How to Use Bracketing to get Your Best Shot – 3 Different Methods

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One of the most difficult and frustrating parts about shooting with film, back before the days of digital photography, was the limited amount of attempts you had to get the photo you wanted. I remember carrying around spare rolls of film in a fanny (waist) pack on a trip to Walt Disney World years ago, and carefully considering each photo, lest I get one setting wrong and blow the entire shot.

How to use bracketing3 Different methods(1)

Back then you had to wait days, or even weeks, to get your pictures back from a processing lab, and if a picture was too dark, grainy, or out of focus there was nothing you could do about it at that point. Fortunately, digital cameras are far more forgiving than their film-based counterparts, and have many systems in place to make sure you do get the shot you want. But even then, sometimes things still don’t quite work out.

Thanks to a technique called bracketing, you can use the power of your camera, combined with the space available on most memory cards, to make sure you always end up with just the right photo every time.

What is Bracketing?

bracketing-typewriter

There’s a classic children’s tale called Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in which a young girl enters the home of the bears and helps herself to their food, furniture, and futons. With each set of items there are three options: two that don’t quite work out and one that is, as the story goes, just right. While the story could be seen as a cautionary tale about the dangers of sneaking into the home of wild animals, and sleeping in their beds uninvited, its lessons can also be applied to photography.

Essentially, Goldilocks demonstrates the concept of bracketing, by giving herself many options so she can make sure to have at least one that is precisely what she is looking for. In photography there are various types of bracketing, but all involve taking multiple photos, so as to ensure you have at least one good picture. Bracketing can also be used to combine different elements of various photos together to get the best of all versions. The three most common versions of bracketing involve exposure, focus, and white balance.

If you have ever struggled to get just the right shot, or want to learn a new technique to improve your photography, this might be just the thing you’ve been looking for.

Exposure Bracketing

Modern digital cameras are pretty good when it comes to evaluating a scene, and giving you just the right exposure. You can even use different metering modes where your camera looks at either the whole scene, just the center, or even a specific part of the photo like the highlights or some faces. If you know precisely how to control your camera to get the shot you want, you can use these various metering modes, in tandem with your camera’s built-in light meter, to get just the right exposure.

However sometimes it pays to take a few extra pictures to make sure you, like Goldilocks, get an image that is just right. This is where exposure bracketing comes in handy since you can take several additional photos, some underexposed and some overexposed, to make sure you go home with the perfect picture.

bracketing-exposure-tree

There are several ways to go about using the bracketing technique, and one of the most simple is to put your camera in Program Mode and use your camera’s exposure compensation function.

First, take a picture that appears to be properly exposed. Then use the exposure compensation option to intentionally underexpose your image by one or two stops (-1 or -2). More than two stops is generally unnecessary. You are of course free to do so, but it’s quite rare that your camera’s meter would be off so much as to require more than two stops of exposure compensation to get the picture you want.

Then use exposure compensation to intentionally overexpose your image by one or two stops (+1 or +2), and in the end you will have at least three photos from which to choose: one that your camera thinks is properly exposed, one that is underexposed, and one that is overexposed. This may seem kind of redundant, but it’s a nice insurance policy to make sure you get just the right photo you want. It works especially well if you are shooting landscapes, or other outdoor scenery, as the bright sunlight coming from overhead can sometimes cause your camera to meter a scene improperly, even if you think you have everything set up just right.

Bracketing for HDR

Another benefit of using exposure bracketing, is that it lets you create stunning works of art using a technique known as HDR, or High Dynamic Range. This requires the use of exposure bracketing, a tripod, and often some special software like Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aurora HDR Pro, to combine several photos into one.

To get started with HDR you need at least three images, bracketed in full stops of exposure. Take one image properly exposed, then underexpose by one or two stops, and then overexpose by one or two stops. Some cameras do this bracketing automatically with a built-in bracketing function (AEB) but I often find that I like to control the exposures manually with exposure compensation, or by using manual mode. You can use more than that, but if you are just starting out three bracketed photos should be sufficient.

Once you have your bracketed photos, load them into the software of your choice, and you can instruct it to combine them into a single photo that takes the best parts of all the images and creates a single frame-worthy masterpiece. To see this in action, first look at the following image, which despite having a fairly even exposure overall, still suffers in a few areas.

This is an un-retouched JPEG image straight from my camera. The overall exposure is good but the sky is bright white and the hallway is a bit too dark.

