Auto Exposure Bracketing – the Practical Guide

What is bracketing in photography? Why do I need it? How do I bracket photos?

These are the most common questions I answer on a daily basis when teaching photography, which is why I decided to put together a Bracketing Guide.

The Comprehensive Gude to Bracketing in Photography

You will learn:

  • What is Bracketing in Photography
  • Types of Bracketing
  • Reasons for Using Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB)
  • How to Bracket the Exposure

My First Steps With Bracketing

Recently, while working on a tutorial for beginning photographers, I tried to compile a list of the most important topics I wanted to introduce. But, it didn’t work out very well as I struggled to come up with a meaningful list.

Then, I decided to approach the task from a different angle. I asked myself:

What is the most valuable advice I received after buying my first DSLR?

I didn’t have to think for very long.

When I started learning photography, I didn’t have to start from scratch. As a graphic designer, I had an understanding of composition and could frame some decent shots in normal light conditions. However, when it became even slightly challenging, I had no idea how to deal with it.

One day, I came home from a trip to New York and was checking the photos I took of Manhattan at sunset when I realized that I didn’t like any of them but couldn’t pinpoint the problem.

I went to my friend who was an experienced photographer and asked him for advice.

When he looked through my photos of New York, he said, Dude, every single photo is underexposed by almost a stop.”

What should I do? I asked in desperation.

My friend knew I was still in an early phase of my photography education when I didn’t fully understand the theory behind exposure and exposure metering. Instead of giving me a long lecture on the exposure triangular, he gave me simple and practical advice.

“Bracket your shots when the lighting conditions become complex. Or, even better, bracket all of your shots.”

I didn’t fully understand the concept of bracketing but I knew that if I took three photos of the same subject—one at normal exposure, the second darker and the third brighter—I would have a better chance of getting a properly exposed shot.

Auto Exposure Bracketing - Example of exposure bracketing in photography
NY. Manhattan. My first attempt at bracketing

So, I started bracketing all my shots out of insecurity (and incompetence) before I ever understood the full benefit of bracketing.

Bracketing in Photography: Definition

What is bracketing? If we look at the definition of bracketing, it states:

In photography, bracketing is the general technique of taking several shots of the same subject using different camera settings.

As you can see, the definition is pretty broad and doesn’t say “using different exposures.” It only says “different camera settings.”

The reason for that is because you can bracket various camera settings not only the exposure. Below are different types of bracketing:

  • Exposure Bracketing
  • Flash Bracketing
  • Depth-of-Field Bracketing
  • Focus Bracketing
  • White Balance Bracketing

Flash Bracketing

A less common type of bracketing, Flash Bracketing is mostly used when using fill flash in combination with ambient light. For example, when shooting portraits in broad daylight, fill flash is used to brighten the faces and soften the shadows. With Flash Bracketing, the amount of light generated by the flash varies from shot to shot allowing you to select the version with the most pleasing result.

Focus Bracketing

Focus Bracketing is widely popular in macro photography where the depth of field is limited. By taking a series of shots with the different parts of the composition in focus, it allows you to use the Focus Stacking technique where you can digitally combine (Photoshop) multiple shots to keep only the in-focus areas in the final image.

I also use the Focus Bracketing technique in my landscapes when I need to achieve an extended depth of field. For example, when I want to have both a foreground element (example: a rock) that is very close to the camera as well as distant background elements (example: mountains) in focus. To do this, I take two shots focusing first on the rock and the second focusing to infinity; then, I digitally blend the two shots to keep only the in-focus areas.

Depth-of-Field Bracketing

Another fairly uncommon type of bracketing is Depth-of-Field Bracketing. By taking shots with the different depth-of-field range of the same subject, it allows photographers to blend multiple images during post-processing for better control of what objects or parts of the object are in focus. This technique is often used in macro photography.

White Balance Bracketing

White Balance functionality allows photographers to produce accurate colors in their photographs by compensating for the different types of light they shoot under. It removes the color cast produced by different light sources (example: sunlight, tungsten light, incandescent light) and ensures the white colors of the scene stay white in the photographs.

