Capture the Entire Dynamic Range By Shooting Manual HDR Brackets.

Article by Chris Smith

Today’s cameras are amazing for shooting HDR. The D800 takes 9 brackets and the 5D Mark III takes 7 brackets at once. But what if your camera doesn’t take that many brackets? Or what if 7 exposures are still not enough! Or maybe you just want more control. I am going to show you how I’ve been manually shooting my exposures to use in my HDR images for the past two years.

Currently, I use a 5D Mark II. It will take three bracketed exposures up to two stops apart each. If you want more than three you need to shoot them manually or use another work-around. I have been using Magic Lantern firmware for a few months and it will take up to 9 brackets. But I still prefer to shoot my brackets manually.

I start by putting the camera in manual exposure mode and turn on Live View. I choose my aperture based on the given situation. Then I dial my shutter speed until the image is exposed properly on the LCD of my camera so that I can focus. When shooting HDR, I will always focus by zooming in to 100% in Live View. The 5D Mark II has an exposure simulation mode where the screen simulates how the final image will appear. So if you are severely underexposed, the screen will appear black. I like to dial my shutter speed so that it turns almost completely black. I will then turn my shutter speed dial up until the brightest parts of the image have detail in them. So if I’m shooting in a church, I will be sure that my exposure is dark enough that I have detail in the bright lights of the church.


This will be my baseline exposure. From here, I will turn the shutter speed dial to increase the exposure by one stop. I have my camera set so that every click is 1/3 of a stop. So if I want to increase by a full stop I turn the dial three clicks. After the first two or three times you do this, you will have it mastered. Click, click, click, shoot. Click, click, click, shoot.

I continue to take exposures by increasing one stop and shooting. I watch my Live View and the resulting images on the LCD. I figure out where the darkest part of the image is. My goal now is to keep increasing by a stop until I can see all of the detail in the darkest park of the image. In a church, I’m probably looking at the area under the pews. Many times when I think I have the brightest exposure that I need, I take one more just in case. Especially when I’m in a location that I may not return to.

When I get these exposures back on my computer, I may or may not use all of them. But at least I have them if I need them. There is nothing more frustrating than getting back to the computer and realizing that part of the stained glass is blown out even in your darkest exposure. Many times the brightest exposures are great for the shadows, but if they contain areas that are completely washed out where it was bright, you may not want to use that image in your HDR process.

A potential downside to this technique is that you need to physically touch the camera in between images. This could lead to a misalignment of images. In my experience, this hasn’t been a problem. You need to have a good tripod so that your camera doesn’t move when you change the shutter speed. But even then, most of the HDR programs out there do a pretty good job of aligning your images if you need it. Or look into a camera like the Canon 6D that you can control wirelessly with your phone or tablet.

One unexpected benefit to using this technique is that it forces you to slow down. If you know that you are going to take three or four minutes to take each set of exposures, you will always make sure that you have your composition exactly right and your camera level before starting to take your brackets. You are much less likely to “run and gun” to get as many images as you can.

So before you drop a lot of money on the latest top of the line camera to do HDR, consider using the camera that you already have and trying this technique. Once you start shooting your brackets this way, you may never want to go back. I haven’t.

I love to shoot the city of Chicago, teach photography, and help other photographers shoot HDR and the city at my site, You can also follow me at Google+, Flickr, and Facebook.