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What is bracketing? Get your best shots with this overlooked camera tool

The perfect shot can be elusive. Sometimes, that’s because there isn’t one shot, but several. Bracketing is a mode on most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras that allows photographers to take more than one shot in a sequence, with adjustments made to each successive shot automatically. The result is a group of images that are slightly different, either to increase the odds of getting the perfect exposure, or to capture multiple images to merge later either for high dynamic range or focus stacking.

Here’s how to use bracketing to increase your odds of getting the perfect shot.

Types of bracketing

An HDR photo created from bracketed shots Image used with permission by copyright holder

Unlike standard burst mode, which takes a set of rapid images under identical settings, images shot using bracketing are purposefully different from one another. Bracketing can work in conjunction with burst mode, although it’s not always necessary to use it this way.

Exposure bracketing is one of the most common bracketing modes. With exposure bracketing, The camera takes a set of photos, each with a different exposure. Exposure bracketing is used in high dynamic range (HDR) photography, when multiple photos taken at different exposures are merged together in a photo editing program to create one image with a more contrast and a wider range of light captured. Some cameras will let you choose which element of exposure — aperture, shutter speed, or ISO — is altered between shots.

Exposure bracketing isn’t the only type of bracketing available, however. Other types of bracketing modes include:

  • Focus bracketing: In this mode, the focus is adjusted slightly between shots. This option is useful for focus stacking, a technique that involves merging several images together taken with a slightly different focal length to increase the depth of field, or the amount of the image that’s in focus. This option can also be used when you are concerned with getting the focus just perfect, particularly when working with a narrow depth of field from a wide aperture.
  • Flash bracketing: This mode shoots a photo with the flash on different power settings, helpful for when you’re unsure what flash settings are best suited for the image.
  • White balance bracketing: This option shoots several photos with a different white balance setting for each. Since you can easily change the white balance of a RAW shot, this mode is most helpful when shooting under tricky lighting scenarios in the JPEG format.
  • Depth of field or aperture bracketing: Some cameras will also allow you to bracket for different aperture values, changing the shutter speed and ISO so that the exposure is identical in each shot. These images can be combined later, much like with focus stacking, or can simply be used for new photographers unsure of what aperture value to use.
  • Brand-specific bracketing options: Some brands will have a bracketing option that others don’t. Nikon cameras, for example, have an Active D-Lighting option to snap photos with and without the setting, and Fujifilm cameras offer Film Simulation bracketing for shooting the same photo with different looks.

Not every camera brand offers each type of bracketing mode, but most advanced cameras include at least the exposure bracketing option.

How do you use exposure bracketing?

Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

You’ll find bracketing either as a menu option or a dedicated button on some cameras. Look for the word bracketing, or the abbreviation BKT or AEB (auto exposure bracketing).

Once exposure bracketing is on, you need to set the parameters, or tell the camera how to adjust the exposure.

  • Number of shots: Choose how many photos the camera takes each time. The more photos you take, the more variety you’ll get. Three shots is often sufficient to bracket a scene with minimal contrast between the light and dark areas.
  • Exposure value or EV. This indicates how much the camera will adjust the exposure in between each shot. EV is measured in stops. One stop halves or doubles the light. So, if you choose +1 EV, each shot will double the amount of light. Fractions of a stop are more commonly used in exposure bracketing, however, like an adjustment of 1/3 EV between each shot. Just make sure the EV steps and the number of exposures add up to cover the full range that you need.

Other bracketing modes will have slightly different settings, though each one will ask how many shots to take. Focus bracketing, for example, will ask how much to adjust the focus in between each shot, while white balance bracketing has options to choose how much the color temperature varies between shots. Some modes will also have exposure smoothing — turn this option on to help keep the exposure more even between shots.

Once you have set the bracketing parameters, you are ready to shoot. For many types of bracketing modes, a tripod is helpful for keeping the camera in the same position, particularly if you plan to layer the images later for HDR or focus stacking.

With the composition set, take photos as you normally would — only be sure to press the shutter button for at least as many photos as you set in the bracket. Most cameras will have a counter or icon that shows how many shots you need to take to finish out the bracket. Some cameras will automatically take the set amount of shots with one press.

Getting creative with bracketing

While sometimes bracketing is simply used to increased the odds of getting a tricky shot right in camera, often, the rest of the work is done in software. 

HDR merges multiple photos taken at different exposures. The result is an image that has more detail in the light and dark areas of the photograph. Most image editing programs, including Photoshop and Lightroom, have tools for merging an HDR photograph. Here’s how.

Focus bracketing blends several photos taken with a different focal length together, creating a photo that has more of the image sharp. Focus bracketing is commonly used in macro photography, where the short distance between the subject creates a very shallow depth of field, making it difficult to get the entire subject in focus. Focus stacking is a task for the heaviest hitting photo editors, such as Photoshop. Here’s how.

Bracketing is an easy way to increase the odds of getting the perfect shot, or to capture multiple images to blend together later. While bracketing won’t replace the know-how and understanding basics like exposure settings and focusing the camera, it’s a helpful tool in many scenarios.

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