Sunset Photography – How to do Bracketing Photography

Improve your sunset photography by bracketing exposure. Here we take a number of shots at different exposures and combine them in the computer to create a detailed and realistic image.

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Sunset photography is a challenging genre within landscape photography. I have talked before about how our own eyes and brain work together to let us see a very large dynamic ranges of light. We see details in shadows and very bright highlights at the same time.

Despite cameras having ever increasing dynamic range they still do not compare to the eye/brain combination. The problem is particularly felt in sunset photography where there is high contrast between the sky, where we often shoot straight at the sun, and the ground which gets darker later in the day with long shadows.

We previously got round this using graduated filters. A more modern technique is bracketing photography. Here we take a number of shots at different exposures and combine them in the computer. This creates a RAW file that contains all the details from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights. This is exactly the same as HDR photography but we are looking to reproduce a natural sunset photography shot that our eyes perceived, rather than that HDR look.

To capture everything that my eyes see I use bracketing photography. To do this in the camera you first need to be in manual mode. You will need a tripod. Set your ISO to 100, aperture to the f8-f16 range and then balance exposure with the shutter speed so you get an image that captures some small detail in the shadows and does not totally over exposure the sky. Use your Histogram to help you expose for the mid tones.

Turn on bracketing. On a Canon camera it is via the Q menu. When doing sunset photography going two stops either side is often the most effective.

Set the camera to fire using the two second timer to avoid any camera shake. The camera needs to be perfectly still for each of the three shots otherwise Lightroom will not be able to combine the images.

Take your shot and the camera will take three exposures. Check each image to make sure you have one that is exposed for the highlights, one for the mid tones and one for shadows.

Combine your sunset photography in Lightroom using the Photo Merge/HDR command. This combines your images into one large RAW file that allows much greater adjustment than a single shot. Process you sunset photography image and aim for something very similar to what your eyes witnessed to avoid your image looking over processed.

Cheating? For me no. I look to create a final image that is as close to what my eyes perceived as possible. the means whether it is with a physical graduated filter, bracketing or a futuristic camera is irrelevant.

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Comments 34

  1. I only use bracketing as cannot afford hundereds of dollars for grad filter systems like lee or nisi, so this is a really useful lesson for me , thankyou sooooo much.

  2. When people say it is cheating I tell them when you should in JPEG your cameras algorithm does the post processing for you the way it thinks best. When I shoot raw and post process the photo, I do it the way I think best. You should look at the stunned looked on their faces.

  3. Does it work in Lightroom 5 or just Lightroom cc because when I use it in Lightroom 5 it takes me directly to cs6 HDR pro and I kinda don't like the pro thing. Really confused

  4. Great video! I am primarily a wildlife and particularly bird photographer so my main lens is the 400 f5.6 prime on your recommendation. However I am planning a trip to Yellowstone national park this summer and so I have been practicing and enjoying doing landscapes also. Right now the only wide angle lens that I have is the 18-55 mk I kit lens which is not the sharpest. I was just wondering at what point you think its reasonable to upgrade wide angle lens for landscapes at what wide angle lenses you would recommend for a beginner in landscapes that are not super expensive. By the I use a canon 7d mk 1. Thanks!

  5. Hi, Adam, I've just found your site and it looks good for video blogs..I have a Nikon D300s how do you blend/merge in Photoshop CC as I don't use lightroom..many thanks, good work…martin

  6. hi Adam.
    great video and helpful to.
    not tried bracketing because I am not that clever with photoshop. you have actually made it sound easy.
    I must admit the reason for my lack of photoshop knowledge is that I tend to be one of those people that you probably hate who doesn't like post production.
    I do get it but I also Push myself to not need any help making a great photo. it's like if you learn to drive a bus, you can drive anything.
    you are however making me think differently about my images and I thank you for that. looking forward to your next video.

  7. Away this weekend in the campervan to a coastal town. Hoping the weather is on my side to give bracketing a go. Is it possible to take a bracketing approach to composing a panorama, ie bracket a series of shots, process them in LR then stitch together for the final panorama?

    Great image btw

  8. I am just starting to try bracketing, and that helped me a little. Not as much as a beginners video or something basic. But that's my bad for not watching a video like that. This did help me see the final result and how the process works though. Thanks for the video! And, no, I don't think its cheating. It brings out detail and things in the shot you wouldn't get otherwise. There is definitely a line however to recreating what you see and making a picture way better than what you saw. Just be careful of that line, and your solid.

  9. I am just learning how to do bracketing with my cheapy Nikon D3400. I have to take all the shots myself since it doesnt do anything auto. Can you give a recommendation for the best place to start? I have been using my white balance to go super dark and then bring it up a couple stops for each additional photo. seems to work but very imprecise. thanks!

  10. Just what I needed Adam, I have been trying to capture some sunsets, and haven't really had great results so far, so here may be another one to try next time the sun decides to appear over Settle:) just going looking for your NDfilter vlogs, I have a 9 stop filter, and need help using it!! So much to learn….

  11. I'll use an ND grad when I can, but on my 20mm which is my primary landscape lens the filter holder vignettes the image. So with that lens I'll invariably bracket the image unless I use my 10-stop which is specific for that lens.

  12. Another great video. I have a Nikon D3300 which doesn't have a bracketing feature but I think I would adjust shutter speed to under and over expose by 2 stops…is this correct? Thanks.

  13. adam is there a way to watch the videos if haven't got to internet, i know the my phone will probably always have it. but say if I'm out on the countryside with MacBook and want to watch on the bigger screen.

  14. this is great because i dont have grad nds and would like to try and get better photos with a higher dynamic range – and at times just like sunset and sunrise so thanks for this, explained very well and clearly too.

    one question though – which mode do you recommend being in – manual or aperture priority – i've just had a few test shots on my camera in manual mode and the aperture remained unchanged – just the shutter was either slowed down or sped up- which is better though ? I hear some people saying shoot in aperture mode to lock the aperture and DOF but whats the point if it's already locked in in manual mode?

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