There’s no doubt that cameras have gotten dramatically better in recent years; thanks to on-board computers, the average modern point and shoot takes significantly better photos than pricier models from two decades ago. But despite all those advances, cameras remain surprisingly easy to fool. Unusual lighting conditions can trick your camera into under- or over-exposing photos. There are easy remedies for that, though. One method: Simply take several photos with varying exposures to ensure that one of the shots comes out right. That’s called exposure bracketing.
Photographers have been bracketing exposures for almost as long as there have been cameras. When faced with a tricky lighting situation—such as taking an outdoor portrait in bright sunlight and deep shadows—you can increase the odds of getting one great shot by taking several shots both over and under what the camera perceives is the ideal exposure. Sure, most of them will be throwaways, but digital film is free, right? Consider bracketing as an insurance policy, especially if the photo op is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events.
Bracketing is such a handy photo technique that many cameras (both point and shoots and DSLRs) include a feature so you can do it automatically. For most cameras, bracketing is a simple on or off affair. Turn it on–many cameras have a dedicated Bracketing button like the one shown here, but other cameras hide this feature in the menu. You might have to dive into your camera’s user manual to find the control.
When you take your photo, hold down the shutter release to take three sequential shots. Generally, the first shot captures the programmed exposure. The next shot will be underexposed by one stop, and finally, the last shot will be overexposed by one stop. You don’t have to hold the button down, either—just remember that as long as bracketing is engaged, each shot you fire will cycle among properly exposed, under- and over-exposed. Here is what the effect of just two stops of exposure can make (one is under-exposed by one stop, the other is over-exposed by the same amount):
Some cameras amp things up a bit by letting you get fancy with the bracketing settings. Suppose you want to take not 3 bracketed photos, but 5, under- and over-exposing by 2 stops. Or maybe you would rather take 3 shots, separated by 1.5 stops. Some cameras allow you to do this sort of thing by making changes in the LCD’s on-screen menu. You certainly never need to get that fancy, but really wide brackets can come in handy on occasion. If you like to take High Dynamic Range photos, for example, having 5 or more bracketed shots can help you get photos with a rich range of colors and exposures.
Beware of unintentional bracketing
A word of caution: If you forget that your camera is in bracketing mode, and briefly press the shutter release to capture a single shot, your camera is still primed to finish the bracketed series. The next time you press the shutter release, you’ll get an underexposed photo. And the time after that? Overexposed. The bracketing mode will stay on until you turn it off, which can lead to a bizarre and confusing series of badly exposed shots. It’s always a good idea, when you start seeing unexpected results from your camera, to double check all the settings to make sure it’s not in a weird mode that’s doing bad things to your photos.
If your camera doesn’t have an automatic bracketing setting, don’t worry—you can still bracket your photos. It’s not even hard to do; it’ll just take a little extra effort.
Just take the first photo at the programmed or recommended exposure the way you normally would. Then set your camera’s exposure compensation control (usually marked with an Ev or a +/- symbol) to -1. This forces the next shot to underexpose from the recommended setting by one stop. Next, spin the Ev dial to +1 and take a photo that’s overexposed by a stop. When you’re done, return the Ev control to its default setting of 0.
Using the Ev dial, you can quickly and easily bracket your shots by any range you desire, from as little as a third of a stop (though that’s not likely to have much of a noticeable effect on your photos) to a stop or more. Either way, bracketing will help ensure you get at least one great shot in every shooting situation.