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Exposure settings: Exposure bracketing

Exposure bracketing has been used since the early days of photography. All it means is that you take several pictures of the same subject, each with a different exposure. One of the exposures will give better results than the others.

Exposure bracketing is possible with any camera which allows you to set the shutter speed and aperture manually, or which provides some form of exposure compensation. You take a number of pictures, shooting one exposure at the settings recommended by the camera, then additional pictures at different exposures.

For example, if the camera recommends an exposure of 1/125sec at f/8, your exposures might be: 1/125sec at f/8, 1/60sec at f/8 and 1/250sec at f/8. Here, you have taken the basic exposure and bracketed it using shutter speeds slower and faster. You could equally well keep the shutter speed at 1/125sec and use apertures of f/8, f/5.6 and f/11.

All this is quite easy to do, but it takes time to alter the shutter speed or aperture setting between each exposure. That’s where autoexposure bracketing (AEB) comes in. The camera automatically alters the exposure for you between each shot, letting you take the three pictures in quick succession.

Shooting sequence

Early EOS models fired the three exposures in the following order: under, correct and over exposure (correct is used here to indicate the exposure the camera has chosen, though if it were always correct you would not need AEB).

More recent models make the exposures in the order: correct, under and over. It does not really matter which sequence is used – you end up with the same three exposures.

However, there will be times when you know that under exposure is not going to help. You may want to give the correct exposure plus two varying amounts of over exposure. This is possible by bringing the exposure compensation function into play. If, for example, you apply +1 stop of exposure compensation, the ‘correct’ exposure in the AEB sequence will over expose the frame by one stop. If you have set the bracketing range to 1 stop, this means that the under exposed frame will not receive any compensation (+1 and –1 equals 0) – it will be at the exposure the camera would have chosen. The third frame will receive two stops over exposure relative to the camera’s preferred exposure.

In this way, you can move the sequence of bracketing exposures up and down the scale to give one, two or three frames that are over or under exposed relative to the metered exposure.

The table gives sequences for different amounts of exposure compensation and bracketing (all values are in stops). Keep in mind that exposure compensation can be altered in 0.5 steps. We have not shown all the variations here – on some cameras both the exposure compensation and bracketing amounts extend to five stops.

Exposure compensation Bracketing amount AEB sequence
+3 ±3 0 +3 +6
±2.5 +0.5 +3 +5.5
±2 +1 +3 +5
±1.5 +1.5 +3 +4.5
±1 +2 +3 +4
±0.5 +2.5 +3 +3.5
Exposure compensation Bracketing amount AEB sequence
+2 ±3 –1 +2 +5
±2.5 –0.5 +2 +4.5
±2 0 +2 +4
±1.5 +0.5 +2 +3.5
±1 +1 +2 +3
±0.5 +1.5 +2 +2.5
+1 ±3 –2 +1 +4
±2.5 –1.5 +1 +3.5
±2 –1 +1 +3
±1.5 –0.5 +1 +2.5
±1 0 +1 +2
±0.5 +0.5 +1 +1.5
+0.5 ±3 –2.5 +0.5 +3.5
±2.5 –2 +0.5 +3
±2 –1.5 +0.5 +2.5
±1.5 –1 +0.5 +2
±1 –0.5 +0.5 +1.5
±0.5 0 +0.5 +1
+0 ±3 –3 0 +3
±2.5 –2.5 0 +2.5
±2 –2 0 +2
±1.5 –1.5 0 +1.5
±1 –1 0 +1
±0.5 –0.5 0 +0.5
–0.5 ±3 –3.5 –0.5 +2.5
±2.5 –3 –0.5 +2
±2 –2.5 –0.5 +1.5
±1.5 –2 –0.5 +1
±1 –1.5 –0.5 +0.5
±0.5 –1 –0.5 0
–1 ±3 –4 –1 +2
±2.5 –3.5 –1 +1.5
±2 –3 –1 +1
±1.5 –2.5 –1 +0.5
±1 –2 –1 0
±0.5 –1.5 –1 –0.5
–2 ±3 –5 –2 +1
±2.5 –4.5 –2 +0.5
±2 –4 –2 0
±1.5 –3.5 –2 –0.5
±1 –3 –2 –1
±0.5 –2.5 –2 –1.5
–3 ±3 –6 –3 0
±2.5 –5.5 –3 –0.5
±2 –5 –3 –1
±1.5 –4.5 –3 –1.5
±1 –4 –3 –2
±0.5 –3.5 –3 –2.5

Don’t feel constrained by the three exposures offered by AEB. There will be times when the subject lighting is so unusual that you want to bracket two or three frames either side of the camera’s exposure choice, just to be certain of obtaining a well-exposed image.

The best way to extend the bracketing is manually. Take an exposure reading, set this in manual (M) shooting mode, and then take a series of exposures altering the shutter speed between each frame. It is usually best to work with the shutter speed, as there are more of them than apertures. If you want identical framing for each picture, work with the camera on a tripod so that you do not move it between exposures.

Continuous shooting

There are two ways to expose the sequence – with three separated exposures or one continuous burst. Some cameras offer you the choice, others don’t.

If the camera is set to single frame shooting, one exposure is made each time you press the shutter button. You must remove your finger from the button and then press it again for the next exposure. You can leave a gap of several seconds, or even minutes, between the bracketed exposures. This might be useful if you are photographing a scene with people or vehicles passing in front. You can time each of the three exposures for moments when people or vehicles are out of the frame.

More useful for most occasions is continuous shooting. Here, if you hold the shutter release button down, all three shots, but no more, will be taken in quick succession. If you then lift your finger off the button and press it again, another set of three bracketed frames will be exposed.

What changes?

Exposure bracketing can be done by altering the shutter speed or the aperture. The camera makes the decision for you based on your selected shooting mode.

Mode Speed Aperture
Program (P) * *
Shutter-priority (Tv) *  
Aperture-priority (Av) *  
Depth-of-field AE *  
Manual (M) *  

If you switch to a Basic mode – full auto (green square), portrait, landscape, close-up, sport or night scene – or use flash, AEB is cancelled.

The EOS-1D series adds a new twist to AEB by adding the option of bracketing by altering the effective ISO speed. This has the advantage that the shutter speed and aperture remain unchanged for the three exposures, so blur or depth-of-field will not alter.

With a digital camera you have the advantage that taking three exposures does not incur any film or processing costs, but since you can check the image on the built-in LCD screen after exposure, there is less need for AEB.