White Balance Bracketing makes it possible to take multiple shots with different White Balance settings of the same object and later select the photo with the most accurate colors.

With the introduction of RAW format in photography, White Balance Bracketing became pretty much obsolete because we can now specify Color Balance later while editing photographs in programs like Lightroom and Photoshop.

I do not normally use White Balance Bracketing and never bother using the custom White Balance setting. Since I always shoot RAW and can easily manipulate the White Balance in Lightroom later, I always keep it in AUTO mode.

Exposure Bracketing

Exposure Bracketing is by far the most popular and most useful type of bracketing in photography. When a photographer refers to bracketing in general, I can guarantee that he or she is talking about Exposure Bracketing.

Auto Exposure Bracketing - Example of exposure bracketing in photography

Types of Exposure Bracketing

There are two traditional ways of bracketing the exposure:

  • Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB)
  • Manual Bracketing

Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB)

The Auto Exposure Bracketing (or AEB) functionality of the camera allows us to take multiple shots based on a predefined setting with one single shutter click. For example, if you use the AEB settings to specify that you want to take three shots with 1EV (stops) intervals, every time you press the shutter, the camera will take a series of three shots—one at normal exposure, a second 1EV (stop) darker and a third 1EV (stop) brighter.

Different cameras have different Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) configurations. While entry-level DSLR or Mirrorless cameras allow you to take the maximum of three shots at one stop intervals, higher-end models have an even more extensive set of features that allow us to take up to eleven shots starting at 1/3 stop intervals and up to 5 stops.

Before buying an entry-level camera, check to see if it has the AEB functionality. For example, my old $299 Lumix LX5 had the AEB functionality but some more expensive models do not. It’s a very useful feature to have.

In my photography, I use two AEB configurations the most often: three bracketed shots at 1EV or three bracketed shots at 2EV intervals. In extreme cases when shooting for HDR, I might use a configuration of three shots at 3EV intervals.

In most cases, photographers use tripods when bracketing shots but, if lighting conditions allow us to use a faster shutter speed, it’s possible to use AEB hand-held.

There is no standard interface on cameras to control AEB configuration as different camera manufacturers implement it differently. For me, I love how logical and efficient the Canon AEB control is compared to the Sony Mirrorless, which is less than perfect.

Manual Bracketing

When using Manual Bracketing, instead of relying on the camera to take multiple shots, a photographer can the manual settings adjustments after each shot.

The Exposure Compensation functionality of the camera is used most often when using Manual Bracketing to offset the exposure value from one shot to another.

I always use a tripod while using the Manual Bracketing technique. First, I take a shot at normal exposure and then check the histogram to decide how many brackets and at what increments I need to take. Then, I use Exposure Compensation to offset the exposure value by -1 stop and press the shutter manually. I check the histogram again and, if necessary, I offset the Exposure Compensation by +1 and take another shot.

The advantage of using Manual Bracketing is that you take fewer photos. If you can nail the entire range on light (dynamic range) in two shots, then you don’t need to take a third shot. It not only saves space on your memory card, it also saves space in your Lightroom catalog and backup system.

Reasons for Auto Exposure Bracketing in Photography

Getting a Properly Exposed Shot

Exposure Bracketing was widely used in analog days when photographers didn’t have instant feedback in the form of the camera display and the histogram. Before they could evaluate if the exposure was set properly, the film had to first be developed. Since AEB didn’t exist, photographers would take multiple shots of the same scene with different exposure settings as insurance for getting the perfect shot.

Exposure bracketing in photography. Santa Barbara in the Fog

HDR Photography

Exposure Bracketing is the foundation for the HDR photography technique. When the dynamic range of the scene exceeds the dynamic range of the camera sensor, the only way to cover the entire range is to take multiple shots with different exposure values and merge them together using HDR software to create an HDR image.

When I started using Exposure Bracketing, I didn’t know about HDR photography at all. But, because I bracketed all of my shots over the last decade, I have the option to process my old photos using HDR technology.