This is an un-retouched JPEG image straight from my camera. The overall exposure is good, but the sky is bright white and the hallway is a bit too dark.

I used exposure compensation to overexpose the image by two stops, which lost almost everything in the sky, but brought out much more detail and color in the darker areas of the hallway.

The same image, over-exposed by two stops.

The same scene, overexposed by two stops.

Then I took a third image, this time underexposing by two stops, which made the dark parts really dark, but brought out much more color in the sky.

This image was intentionally under-exposed by two stops.

This image was intentionally underexposed by two stops.

Finally, I used Aurora HDR Pro to combine all three bracketed JPEG images into one that contains the best of all worlds. This shows how useful bracketing can be, and might give you some ideas for how to use it in your own photography.

This final image was made using Aurora HDR Pro to combine all three bracketed shots into one, and final edits in LR including correcting the tilting building.

This final image was made using Aurora HDR Pro to combine all three bracketed shots into one, and final edits in LR including correcting the tilting building.

In recent years the image sensors on many cameras have gotten so good, that the use of exposure bracketing is not as critical as it was in days gone by. If you shoot in RAW instead of JPG, a single image will often contain so much information in the highlights and shadows, which you can recover using Lightroom or Photoshop, that you simply don’t need to take separate images and combine them later. One major disadvantage of this is the file sizes, which on some RAW formats can be anywhere from two to 10 times as large as a JPG file. At the end of the day though, exposure bracketing is still a valuable technique that many photographers rely on to get just the right result, and you might enjoy trying it out to see if it works for you.

Focus Bracketing

Another way to apply the bracketing technique is to take several images that are focused at various distances, which is especially critical when doing close-up photos or taking macro shots. On most cameras the autofocus generally works great to make sure things are crystal clear and tack sharp. But, when using very shallow depth of field, or focusing on objects that are extremely close, it’s not always going to produce the most reliable results.

Often when doing this type of photography you will end up with pictures that are just slightly out of focus in one direction or another, either in front of the subject or behind it, and there is no way to fix that in Photoshop, or any other image editor.

I made this image by slowly adjusting the focus on my lens while I took several shots. Only one had the single strand sharp and in focus, but that one picture was all I needed.

I made this image by slowly adjusting the focus on my lens while I took several shots. Only one had the single strand sharp and in focus, but that one picture was all I needed.

The solution to this problem is to take not one picture, but several, and use manual focus instead of automatic. I start by intentionally focusing not on the subject but slightly behind it, then I slowly turn the focusing ring on my lens as I take several images in a row. I know it can be a bit intimidating to shoot using manual focus, but once you try using this technique, you will probably start to see how useful it can be.

When you have your set of images loaded in Lightroom, or another image editor, you can then pick out the exact one you want, instead of hoping you got one in focus while relying on your camera’s built-in autofocusing algorithm. If you want to get into an even more advanced technique with focus bracketing, you can actually combine all your photos into one super-sharp image using a technique called focus stacking. But if that seems like a bit much for you, it’s still worth your time to try regular focus bracketing, just to make sure your close-up subjects are tack sharp.

Nailing focus on the water drop was almost impossible, so I took several images while focusing manually to make absolutely sure I got at least one good image.

Nailing focus on the water drop was almost impossible. So I took several images while focusing manually, to make absolutely sure I got at least one good image.

White Balance Bracketing

The final technique I want to discuss here is similar to the other two types of bracketing in that it also involves taking several photos of the same scene, while adjusting a single parameter. In this case it’s the white balance, instead of the exposure or focus. Most casual photographers use the Automatic White Balance setting on their cameras, which does a pretty good job most of the time. But every now and then it can leave an image with an ugly green or red tint, or all pale and washed out, because of improper white balance.

The lighting conditions here wreaked havoc with my camera's Auto white balance, so I took five separate exposures and manually adjusted the white balance each time in order to make sure I got one good shot.

The lighting conditions here wreaked havoc with my camera’s Auto white balance. So, I took five separate exposures, and manually adjusted the white balance each time, in order to make sure I got one good shot.

White balance bracketing can be very useful if you shoot JPG, because your camera’s Auto white balance setting is not always as reliable as you want it to be. However, if you shoot RAW you have complete freedom to alter white balance as much as you want using a program like Lightroom, Photoshop, or almost any other image editor. Because the RAW format does not discard any photo data like JPG does, white balance bracketing is not needed when you are shooting. That gives you far more flexibility for fine-tuning things like white balance, as long as you are willing to take the time to do it.

