What is Exposure Bracketing? :: Digital Photo Secrets

What is Exposure Bracketing?

by David Peterson 8 comments

If there’s one point I keep mentioning over and over again, it’s this. Automatic mode doesn’t always give you the best images. It can get very close to what you want, but because it can’t gauge the light perfectly, you sometimes end up with images that are either too bright or too dark. Your subject might have his or her face blacked out while the sunset in the background is a perfect orange. That’s why I’ve encouraged so many of you to learn manual photography. And guess what? Exposure bracketing is what I’ve been telling you to do all along.

Exposure bracketing is nothing other than taking one slightly brighter
and another slightly darker image every time you shoot.
Photo By Thejas Panarkandy

Making automatic photography a little more accurate

So what is exposure bracketing? We all know your camera isn’t the best when it comes to handling certain lighting situations. Snow is one of them. It’s so bright and white that it confuses your camera, making it “think” there’s too much light in the scene when there really isn’t. As a result, your camera intentionally underexposes the picture, and you end up with grey snow. Not very fun or festive, but that’s just my opinion.

To account for the mistakes your camera makes, you do what’s called exposure bracketing. Exposure bracketing is the process of taking one picture at one exposure value higher and another at one exposure value lower than the one your camera automatically picked.

Exposure value is simply a scale of brightness or darkness relative to the current camera settings you are using. On most cameras, if you were to increase your shutter speed from its current value, the next exposure value would be -1/3 E.V., an exposure just slightly darker than what you just had. Similarly, if you were to decrease your shutter speed, you would get a +1/3 E.V. for the next image because you are allowing more light into the camera. Anything you do that admits or denies light into the camera has an effect on the exposure value of the next picture taken.

Exposure bracketing typically refers to getting two extra pictures for every one picture your camera selects with its automatic settings. One of them will be at +1/3 E.V. and another will be taken at -1/3 E.V. There are a number of ways you can get those images. If you are shooting in automatic mode with exposure bracketing turned on, your camera will do all of the work for you. It will occur as a sequence of three shutter releases. That’s because your camera just took 2 extra pictures for the one it automatically selected.

What is exposure bracketing good for?

If you are shooting in automatic mode, exposure bracketing can improve the quality of your images by giving you more images to choose from. Every picture is now three pictures, and it’s up to you to select the one that is the most correctly exposed (looks the best). I like to turn on this setting when I hand my camera over to my friends. It makes the process a whole lot easier, and it gives me more images to select from when they’re done.

Automatic exposure bracketing is not ideal when you’re trying to capture certain emotions or feelings. Your camera will literally take three pictures in a row. One of them will probably have the correct brightness, but it won’t necessarily be the one that expresses the right feelings.

EV -2

EV -1

EV 0
Normal Exposure

EV +1

EV +2

Which one do you like the best? Exposure bracketing gives you the choice.

This leads me to my next point. While exposure bracketing can help with static situations like the flowers above, it doesn't work in all situations. For others (like when taking portraits), manual mode is still better. It’s much better to take control of those settings so you know what you’re getting every time. I do this whenever I’m shooting portraits. I fire off a few test shots to get the exposure correct. Once it’s good to go, I can be confident that I’ve always got the right settings for the shoot. That means I’ll capture all of the right emotions.

Can you bracket exposure in manual mode?

You most certainly can. Exposure bracketing in manual mode simply means taking two extra photos, at different brightness levels, for every one photo you shoot. The easiest way to do this is by adjusting the shutter speed. Move it up once, and you’ve got your -1/3 E.V. shot. Move it down once (from your original settings), and you have the +1/3 E.V. shot.

You can also adjust the aperture and ISO speeds to change the exposure value, but you’ve got to understand that it will have a more profound impact on your image. It changes things like the graininess of your photo as well as the amount of the photo remaining in focus. Shutter speed is the safest bet because it tends not to have such a dramatic effect. Even with these drawbacks, I sometimes have to adjust the aperture or ISO instead of the shutter speed. For example, when shooting action, to continue to freeze the action, I don't want to reduce my shutter below 1/400s to let more light in, so I increase the ISO instead. Similarly, in a low light situation that requires a certain base shutter speed (like 1/60s) for some stability, I decrease the ISO to let less light in rather than decreasing the shutter speed further.

Exposure bracketing is the same technique used to
produce beautiful HDR photography.
Photo By

hdr rail1 by Flickr user Brilhasti1

">Nathan Vaughn

It makes a lot of sense to take a few extra shots at different brightness levels because you never really know what you’ve got until you get back to your computer. If you assume you are always right, you’ll be sorely disappointed when you go through one image after the next that’s either too bright or too dark. Exposure bracketing, either in manual or automatic modes, will help you avoid this not-so-fun reality.

Before digital photography came about, exposure bracketing would have been considered incredibly wasteful. Now that you can take as many photos as you want, why not do it? You’ll be really happy when you come across that perfectly exposed picture you wouldn’t have gotten had you not experimented with different exposure values. I highly recommend it!

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  1. kayla says:

    So if you are shooting in manual mode, you need to have your camera on a tripod?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Kayla,

      No, you don't need to have your camera on a tripod for manual mode... unless you set a shutter speed slower than 1/30 second. However, if you are using exposure bracketing, I recommend you do use a tripod so your camera doesn't move between the three shots.

      I hope that helps.


  2. Andy Paton says:

    So, OK I have taken a couple of photos with slightly different exposures, now what? how do I bring them together to get the best of what I have taken. I do not have photo shop, just a standard computer.

  3. Paul Gagie says:

    Thank you, very helpful.

  4. Pieter says:

    Exposure Bracketing is what you do when you do not know what you are doing........

    • Nickski says:

      Even the best photographers don't get perfect results EVERY time.
      Also, this article is to help those of us who aren't professional photographers.

  5. Donna Elliott says:

    I mostly take photos of my paintings in the shade of a sunny day around noon - 11am- 1or 1:30pm. I admit I take most of them in auto mode and will switch to the flower motif (close-up) on my Nikon D40x or will try a shot at the P (portrait) setting. I think I get quite good results this way, but would be interested in your take. If I go to manual mode there is a lot to think about with each picture and I'm usually in a rush to get the paintings photographed, framed and ready for a show. If necessary I can usually fix any problems with photoshop elements or i-photo on my computer to get the color as close to the paintings as possible. Is this OK? And do I need to do a lot different if I am going to have to make transparencies for published works?

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.