If you’ve spent much time photographing landscapes, you’ve likely experienced the frustration and struggle to photograph the scene correctly. Say, you’ve found the proper settings to capture all the detail of that sunset sky or the bright white snow-capped mountain peaks, only to find that the details in the darker areas of the scene are way too dark. You quickly adjust your camera settings to get the foreground and mid-ground exposures brightened up, but in doing so, you now have a sky that is completely blown out. Frustration ensues, and you may even put your camera down and snap the shot with your smartphone. Sound familiar?

Learning how to bracket in landscape photography to capture the dynamic range of light in a landscape scene can take time and effort. In this article, we’ll define exposure bracketing and discuss when to use it when facing dynamic lighting challenges in the field. We’ll discuss using your camera’s Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) feature and how to merge your brackets in Lightroom. Ultimately, we’ll have solved a common landscape photography challenge and have you create better images with happier outcomes.

What is Exposure Bracketing?

Exposure Bracketing is a powerful technique that allows photographers to capture and display a wide range of tones and details in their images. This method is especially beneficial in scenes with extreme contrast, where the camera’s sensor struggles to capture shadow and highlight details effectively.

At its simplest, Exposure Bracketing is when you combine multiple exposures of the same scene into a single image to create a dramatically improved image. Your first version or bracket is a properly exposed image, your second is an under-exposed image, and your third is an overexposed image. Once you have your three brackets or versions of your image, you blend them together in post-processing to create that perfectly exposed landscape image.

Exposure Bracketing allows you to blend multiple versions of the same scene into a single image with the entire range of light captured perfectly which can open up more opportunities to be creative with your photography.

When Should You Use Exposure Bracketing?

Although higher-end DSLR and mirrorless camera models have gotten much better at capturing the large tonal ranges present in landscape photography, it is still commonplace for landscape photographers to encounter lighting conditions that surpass the capabilities of their cameras. Exposure Bracketing is a technique designed to capture the dynamic range of light in landscape scenes with extreme lighting challenges, e.g., bright skies & white mountain peaks combined with dark shadows.

There are two main reasons to use Exposure Bracketing:

    • First, you decide to shoot multiple versions with minor tweaks to the camera settings between each image to ensure you come home with the perfect shot.
    • Second, blended images allow you to be more creative in post-processing back at your computer, e.g., creating an impossible depth of field or a dynamic range (i.e., amount of light from bright to dark) that’s impossible to capture within one digital image file.

Imagine yourself for a moment trying to capture a breathtaking sunset at Horseshoe Bend. While the sky is ablaze with the brilliant reds and oranges of the sunset, the river and the shadows below the canyon rim keep getting darker. It becomes increasingly impossible to take a single shot that can capture the detail in the shadows and the blazing sky because your camera can’t do it in a single image. This is an ideal situation to use Exposure Bracketing – exposing one image for the mid-tones, one for the color and brightness of the sky, and one for the inner canyon.

What is the Difference between Exposure Bracketing and HDR?

HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography is traditionally a post-processing technique, whereas Exposure Bracketing is an “in-camera” technique photographers use to generate the images for HDR photography.

Exposure Bracketing results in multiple shots of the same scene with different sequential exposures. HDR combines all the bracketed images into a single image using editing software.

How to Bracket in Landscape Photography

There are two ways to Bracket in landscape photography: automatically (using the AEB feature on your camera) and manually.

Using Your Camera’s AEB Feature

First, you’ll want to compose your image for proper or normal exposure. Use your Histogram to do this and a higher shutter speed for sharpness. I usually take a series of sample images until I’ve settled on one that I think is a good starting point for most of the scene or for the mid-tones.

The Automatic Exposure Bracket (AEB) feature in your camera allows you to choose the number of images you’d like in your brackets and how many stops of light you want between each bracket. Press the shutter release once your AEB has been configured, and the camera generates multiple scene exposures. For example, if you set your AEB to three brackets for a scene, your camera will take three separate images, one at a proper exposure, one underexposed, and one overexposed.

You can also generate more than three brackets (e.g., five, seven, or nine brackets) with one, two, or even three stops of light. I won’t discuss the instructions for setting up your camera’s AEB here because the steps vary significantly from manufacturer to manufacturer.

