When to Bracket Your Images for an HDR Photograph

February 4th 2013 5:54 PM

The following is an excerpt from HDR Tutorial by SLR Lounge. This workshop dubbed “the gold standard of HDR education” by FStoppers contains over 13 hours of tutorials, RAW files for you to follow along, and dozens of full prep to post examples. We cover bracketed HDR, in-camera HDR, single-shot faux HDR, single-shot bracketed HDR, panoramic HDR and more! Click here for more info.


Before we continue on with tutorials discussing how to capture and produce HDR photographs, it is important to understand when to shoot an HDR bracketed sequence. In this HDR tutorial, we will discuss what types of scenes should be bracketed for HDR photograph production and other types of scenes that do not need to be bracketed.

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Assess the Dynamic Range of Your Scene

As the term “HDR” denotes, this technique is meant for scenes that encompass a high dynamic range. These are scenes with a broader range between the maximum and minimum light intensities. However, in general, most scenes do not require a bracketed sequence because the dynamic range of the scene is narrow enough to capture within a single shot. With just that one single image you still have the option to process a single-shot HDR or process a standard image. Often times, there is no need to capture a bracketed sequence. To assess whether a particular scene needs to be bracketed, pay attention to the range of light and light intensities: variation in reflectivity, the direction of the sun within your image, and harsh shadows and highlights within your scene.

Let’s go through a few examples to explain this concept visually.

Single-Shot Images: Scenes with a Limited Dynamic Range

Here we have a shot of Bryce Canyon:


This is shot in the same direction of the sun around sunset. Because of this, virtually everything in our scene is roughly close to the same level of brightness. The highlights and the shadows don’t differ by many stops of light. Therefore, the entire dynamic range is encompassed in a single photograph. This scene has a limited dynamic range so creating a bracketed sequence wouldn’t make a difference in the image detail quality when processing the finished photograph.

The Histogram in Lightroom is also a great tool to use to show dynamic range in a photograph.

Let’s move on to another scene. Below we have the histogram from a particular image with a narrow dynamic range:


When looking at the histogram of this image, everything fits into well in to its relatively narrow dynamic range. Here is the image itself below:


As you can see, there is plenty of detail in the shadows and the highlights of this image. With a scene like this with a narrow dynamic range, the entire range can be picked up by capturing a single well-exposed image.

Bracketing Your Images: Scenes with a Broad Dynamic Range

Shooting against the sunlight is a good time to bracket. Take a look at the image below:


For this particular scene, you are absolutely going to need to shoot a bracketed sequence. Since this is captured facing the sun, all of the foreground is in the shadows and the sky is blown out. We need to bring out some detail in the shadows by bringing up the exposure. At the same time, we need to bring down the exposure in the sky so the final photograph will show plenty of detail in that area as well.

We did a bracketed sequence of this scene and combined the images. See the image below of the finished product:



Just remember that you don’t always need to shoot bracketed sequences for your photographs. There are plenty of scenes that have a limited dynamic range to begin with so they do not need multiple exposures to capture a scene with a narrow dynamic range. In cases like these with a narrow range of light intensities, just one well-exposed image will contain all the detail you need. In addition, when you get to the post-production stage in your workflow, you still have more options for HDR processing that don’t require multiple shots. In the next article, we will discuss a technique that doesn’t require bracketing because it can be processed with a single shot.

For more HDR education, be sure to check out HDR Tutorial by SLR Lounge. This comprehensive “gold standard” guide will give you a mastery of HDR photography, from the scene considerations to the actual shooting to the post production. Click here for more info.



Founding Partner of Lin and Jirsa Photography, LJP Studios and SLR Lounge. Follow my updates on Facebook and my latest work on Instagram both under username pyejirsa. Also, join me on the SLR Lounge Community Page where I am frequently posting tips, tricks, tutorials and behind the scenes details.

Comments [2]

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  1. 1
    Ibrahim Husain

    Great explanation!  I’ve always felt a bit like a poser shooting so many single shot HDRs.  Now I feel like I knew what was going on the whole time! =)

  2. 24
    Joseph Prusa

    Good tutorial.