Exposure bracketing in photography. California State Route 1

Exposure Blending

Exposure Blending is an advanced technique that became popular in recent years. Instead of relying on HDR programs to merge multiple shots together, photographers can blend them manually in Photoshop using Luminosity Masks. Even though this technique is more complex compared to HDR, it gives us much more control over the blending process.

Exposure bracketing in photography. Montreal

Learning Exposure

Using bracketing as a learning tool was very useful to me when I was learning exposure in photography. After each photo shoot, I loaded the photos to Photoshop or Lightroom and immediately started analyzing them, trying to figure out in what case the camera metering system was fooled by the lighting conditions. Then, the next time I knew how to deal with such conditions.

Exposure bracketing in photography. Atlantic Canada

Unconventional Use of Auto Exposure Bracketing

This is a technique that I use fairly often but I’m not sure if anyone else uses or knows about it. I combine multiple shots not to extend the dynamic range but to get a better quality final image so that I can be more aggressive with my editing and get cleaner images. I described this technique in detail in the article The Not-So-Obvious Reason for Using HDR.

Exposure bracketing in photography. Santa Barbara in the Fog. California

How to Bracket the Exposure

Below is the step-by-step process I suggest when learning bracketing techniques:

Step 1 – Check if your camera model has the AEB functionality. Google AEB + model of your camera. In my case, I would search for “AEB Sony a6000.” If your camera has the AEB functionality, locate it and move to the next step. If your camera doesn’t have AEB, the only option you have is to bracket your shots manually, offsetting the Exposure Compensation after each shot.

Step 2 – Using the information from Step 1, locate the AEB module on your camera and use the following settings: 3 shots at 1EV intervals.

Step 3 – Set your camera to Aperture Priority Mode. In Aperture Priority Mode, the photographer sets the aperture value manually and the camera automatically selects the appropriate Shutter Speed. Since the aperture controls the depth of field in photographs, it’s essential to keep the aperture value constant from shot to shot.

Step 4 – Set your camera to a tripod. Even though it’s possible to bracket shots hand-held, I highly recommend using a tripod.

Step 5 – Use your camera’s self-timer to set it to a 2-sec delay. The camera automatically takes multiple shots when using the AEB functionality, but the shutter button has to be pressed during the bracketing. This often causes accidental shakes that result in blurred photos. With a 2-sec delay, you press the shutter button, release it and move away. The camera pauses for two seconds and manually takes the bracketed shots.

Step 6 – This is the last step where you press the shutter button, release it and wait until the camera takes three bracketed shots.

Exposure bracketing in photography. Quebec

Bonus for Canon Shooters

If you’re a Canon shooter, you’re in luck! You have the option to dramatically boost your camera auto exposure bracketing functionality for free!

Magic Lantern is an open source firmware add-on (it does not replace the original firmware) that adds an endless number of features in addition to the original Canon settings. With Magic Lantern, you can bracket between two and nine shots in all possible increments.

I used Magic Lantern while shooting with my Canon for years and loved it! It would be great if something similar existed for Sony cameras since, ironically enough, Magic Lantern is what I missed most after making the switch from Canon to Sony.

  • Rick Hamill says:

    Hello, Viktor: I’m just back from Hawaii, working on a panorama of sunrise at Koko Head & Hanauma Bay (inspired by your photo and tutorial). I used the exposure bracketing technique (3 shots at 2EV intervals) for a 5-image panorama. I manually set the aperture and shutter speed to determine the initial settings. I’ve not tried using your suggestion of Aperture Priority. Could you expand a bit on how AP might result more accurate exposures? I’ve learned much from your tutorials and articles since I began photography as a hobby 1-1/2 years ago. Cheers, Rick.

    • Rick,

      you did everything right. The manual mode will get you the most accurate exposure. It is just more advanced technique and takes longer to setup the shot.

  • Juan Forero says:

    When I use auto bracketing in my nikon d7200, I only get one photo, anyone knows what I’m doing wrong? Thanks in advance.

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