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What Is Bracketing and When Should I Use It?

Back in the film days, you never knew whether you landed a shot until the film was developed. There wasn’t any way to know for sure whether the settings you entered were the right ones, so if you didn’t take multiple shots with different settings, you risked losing out if something was off. And so the concept of “bracketing” was born: taking several shots of the same subject using different camera settings. Back then, there were a number of different settings that needed to be bracketed: exposure, white balance, flash power, depth of field, focus, and even ISO. These days there are only two that make much of a difference with digital photography—exposure bracketing and focus bracketing.

Exposure Bracketing

In the digital age we still come upon times when we’re not sure whether our image will turn up properly exposed. And while it’s true that if we shoot in RAW we can usually recover from an exposure blunder, it’s much less time consuming to get it right in-camera. That’s when exposure bracketing comes in handy. You not only take a photo with the exposure you think you want, you also take one just a little darker and one a little brighter. That way, if your original exposure setting was off, you’ll have a fall back in either direction.

Most modern DSLRs come with Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB) and will automatically take three or more different exposures for you. (You’ll need to have your camera set to continuous shooting.) If you want more control over the exact exposure amounts, you can do it manually with the exposure compensation (+/- ) button. 

Photo credit Teryani Riggs

HDR

Stacking the deck in case of a mistake isn’t the only reason for using exposure bracketing. In fact, one of the most compelling reasons for using it is the ability to shoot in High Dynamic Range (HDR). HDR allows the camera sensor to pick up a much fuller range of detail by combining three or more different exposures into one image. The method of bracketing is the same (just make sure you use full stops—AEB is best), and the results can be fantastic. Just make sure  to use a tripod so the frames will line up when you’re ready for post-processing.

You’ll need editing software that is designed to work with HDR, like Aurora HDR. The software will combine the images and allow you to refine them to the exact look you were going for. You can make it realistic, reflecting exactly what you saw. Or fantastically intense. There are many, many different options for how an HDR photo can look, and once you’ve tried it, you’ll probably have a hard time going back to normal single-exposure photography.

Photo credit Teryani Riggs

Focus Bracketing

Another type of bracketing that’s still relevant today is focus bracketing. Used primarily in shallow depth-of-field circumstances (like macro photography), taking multiple shots while minutely changing the focus will make it much more likely that at least one has the focus you want. You’ll need to use manual focus and start by focusing not on the subject but slightly behind it. Then slowly turn the focus ring to make the rear of the subject in focus, the middle of the subject in focus, and so on. 

If you’re shooting with a wide open aperture and want the entire subject in focus, you can do something a little similar to HDR—take shots with each different part of the subject in focus and then combine them into a whole. (Remember, with a very shallow depth of field it’s very hard to get every bit in focus.) This is called “focus stacking” and needs an editing program that includes Unsharp Masking, which removes any portions of the images that are out of focus. But as you can see in the image to the far right below, it can yield fantastic results: everything in focus without having to narrow your aperture.

Caption: The image on the far right is a combination of 6 incrementally focused shots.

So that’s the skinny on bracketing. You can use it to make sure you always get the right shot, or, even better, use it to create a composite whole that looks so much more like you’d see your subject in real life.

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