Taking The Shot

Bracketing Images Like A Pro: Preparing Properly For Multi-Image Shoots

Kevin 2 Comments
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Bracketing HDR images like a pro is easier to accomplish than you may think. HDR or High Dynamic Range digital photography has certainly “caught fire” with photographers.  We hope to demonstrate in this post that HDR is not just for the the “Photog’ nerds but can also be achieved with great results by the average consumer and ‘prosumer’.  So you too can bracket your images just as the professionals do.

Regardless of your intended use; commercial, art, cityscape, landscapes etc., both professionals and artisans can use HDR to improve their everyday photos with amazing results.

Preparing the Shot

1. Your Gear
Using a tripod is the first step to bracketing your images and reducing blur. HDR images work best on static subjects, as movement can result in ‘ghosting’ or blurred motion.

A remote control for the shutter will go a long way towards reducing camera movement as well .

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to HDR photography.

2. Metering

There are many methods to determining the dynamic range  of your scene. What is  appropriate in one scenario may be completely inappropriate in another scenario.  So what I hope to establish here is a general guide and understanding of dynamic range rather than a one size fits all guide to capturing the entire range of the scene.

I like to start with the darkest place in the scene.  So if I were photographing a room with a large window I might look for a shadow underneath or behind a chair or couch, or sometimes it’s an unlit corner of a room.  I will place the camera in spot metering mode, set my F-stop walk over to the area and point the camera at the dark spot and use the cameras light meter to determine the correct exposure for the area.  I will then repeat this process for brightest area in the room (in this scenario it would very likely be the window or outside).

How to Capture the Entire Range

At this point you have now identified the upper and lower limits of the dynamic range.  To capture the whole range you should plan to bracket two steps apart all the way from the darkest exposure to the brightest exposure (which you previously determined). By the way, when I refer to “steps” I am referring to “EVs”, so two steps would be two full EVs apart.  Now I know many of you are going to say at this point, “but my camera only brackets three shots” and this is almost never enough to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene. Lets look at a few solutions…

Promote

So you have a few options, the most expensive being the “Promote“.  This is a device that attaches to most cameras and will allow you to program your bracketed shots to include as many shots as necessary, as many steps apart as you would like.  Sounds like magic eh? Well magic comes at a hefty price and from what I have been told the device has a learning curve so prepare first before taking on a professional photo shoot.

Manual Bracketing

The next option is pretty obvious, and that is to use the AEB feature to bracket the first set, manually adjust the exposure up or down into the range for the next shot and use the AEB again.  Rinse and repeat until you have captured the whole range. This of course requires some quick mental math (or a notepad with lots of scribbling).  For those that struggle with math I would strongly suggest reprogramming the bracketing on your camera to shoot from low to high or high to low. This should make the math a little easier.  It can get a little confusing when the camera is shooting 0 (normal exposure), -2 (2 under) and then +2 (two over).  It also makes it easier at the end of the shot to thumb through the previews (using the exposure data preview of course) and check that your shots were all spaced two EVs apart, as the AEB sequence was taken in order.

Cooler Camera

OK so maybe cooler isn’t a word. The point is there are some cool cameras out there that bracket far beyond 3 images.  One example is the Nikon D300S or it’s predecessor the D300.  The D300 will automatically bracket up to 9 images with one press of the button.  The downside to this camera is that the maximum EV between shots is 1 EV, if Nikon made it up to 2 EVs apart it would cover an incredible range.

Here is a cool web page that compares the bracketing capability of most cameras:
http://www.hdr-photography.com/aeb.html

Multiple Images, Multiple Exposures

Bracketing your images is the first step. Simply put, this is the process of taking three or more images with different exposure values but with all having the same aperture and ISO settings.

The aperture and ISO setting remain the same because these images will blend together seamlessly, into one beautiful photograph.

If these settings are different, the depth-of-field would change for each image making it very difficult to blend the images together correctly.

If You Have Auto-Bracketing or AEB

Auto-bracketing is available on most camera models. Check your manual for information on how to access this option on your camera. If you desire you may use either JPEG or RAW as this process will work for either format.

Many cameras will have the ability to define ‘how far apart’ your bracketed images are. To clarify this is simply the distance in terms of exposure from shot to shot.  Ideally you want to be two steps apart or two full EVs apart between shots.  This will give you an exposure range of +2, 0, -2.  One step apart would yield an exposure range of +1, 0, -1.  Of course it’s open for debate as to how far apart your bracketed images should be.  I will just say that the maker of my favorite HDR software (Photomatix) recommends in their FAQs, 1.5 – 2 steps apart, so that’s good enough for me.

Now press your shutter button once and the camera should snap at least three consecutive images automatically.

Once complete, review the results; you should have one image with a normal exposure, one which captures the shadows and one the captures the highlights.

After Successfully Bracketing Your Images

The next step is to download the images and then use post-processing software to blend these images together.

Here is a short list of the top used/purchased HDR software currently available.  We will critique and review each of these ad nauseum in another post:

  • Photomatix Pro
  • Photoshop CSx
  • HDR Efex – recently purchased by Google 🙁
  • Unified Color, which makes a host of different HDR products

Generally speaking, each program will merge your bracketed set of images in either HDR or LDR (Low Dynamic Range), allow you to make various adjustments to your image and finally output one final image that displays the whole dynamic range correctly. Depending on your computers processor speed, Memory etc. and how many images you are blending, this process can take a few moments to more than 30 minutes.

Here is a visual example:

bracketing example

Manually Bracketing Your Images

Auto-bracketing may not give you the results you desire. You can do this manually, with varying shutter speeds, so feel free to experiment. Set your camera to manual mode and adjust your aperture/shutter speeds. Then snap your image. The next image should have shutter speeds that are set two stops slower or faster. This will give you the same effects as auto-bracketing feature.

It is important to look at the histogram and ensure you have no blown highlights or shadows in at least one of the images. Continue increasing or decreasing the shutter speed until the problem areas disappear.

Remember, you are trying to capture one underexposed image, one overexposed image and one image with a more “standard” exposure.

Bracketing HDR images like a pro may seem daunting; however, with just a little practice and a little research you, too, will get awesome results.

Further effects can be achieved using the processing software of your choice. If you prepare properly for your shot and ensure you have a motion free, unmoved camera for your shots you will be able adjust to get desired results.

A small jot pad to note down for referencing later the settings used in your experiments will help ensure that you can not only achieve the ideal look for your images but be able to repeat the process next time!

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2 COMMENTS
  1. Marvin Miller

    Thank you for your bracketing tips. I’ve been studying and practicing Bracketing with my Nikon D90 for some time now, and the results are pretty good. I have one problem that I don;t know what to do about. I use Paint Shop Pro X6 Ultimate in RAW. When I shoot sunsets, they come out with too much blue in them, and I’ve tried every adjustment. The beach mostly has too much blue, but the rest of the scene over water is too much blue. What adjustment will help? Even if you work with Photo Shop, what do you use to reduce the blue. I tried the ssetting with blue green and red in it and it didn’t help much.

    • Kevin

      Not familiar with paint shop pro, unfortunately. Check to make sure the cameras color space is set to Adobe RGB and not SRGB.

      Also check that white balance is set correctly (neutral).

      If that does not help try resetting your camera to its factory default settings. On the d90 this consists of holding down two buttons (they both have a tiny green dot) until the camera is reset.

      If you haven’t already, I would recommend shooting a second sunset shot at the same time using a gray card. You can then try color correcting the shot automatically with the gray card shot in post processing.

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