photo on canvas February 25, 2010 11:02 am

    This is a great article for those that don't understand bracketing. Remember that you can always throw away photos if you don't need the extra exposure levels, but you can't go back and take that exact same picture again!

    I especially like your commentary on HDR. "I feel very strongly that photography can only be liked or disliked but cannot be judged in the ways people try to judge it."

    I can't agree more with this statement! Painting with acrylics and using watercolors are two different styles. One is not superior to the other, although anyone is free to have a preference.

    Thanks for the simple and easy to understand article!

  • James February 25, 2010 10:34 am

    I am not sure if this is the right spot for my question, but I am trying to undertand the use of exposure compensation. Does setting your exposure compensation to -1 essentially just trick the camera into thinking that -1 is actually correct (which would be the same as underexposing the image to -1)? And if so... if you bracket, does this in effect take care of any exposure compensation you might think to set? Hope this makes sense.

  • JotaSolano February 25, 2010 09:29 am

    You should clarify that the main purpose of Bracketing is not create a HDR image, but being able to choose the best picture based on the exposure... otherwise is better to shoot in raw and adjust the dynamic range settings in post processing ... right?

  • Massimo Belloni February 25, 2010 09:16 am

    I use bracketing, and then HDR, when the dynamic range is excessive (rarely to obtain "shocking" images). Often is the only way to have an image correctly exposed in any part. Take a peek to my website

  • My Camera World February 25, 2010 08:13 am

    Normally when you are doing bracketing you should be using a tripod to ensure that each bracketed image overlaps the other correctly.

    There is a technique where you can hand hold and take barracked shoots at least 3 shots before movement shows. More if you are real steady.

    For those cameras with fast frames per second rates, set shooting to highest rate and with a good body position, elbows in, press shutter and rapidly fire of 3 shots in less than a second.

    It may take a little practice but the overlap is very good.

    Niels Henriksen

  • Greg Taylor February 25, 2010 08:11 am

    I am a big fan of bracketing images. When shooting landscapes I will bracket +1 / -1 to make sure I have a photograph I am extremely happy with. My most recent Sedona photos (in B&W) were all done through the practice of bracketing. Most of the time when I choose to bracket images it's when I am at a location where there is a chance I will never return (i.e Yellowstone National Park.)

    Typically, I throw away the images that I do not like. I am not a fan of merging the bracketed images and combine them into one HDR image. In my opinion, HDR is one of the most overused "gimmicky" photography techniques. The photographs have a fantasy look that isn't appealing to my artistic taste.

    In my portfolio many of the photographs were achieved through the use of bracketing but I assure you there are no HDR tricks.