WHAT IS… Exposure Bracketing?

Exposure bracketing is a simple technique advanced photographers use to ensure they properly expose their pictures, especially in challenging lighting situations.

When you expose for a scene, your camera’s light meter will select an aperture / shutter speed combination that it determines will give a properly exposed picture.

Exposure bracketing means that you take two more pictures: one slightly under-exposed (usually by dialing in a negative exposure compensation, say -1/3EV), and the second one slightly over-exposed (usually by dialing in a positive exposure compensation, say +1/3EV), again according to your camera’s light meter.

The reason you do this is because the camera might have been ‘deceived’ by the light available (too much or too little) and your main subject may be over- or under-exposed. By taking these three shots, you are making sure that if this were ever the case, then you would have properly compensated for it in one of the three pictures.

Exposure Compensation button on a DSLR is usually on top behind the Shutter Release button

Exposure Compensation button on a DSLR is usually on top behind the Shutter Release button

As an example, say you are taking a scene where there is an abundance of light around your main subject, say at the beach on a sunny day, or surrounded by snow. In this case, your camera might be ‘deceived’ by the abundance of light and expose for it by closing down the aperture and/or using a faster shuter speed (assuming ISO is constant), with the result that the main subject might be under-exposed. By taking an extra shot at a slight over-exposure, you would in fact be over-exposing the surroundings, but properly exposing the main subject.

Exposure Compensation button on a compact digicam is usually the UP arrow on the back of the camera

Exposure Compensation button on a compact digicam is usually the UP arrow on the back of the camera

Another example would be the case where the surrounding might be too dark, and the camera exposes for the lack of light by either opening up the aperture and/or using a slower shutter speed (assuming ISO is constant) with the result that the main subject is over-exposed. By taking an extra shot at a slight under-exposure, you would in fact be under-exposing the surroundings, but properly exposing the main subject.

You use the Exposure Compensation feature (usually available by pressing a button) to do exposure bracketing. Of course, with experience, you will be able to decide you need to only apply a positive exposure compensation or only a negative exposure compensation.

Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB)

Most digital cameras have auto exposure bracketing (AEB). With AEB on, the camera will automatically take three shots for you: one at its determined exposure settings; a second one sightly under-exposed; and the third one slightly over-exposed. The amount of under- and over-exposure usually defaults to -1/3EV and +1/3EV, but can sometimes be specified in SETUP, e.g. you may want to use -1EV and +1EV instead.

Auto Exposure Compensation (AEB)

Auto Exposure Compensation (AEB)

When should you use exposure bracketing? Anytime you feel the scene is a challenging one (too much highlights or shadows) as far as lighting is concerned — e.g. sunsets are usually better taken slightly under-exposed so use exposure bracketing there — or whenever you want to be sure you don’t improperly expose a fabulous shot that you may not get the chance to go back and take again.

Remember, you are not using film anymore, so there are really no wasted shots (unless you are severely constrained by the size of your storage media).

Digital Dodging & Burning

Should you delete the extra shots right away? No, if storage permits, keep all three shots until you get home and upload them to your PC and into an image editing software, such as Photoshop. By using the layers feature of Photoshop (or similar feature of another image editing software), you can load all three shots into different layers and then carefully erase the under-exposed or over-exposed part of one or more layers to end up with a final shot where both the main subject and the surroundings are properly exposed!

Of course, there is now software that will automatically blend your shots together to obtain a picture with High Dynamic Range (HDR). You can use Photoshop, Photomatix and other image editing apps.

In a studio setting, again with camera on tripod, you can move a portable studio light around to “paint” different parts of a subject (e.g. a car) with light (to remove shadows) and then work your magic in your image editing software to produce an image that is “impossibly” perfectly exposed all around.

Used judiciously, exposure bracketing is a simple technique that can ensure proper exposure of a difficult lighting situation.

To read more about this technique (also called ‘Blended Exposures’), visit Max Lyons Digital Image Gallery.

RAW File Format

Many digital cameras targeted to advanced amateur photographers provide a RAW file format. This option allows you to save your image data as nearly identical as it is captured by the image sensor — theoretically with no processing applied (though in practice, a minimal amount of necessary processing may be applied, depending on the algorithm used).

It is equivalent to a digital negative and allows the photographer to manipulate this RAW image data after the fact in an image editing software (with the appropriate RAW plug-in) to produce a picture that is correctly exposed and with faithful color reproduction.

If your camera provides that option, you may want to experiment with it a bit — you’ll see that it pretty much allows you to perform some exposure bracketing after the fact.

Some professional photographers only takes pictures in RAW while others don’t. It all depends on how much control over the final image they need. The downside of using RAW: saving images in the RAW file format takes much more memory space and takes longer to write to memory — plus you need to process every single image.

Return to Digital PhotographyTutorials.

Related links:

Max Lyons Digital Image Gallery
HDR Soft (Photomatix site)
Dynamic Photo HDR

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1 Comment

  • When using the information contained in conjunction with the camera user manual it makes a lot more sense than previously. Photoshop is a whole new ball game I will have to try the Sony CD supplied. Thank you again