AEB Settings

Taking Bracketed Photos Manually

If you are more of a manual person or your camera does not have AEB, the process can still be done easily. After first taking your normal or proper exposure, adjust your shutter speed to create your overexposed and underexposed images.

Some additional points to consider for both automatic and manual Exposure Bracketing:

    • Use a tripod to ensure your images can be easily blended and aligned in post-processing.
    • Shoot your images in RAW format so your camera can capture the maximum detail and information in each exposure.
    • Only adjust your shutter speed – changing your aperture can affect the depth of field, and changing your ISO can affect digital noise.
    • Use your Histogram – the highlights should not be clipped in the darkest exposure, and the shadows should not be clipped in the brightest exposure.

Merging Your Bracketed Exposure Images in Lightroom

Once you’ve created your bracketed exposures, you can combine your images in post-processing software. Three of the most common software options are Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, and Aurora HDR.

I will focus the rest of my discussion on using Adobe Lightroom to merge your bracketed exposure images.

First, you’ll want to import all your bracketed exposures into Lightroom as separate images, where you can work with them as single images. As you see in the examples below, I have three images captured at different exposures: underexposed, normal exposure, and overexposed. I used an aperture of f13 and an ISO of 100 for all three images. My stop settings were -1/3  /  0  /  +1/3, translating into shutter speeds of 1/800, 1/600, and 1/400 for the three images. You can see in the Histogram for each image that the highlights were not clipped in the dark exposure, and the shadows were not clipped in the bright exposure.

Exposure Bracket - Underexposed Bracket

Under Exposed Bracket

Stop Setting: -1/3  (1/800 Shutter Speed)

Aperture: f13

ISO: 100

Exposure Bracket - Normal Exposed Bracket

Normal Exposure Bracket

Stop Setting: 0  (1/600 Shutter Speed)

Aperture: f13

ISO: 100

Exposure Bracket - Overexposed Bracket

Over Exposed Bracket

Stop Setting: +1/3  (1/400 Shutter Speed)

Aperture: f13

ISO: 100

Now that your images have been imported into Lightroom select the ones you want to merge and right-click your selection. You’ll see a list of options pop up, and click “Photo Merge” and then “HDR…” to start the process.

Adobe Lightroom - Photo Merge Export Options

You’ll then see the “HDR Merge Preview” Popup window with several options:

    • The “Auto Align” option ensures that all your images are aligned and have the same composition. I always check this box, even if I’ve used a tripod, to protect against even the smallest movements.
    • The “Auto Settings” option applies LR’s automatic edit to the final image based on what Lightroom thinks looks best. I usually check this box because I like seeing how Lightroom has responded to my blended image. I often reset the image once I’m ready to start doing my post-processing edits.
    • The “Deghost Amount” option is only needed if there is any movement in your images between brackets, e.g., foliage blowing in the wind, running water. Deghosting allows Lightroom to choose which exposures to pull information from to make your blended image sharp (similar to motion blur). You can select the Low, Medium, or High options, but most of the time, you’ll be OK with selecting None. In the image below, I selected Medium because of the running water in the foreground.
    • The “Show Deghost Overlay” option displays the areas of your merged images with movement between the brackets. You can see in the image below that there was minimal movement between the brackets.
    • The “Create Stack” option instructs Lightroom to stack your original images with the merged DNG file you created. I like this option and use it as a good housekeeping practice.

Click the “Merge” button, and Lightroom will create a blended HDR image. The HDR image will be generated as a DNG file, and the image is now ready for you to continue your post-processing activities.

Adobe Lightroom Merge Images to HDR Menu

In Summary

Exposure Bracketing is a powerful technique that allows photographers to capture and display a wide range of tones and details in their images. This method is especially beneficial in scenes with extreme contrast, where the camera’s sensor struggles to capture shadow and highlight details effectively.

    • Bracketing is a great way to ensure you come home with the shot you want or to give yourself some creative options in post-processing.
    • Bracketing allows you to combine multiple images to produce something that a single shot cannot achieve alone.
    • Bracketed images allow us to be more creative in post-processing back at your computer, e.g., creating effects not possible to capture within one digital image file.