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HDR 101: Shooting Brackets

Human eyes are incredible for viewing the world and seeing into shadows and highlights all at the same time. The basis of HDR photography is making several exposures at varying brightnesses and combining them in a powerful software app like Photomatix so we can view a photograph the same way we view the real world–into the shadows and highlights at the same time. We call it “bracketing” or “shooting for HDR” or “shooting brackets.”  Every interchangeable-lens camera I’ve seen for sale in the last seven years offers automatic bracketing, but many cameras only offer the option to bracket with three exposures (this works on DSLR‘s and Mirrorless Cameras, and in this article I’m demonstrating with the Lumix GH4 (but the GH5 replaces it)) . Let me show you how to shoot as many brackets as you like, and some of the times when you’ll want to shoot brackets.

Which Kind of Bracketing Should You Use?

Your camera may offer a few different kinds of bracketing, like Exposure, White Balance, or Aperture. When we’re making HDR images, we’re most interested in Automatic Exposure Bracketing. You can activate this in your menu, but there’s possibly an option in your quick menu or even a dedicated button on the outside of your camera (it’s the “BKT” button on Nikons).

*Note: It’s called bracketing because the darker and lighter exposures surround the normal middle exposure, like [brackets].

*Note: Don’t use your camera’s HDR setting because this will combine the exposures inside the camera and the result will be a jpeg file. This limits your options and you won’t have as many options as when you use Photomatix.

Which Options Should You Use?

When you set up the brackets, you’ll choose how many pictures to make and how much difference in brightness between each frame. This picture shows that the camera will make 7 frames, and they’ll each be 1 stop brighter/darker. Some cameras offer more than a single stop between exposures. When you shoot, you simply set your camera so that the exposure meter is at zero, or in the middle. This will be the middle exposure, and the others brighter and darker will be measured against this one.

Levi_Sim_Lumix_GH4_HDR-9

One other setting you’ll want to check on is the sequence in which your pictures are recorded. The default for many cameras is to record the middle exposure first, then the darkest to the brightest. You should change this so that the darkest is recorded first and the brightest last with the middle exposure in the middle. That way, when you’re in Lightroom or another picture organizer, you’ll be able to clearly see the whole sequence from dark to bright and it’ll be simple to select the right pictures to send to Photomatix for compiling.

Levi_Sim_Lumix_GH4_HDR-11
Change your bracketing order so that the darkest frame (-) is first and the brightest (+) is last.
Screen Shot 2017-01-17 at 4.41.07 PM
When you shoot with the dark exposure first, it’s easy to see the whole bracket in your thumbnails in Lightroom.

How Do You Shoot More Brackets Than Your Camera Offers?

Many cameras only offer three frames in the bracketing settings. With one stop between each frame, this is often enough latitude to record the scene. But in extreme lighting situations (which are common), you’ll need more dynamic range (examples in the next section). To get it, all you really need to do is understand how the automatic bracketing works in your camera. All it does to change the exposure between frames is change the shutter speed faster or slower. Faster makes the picture darker, slower makes the picture brighter. Knowing this, you can bracket manually almost as fast as your camera can automatically. Get your camera in your hands as you read this so you can see try the settings I’m explaining.

When you want to bracket your exposure, you can do it a couple of good ways. Firstly, you can shoot in Aperture mode and choose the aperture you want to have the depth of field you need for your shot. To manually bracket, you just need to change the Exposure Compensation. Pay attention to your light meter in the viewfinder and set the shutter speed so that the meter is in the middle. Now, just press the Exposure Compensation button (looks like +/- ) and turn it to it’s lowest setting, which is probably -3 stops. Fire the shutter, then set it to -2 (three ticks of the wheel), then -1, then 0, then +1, then +2, then +3. Now you’ve got seven frames one stop apart.

This was made with seven frames, each one stop apart and compiled in Photomatix Pro.
This was made with seven frames, each one stop apart and compiled in Photomatix Pro.

Similarly, you can do this in Manual mode, too, and you can go way beyond seven frames easily. Choose your aperture, then choose the shutter speed that puts the light meter in the middle. Each time you turn your shutter speed wheel, you’re probably adjusting the exposure 1/3 of a stop. That means every three ticks of the wheel is one stop brighter or darker. With the light meter in the middle, tick the shutter speed faster three times, then three more, then three more. Now you’re three stops darker than the middle exposure, -3. Fire the shutter, tick it three times slower to make an exposure at -2, then three more times to -1, and so on.

Using Manual mode, you can shoot as large an exposure range as you like. Some cameras include as many as nine frames for HDR, but Manual mode makes it possible to shoot 21 if you like. In fact, I don’t know why camera companies limit this; I think they should let us shoot as many as we like with automatic settings.

Naturally, you’ll want to do this on a tripod, and you’ll need to practice at home so that you can do it quickly before the scene in front of you changes.

Why Do You Need More Than 3 Frames?

If the sun is shining from behind you, then three frames are probably enough to record the scene. But, there are many times when the scene in front of you has more than 3 stops of light visible.

Levi Sim HDR Brackets -1
With the sun shining from behind the camera, this scene doesn’t have a very large dynamic range, and three frames are enough to record it all.

Whenever you include the sun in the scene, it’s a good bet you’ll need more than three frames. With fewer frames, you’ll have a hard time getting any kind of detail or color near the sun itself. Also, when the sky has mixed sun and clouds you’ll get better results with more frames. Anytime there’s a strong backlight you’ll need more frames in your bracket.

When you make interior photographs during daylight hours, the chances are very good that you’ll need more dynamic range. The sky outside most houses is much brighter than the interior, so you’ll need a few frames at faster shutter speeds. In this case, you won’t need to shoot a lot of brighter frames, just the darker ones. So, in addition to the -3, 0, +3 frames, you might shoot  -6, -5, -4 to cover the brightness of the sky outside to include in your HDR. Just review your images and make sure you can see the details outside that you want to see in you finished photo.

Levi Sim HDR Brackets -1-2

Conclusion

Creating pictures that represent the real world as you see or imagine it is truly enjoyable, and shooting brackets for making HDR’s is a great way to see the way your own eyes do. Now you use your camera’s built-in bracketing settings or use exposure compensation or Manual mode to shoot your brackets and record all the necessary information to create the kind of HDR images you like. I’m excited to see what you turn out. Please share with us all on the Photofocus Facebook Group.

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