Do you find bracketing to be useful in your own photography? When have any of these techniques been especially useful to you? Share your thoughts, and any pictures as well, in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as sringsmuth.

  • Diana

    Or you could buy a Nikon, expose by sky and just lift the shadows.

  • Tim Lowe

    I’ll quote Ansel Adams: I don’t understand bracketing. Either you know the exposure or you don’t.

  • Ansel Adams also didn’t have a digital camera. This post is about getting the right shot using different methods, including combining exposures with a dynamic range. I swear anyone will quote Ansel just to get validation.

  • Tim Lowe

    What nonsense. I teach photography. My students, digital and film photographers, know how to use a meter.

  • True, but Ansel Adams did understand burning and dodging which he utilized quite extensively to enhance his images in the darkroom. Sometimes it’s difficult to get just the right exposure straight out of camera, and using tools like bracketing, dodging, and burning are all useful ways of getting the final shot you want. In my opinion, anyway.

  • It is kind of amazing how far digital sensor technology has advanced, isn’t it?

  • Tim Lowe

    Yes, and digital dodging and burning is so much easier than in making a print. The tools are right over there on the left side of the CS screen…

  • PDL

    Or you could use:
    The bracketing feature built into your camera. (My Pentax old K10D and later models have been doing this since 2007)
    Shoot multiple exposures without EV compensation.
    So why not use the bracket feature built into the camera as your first choice?

  • All of my cameras have built-in bracketing but I have found it to be easier to use the exposure compensation since it gives me more control. Sometimes I want to bracket by 1 stop, sometimes 3 stops, etc. I can either go to the trouble of setting that up in the auto-bracket function or just use exposure compensation to do it on the fly.

  • Mark Sachs

    Personally, I would think shooting brackets as a default to be kind of time consuming and a burn on battery (and possibly flash), as well as memory card storage. Even though storage is relatively cheap, the additional bracketing takes time – and may cause you to loose the ‘keeper’ shot as a result. Like I said, as a default – not me.

  • nick

    i love the bracketing and use it a lot, mostly on old rusty/crusty or if I need to bring a drama in the sky.

  • PDL

    I never suggested that you use bracketing all the time or as a default. On my camera it is a selection in the first menu. Also this would not be a big deal to switch over too due to the usual practice of using a tripod. I also have my camera set up to ignore some settings, such as bracketing and multiple exposer between power off. Once I have finished taking the bracketed shot, I simply power the camera off and power it back up – boom – it has “forgotten” that I was shooting using bracketing. Not every image requires bracketing so please explain why it would be a default?

  • PDL

    I think you are doing the readers here a minor disservice in not mentioning the built in function first.
    You run the risk of moving the camera/tripod by having to touch the camera, between the bracketing shots using your method. Give the common users of this site – i.e. people trying to learn how to use these techniques – all of the information not just your preferred method as “the” starting point.

  • Mark Sachs

    I think we’re saying the same thing and I misread you’re comment about using it first. I would not bracket in default unless I was shooting in a high contrast setting.

  • I appreciate your thoughts on this PDL, but in my opinion it’s easier to start with the exposure compensation button rather than try to teach people how to use the bracketing function on their cameras. (Which is different depending on whether you shoot Canon/Nikon/Sony etc.) Also most cameras have exposure compensation built in but not all have bracketing built in.

  • I’m sure as a teacher you know a lot of sense. Including the fact that Ansel used film which has generally a broader range than digital. He also used large format sheet film right? So unlike today’s technology (of almost unlimited space and white balance settings electronically adjusted) Ansel was limited. The post is about using bracketing, to achieve the best photo with focus, white balance, and exposure, not about knowing how to meter. Tell me that mastering how to meter will get you the sharpest photo. THAT, sir, is nonsense.

  • Tim Lowe

    I too shoot 99% film. Medium format, 4×5 and 8×10. You should try some constraints. It improves your photography immensely. Not all film has a lot of exposure latitude. Try shooting a little Velvia. At $12/sheet you won’t bracket. I guarantee you will pay close attention to your spot meter.

  • Arch

    Stunning image!

  • Again, how does all THAT relate to bracketing in digital cameras? All I read is “me, me, me”.

  • Tim Lowe

    Have you been paying attention? Bracketing is for morons.

  • Lol. Classy.

