An image comparing two caves that are edited using bracketing in photography

What is bracketing in photography

By BBC Maestro

We’ve all been there – that moment when you take a brilliant photograph to later find out that it’s too bright and grainy, or so dark that you can only see the rough outline of your subject. Editing software can help, but nothing compares to nailing the right exposure as you’re shooting.

Fortunately, with digital photography, the bracketing technique can help. But what is bracketing in photography? Let’s find out.

What is the bracketing technique?

Bracketing in photography is a technique that photographers use to take multiple shots of the same subject using different exposure settings. You can use it to get the best chance at capturing your desired image, particularly when light settings are challenging.

Think about that moment when you’ve lined up your shot. Let’s say that a boat gently rocks in the water on a cloudy day. Suddenly a beam of sunlight breaks through the clouds and the sun washes all over it – showing off its colourful paintwork and casting intricate shadows. You reach for your camera, take a photo, and before you know it, another cloud blows over.

Frustratingly, your picture is too bright and grainy and the right attention isn’t on your subject. Bracketing is a great technique to adopt in photography when light conditions are changing like this.

Typically, in bracketing, photographers will capture one image at the recommended exposure, another underexposed (darker), and a third overexposed (brighter). These can be referenced as 0EV, -1EV and +1EV. EV stands for “exposure value”, so each number represents a unit of measurement for exposure.

In theory, using these three settings can ensure that you have more options to choose from when it comes to selecting the final image. But many photographers will choose the bracketing technique so they can blend or select the best-exposed areas of each photo to create a well-balanced final image in the editing process.

When to use bracketing in photography

Let’s look at a few situations where bracketing can significantly improve your final image.

High contrast scenes

If your scene contains both bright highlights and deep shadows, bracketing will help capture details in both areas, preventing overexposure or underexposure.

Imagine you are inside a cave on a beach and you’re taking a photograph of the shoreline. It will be challenging to capture both the textural features of the cave’s surface and the detail of the moving sea. Using the bracketing technique ensures the elements you want to capture are exposed correctly and will help you get that perfect final image.

Landscape photography 

Bracketing can be valuable when shooting landscapes with a wide dynamic range, such as sunsets or sunrise scenes. In moments where the sky is significantly brighter than the foreground, bracketing can be a big help.

Interior photography

If you’re taking indoor shots, bracketing can help expose any interior elements you want to capture, from whole rooms to pieces of furniture, as well as views from windows or glass doors.

a photo of a dark living room

Tips for using bracketing in photography

Before you try out the technique, here are a few pointers to make sure you get the best shot:

Use a tripod

When it comes to bracketing, it’s crucial to maintain consistent framing in your shot. Otherwise, if you choose to merge different elements together, proportions could be out of sync between each photo. Using a tripod will ensure some stability and alignment in your photos.

Use burst mode or remote shutter release

Most digital cameras out there today come with burst mode or a remote shutter release function. These can help you capture bracketed shots quickly and without a camera-shake. It’s especially important when shooting handheld or in low-light conditions.

A camera rests on a tripod in front of a sunset

Determine the number of shots 

The number of bracketed shots depends on the scene’s dynamic range and your artistic vision, but you can start with a standard bracketing sequence of three shots (-1EV, 0EV, +1EV) and adjust as needed.

Utilise Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) mode

Different to burst mode, AEB mode automatically takes a series of photos using different exposure settings. It’ll adjust the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture for each shot in the sequence. Not every camera has this function, but if you’re using a modern camera, it’s worth checking your camera’s manual as it can make the bracketing process a little more seamless.

Evaluate histograms

Use the camera’s histogram display to assess the exposure of each bracketed shot. This helps identify potential areas of over or underexposure, enabling adjustments on subsequent shots.

Post-processing techniques

Bracketed shots are typically merged using software capable of creating high dynamic range (HDR) images. Experiment with different software tools to find the one that best suits your needs and desired style.

As with any new skill, the best way to learn is to get out there and start practising. With photography, the more pictures you take, the better photographer you’ll come.

If you’re excited to learn more about photography, keep an eye on our upcoming course An Introduction to Photography with Rankin. He covers everything from cameras, lenses, and lighting, through to getting the most out of your subject and getting your work seen.

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