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.

  • Paul

    Great article, thanks, I had been experimenting with HDR for a while using my Nikon D7000, when I ended up buying a D800 I nearly died when I saw the bracketing went to 9 exposures, and you have the option to set it to 0.3, 0.7 or 1 stop, There is no 2 stop option. I appreciate your advice on shadow and highlight collection for extreme lighting conditions doing it manually. I’ll have to try it because even with 9 stops even under extreme conditions those couple of extra shots might come in handy.

    Thank you

    • outofchicago

      Thanks Paul. I started doing this when I came back from a shoot and even though I had 5 exposures from bracketing, I still had blown out highlights in one small area. But it was an important part of the shot. So I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and plan to continue.

    • Dr. Nicolas Rao

      Thanks Chris,
      I own a D7000 and am one of those obstinate people who will not buy something new until exhausting the present camera’s capabilities.
      Your manual method is an obvious and intelligent method. I will use it definitely and practice for a while in my yard, before I go out into the great wide world of scenics.
      Thank you.
      PS. I live in the tropics, so its not so difficult to come across extreme contrast in day to day photography.

  • Don

    Super article. I often wished my t2i would do more than 3 exposures bracketed. I will definitely give this a try and practice with 5 exposures. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

    • outofchicago

      You’re welcome! Armed with a Rebel and this technique, you are ready to take on the world. Can’t wait to see your results, Don.

  • Garry George

    Chris, enjoyable article to read and, like you, I have ‘played around’ with manual bracketing..

    like other Canon users I also take full advantage of the available
    firmware tweaks, ie Magic Lantern for for my 50D and CHDK for my S95 and

    In most situations these days I find myself making full use
    of auto bracketing, which is built into the latest ML builds and works
    very well. In other words, I don’t ‘worry’ about scene dynamics, as ML
    takes as many brackets as required, at the Ev step that a specify.

    the case of my S95 and G11, I have written some CHDK scripts that carry
    out auto bracketing, based on two bracketing strategies. First I have a
    script that brackets automatically ‘up and down’ from my base 0Ev
    exposure; and stops when an image histogram’s exposure reaches either a
    dark or highlight thresahold (which is user definable).

    The other
    script I use is based on a form of ETTR-based shooting, where I ensure
    the base exposure (0Ev) captures the ‘darks’ that I want, leaving the
    camera script to keep reducing the exposure time, to capture the
    highlights, until none of the histogram is overexposed.

    I guess the bottom line is, that for Canon users, the world is our oyster when it comes to (auto) bracketing.



    • outofchicago

      Thanks for the thorough comment, Garry. I do use Magic Lantern, but not for HDR. And I’ve used CHDK for my A710IS. How do you know how many brackets are required before shooting? How many times do you sit there while a 2 minute shot is taken that was not needed?

      Those scripts look interesting indeed. But I find that I learn a lot about my image by looking at each exposure. So, I’ve tried a lot of these and I keep coming back to doing it manually. I just don’t think it can be beat.

      • Garry George


        I think the beauty of auto bracketing is that you can eliminate one ‘variable’ the potential mismatch between the sensor’s dynamic range and that of the scene. This frees you up to focus on more important things such as composition.

        I don’t know how ML does auto bracketing, but my CHDK script keeps adjusting the exposure and looking at the histogram, in 12bit space by the way, until there are no overexposed highlights.

        BTW as I’m using CHDK I can also take the exposure beyond that which Canon sets as a limit, eg I can capture highlights at exposures of 1/20000, compared to the S95 limit of 1/1600.

        I have experimented with these extreme brackets and captured some interesting features,eg light bulb filaments.

        As to speed, the scripts run really fast.

  • Igal

    Great article, Chris, thank you for the explanation!
    That means that you don’t have to shoot equal number of shots from the underexposed and overexposed side of the scale + one balanced shot ?

    Also, I take there’s no problem to take unlimited number of underexposed shots because of the fast shutter speed, but what happens when you have, say, 3 underexposed shots (for example -3, -2, -1) and after that you only have maximum speed for one or two overexposed shots (like +1 and +2, without +3) ?

    • Chris Smith

      Thanks, Igal. I don’t know if I’m really suppossed to be shooting equal numbers above and below. Honestly, when I shoot this way I don’t know what my middle exposure is. It’s actually liberating. Go from as dark as you need to as light as you need. I never think in terms of over/under anymore.

  • Sascha

    Hi Chris,

    thanks for this article.

    I still do have a question by the way:

    Ok let’s say I have time to do my bracketing and everything is static in my frame. What about taking the maximum shots possible? I mean if I don’t want to take the chance of having blown out or black areas, I could shoot all the pictures I need from complet dark to complet white with a difference of one stop?

    In theory the more pictures you shoot the more precise you are.

    So my question is : Is there a maximum limit? Will the blend become unprecise with too many shots? Does the HDR Software have maximum limits? should you always stay with the minimum shots corresponding to the light conditions?

    From my point of view, if you wanna be sure to miss nothing, why not just shooting the maximum possible. But I’m asking this because you wrote that once you’re in front of you computer, you don’t use all of them. Why?

    Thanks a lot :)

  • Martin

    You didn’t mention that auto-focus should be switched off, once you have zoomed into 100% in Live View, otherwise your chosen focus point may not be maintained for each subsequent exposure.