Getting exposures right is one of the biggest challenges a photographer will face, and this is even more so in high-contrast scenes. One way to navigate this is by using a neutral density filter to balance the exposure – and in this tutorial we show you how to use an ND filter for best results.
But what if you don’t want to haul around a range of filters and holders? Another option is to use your camera’s exposure bracketing feature.
What is exposure bracketing?
Your in-camera exposure bracketing allows you to take a series of exposures, each one exposing correctly for the different areas of contrast within the scene. For instance, you might set one exposure to capture detail in the highlights of a bright sky, and then another exposure for the darker foreground.
Most cameras allow you to set three exposures: one for the highlights, one for the shadow areas and one ‘correct’ exposure for the midtones.
The difference is usually between one and three stops in one-third increments.
In real world terms, if you were bracketing exposures for a landscape you might set your correct exposure for 1/250sec at f/16, and your bracketed exposures might be 1/500sec and 1/125sec.
What you’re doing is essentially taking a photograph at the settings your camera’s light meter recommends, but also taking one over- and one under-exposed frame as well to capture the full range of detail in the scene. Later on you can blend these images together in Photoshop.
How to set up exposure bracketing on your camera
The process is, of course, a little different for each make and model of camera, but overall the process of setting up a bracketed exposure is largely the same.
01 Dial in your exposure settings
If you’re shooting a landscape, set your camera to its Aperture Priority mode and then choose an aperture of f/16. Next, set a low ISO of 100 or 200. Finally, switch your metering mode to centre-weighted.
Now you’ll want to take an exposure reading for the sky. Make a mental note of the shutter speed. Then take a reading for the foreground and shadow areas, again, noting the shutter speed.
02 Use a tripod
Because you’re shooting three frames that need to be exactly the same for your eventual exposure blend, it’s imperative that you use a tripod. Not only will a tripod banish camera shake, but it will ensure your composition remains the same throughout the sequence.
For best results, use a remote shutter release or your camera’s self timer.
03 Set your exposure bracketing mode
Navigate your camera’s menu system and turn on your exposure bracketing. It might be listed as AEB, or Auto Exposure Bracketing.
You’ll now be prompted to set your three exposures. Remember those notes on shutter speed you took earlier? Here’s where those come in handy.
Refer to those notes and set your over- and under-exposure. For instance, if your foreground reading was 1/250sec and your sky was 1/1000sec, you would set your bracketing to +/- 2.
04 Check your histogram
After you shoot your bracketed sequence, check your under-exposed frame for any blown highlights. Then examine your over-exposure for any clipped shadows.
If either image is too dark or too bright, simply shoot the sequence again, adjusting your bracket by a half stop. There’s a degree of trial and error in all this, but you’ll eventually find the right combination of exposures.
Other types of bracketing options
Exposure bracketing is likely just one of the bracketing options at your disposal. As you can see, on our Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II here you can set a white balance bracket, ISO bracket, focus bracket, even an Art Filter bracket in addition to the standard Auto Exposure Bracketing.
Most modern cameras will offer some combination of these. It’s worth navigating through your camera’s shooting menu to see just what bracketing options you have available.