  • benkoerita

    Ansel Adams is one of a kind. There are other people who sometimes wants to nail perfectly that special pic.
    Also I may want sometimes to achieve a greater dynamic range. Because I did not buy the big and expensive camera (yes, I am cheap and lazy). Bracketing has an other use: to make a composit where the depth of field is greater than what one is able to produce in-camera.
    Naturally, no enthusiastic photographer would rely constantly on stacking. It is too time-consuming. Playing around with stacking, on the other hand, helps us to understand better the capabilities of the camera and the software – the tools we use.

  • benkoerita

    I do shoot films besides digital too. I was raised by a photographer, I had my first camera at the age of ten, I had my first fully manual camera at the age of fourteen. That is why I think you compare apples with oranges.True, both media is for creating pics with the use of light, the aesthetics are similar, the way the lens project the rays is exactly the same. Still, the film is as far from digital sensors than acrylic paint from chalk.

  • Leyden

    Hi
    The farm scene is not to MY taste, but the Train is AWESOME! How ‘wide’ and how many shots to do that?

  • Maria R

    Interesting tips. Need to practice each one. My problem is taking pics with the sun behind the subject or backlit. When i use exposure bracketing or exp. comp the subject is ok but I lose detail in the sky/clouds (falls flat). Or the sky/clouds are nice but the subject is dark and cant see the details. I’ll try your techniques and see what happens. Thanks

  • Yeah let it go, not worth it

  • He also used push and pull processing of his film to increase or decrease contrast.

  • Fair enough. I used to teach HDR classes and I taught them how to do it in manual mode only. Some cameras are limited in how many shots they can take (my 5D was 3 only) and some how far apart you can bracket (some Nikons can only go one stop apart). I teach to bracket 2 stops apart using shutter speed only. Touching the dial in between isn’t a big deal – photoshop or LR do a good job of aligning later if I nudged it a little.

  • OldPom

    Personally I find that shooting n RAW and fine tuning in PSE does the trick to my satisfaction. The big files don’t worry me as I download and then delete from my card after every session.

  • dabhand

    The difficulty is actually ‘knowing’ your exposure – it is important that users understand that exposure meters are dumb, as they assume that all scenes have the same AVERAGE tonal value‚ middle gray‚ roughly Zone 5 in AA’s zonal system, so if a scene does not have an AVERAGE middle grey content eg: a snow scene, it will be exposed incorrectly and if you follow the meter’s reading,every scene will have the same average middle gray density.

    Whilst today’s technology has its roots in film and/or older analogue technologies, not using modern equipment and supporting tools to their maximum potential is a total waste of one’s investment – nostalgia ain’t what it used to be and neither is photography.

  • Tim Lowe

    Nonsense. You camera most likely has a spot meter mode. Even my pocket Fuji does.

  • dabhand

    So you set the exposure for an entire frame based on a spot meter – interesting.

  • Tim Lowe

    Are you at all familiar with the Zone System?

  • cjwagner

    I buy it by the box, not the slices, a bit cheaper that way. And what does shooting some fake cheese have to do with this subject….. oh my bad….Read it wrong. ;-0

  • dabhand

    Oh yes thank you, no explanation asked for or needed.

  • Adedotun Ajibade

    I find bracketing very useful to my photography now I have thoroughly read this piece. Thank you for educating me :- )

  • Adedotun Ajibade

    Agreed!

  • I’m glad to hear it, Adedotun!

  • Good point! Cameras today have such good dynamic range that sometimes shooting in RAW and tweaking afterwards is all you need to do 🙂

  • pete guaron

    I imagine exposure bracketing also extends to action shots, Simon – it’s handy with photos of kids or animals, and often it’s essential with bird photography. And I use stackshots a lot, in macro photos – I guess that’s a variation on focus bracketing. (I was recently asked to produce about 100 shots for a jewellery catalogue, and this was an essential part of the process, because of the necessity for tack sharp focus, falling off before an out of focus background). Used sensitively, HDR can add detail in shadows & highlights, but if it’s overdone, the shot may look a bit garish.

  • Gail

    What a Wicked Awesome Shot!!!

  • Thormod Nordahl

    I think bracketing should be a commonly used tool in most peoples work flow. It certainly is in mine, with the addition of “Arthritis bracketing”.

    I’m 70, have mild arthritis and should always use a triopod. Like that’s possible!

    I have re-programmed a button on the back of my Oly to set ” Image Stab and low speed, rapid fire”.
    Most of the time 1 of three shots will synchronize IS, my camera shake and the object:).

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