Tips for Creative Autumn Photography

Autumn is my favorite season to photograph. The first piece of foliage signals the beginning of an ethereal journey through nature as I watch it transform into vibrant hues of red, orange, and gold. Scenes that I have become familiar with morph into a mosaic of colors and tones, and the cooler air and unsettled weather contribute to the creation of a dreamscape playground.

Since autumn photography is a personal pursuit of mine, I wanted to create a list of fall foliage tips to help you navigate through this otherworldly season and harness your creative expression.

Single red autumn leaf with bokeh.

Natural Light and Foliage

Landscape photographers are well aware how important the quality of light is to an image, but it plays a particularly important role during the fall foliage season. Light creates the atmosphere and enhances the overall experience. Different types of light have particular strengths, and knowing what those advantages are will lead to a more fulfilling experience during this short window of opportunity.

Diffused Light

If your goal is to amplify the natural color of foliage, then you will find much success with the soft, diffused light of overcast days. Colors appear more saturated without the interference of direct sunlight, which can expand your creative horizons during a drizzly autumn morning. Water has the ability to amplify color as well, so foliage that has been recently dampened by a passing shower or still wet from melted frost will explode with color.

One of my favorite times to photograph the autumn foliage is on overcast, damp days as I can spend hours creating without being dictated by the angle of the sun. The mood is thick with suspense, and I find this experience to have great influence on my work as I tend to seek out moody and mysterious compositions.

A single red leaf lays on a tree stump, misty autumn afternoon in Maine.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/1.4 • 1/125 seconds

Direct sunlight

As the season turns to autumn, the sun moves lower in the sky which results in a more pleasant light when compared to the summer months. Shadows are lengthened and highlights are intensified, and previously uninspiring scenes are now exploding with texture and depth. The image below was taken three hours before the official sunset time, but notice how low in the sky the sun is placed. Your window of textured light is expanded during the autumn months, allowing for more opportunities to create during the foliage season.

An autumn vista at Eagle Lake in Acadia National Park.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/16 • 1/125 seconds

Golden Hour Light

The golden hour light has the ability to add intense warmth and pleasing light to your scene, amplifying a sensation of comfort and happiness. Texture and depth are prime during the sunrise and sunset hours; highlights and shadows dominate the landscape, creating a mosaic of deep autumn hues and strong tones.

Morning sunrise and rocking chair in autumn.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/1.4 • 1/8000 seconds

The golden hours are often coveted by landscape photographers, and this unique light requires a specialized workflow to compensate for the intense highlights and shadows. Exposure blending is often needed to recover the full tonal range, and there are particular requirements in order to successfully photograph this phenomenal light. In my eBook Golden Hours, I address everything you need to know about working under the sunrise and sunset light, from my camera workflow to post processing in Adobe® Photoshop CC.

Read more about Golden Hours and how it can improve your sunrise and sunset photography.


Photographing the autumn foliage at night can prove to be just as fruitful as any daylight composition. Remember: soft, diffused light can amplify colors, so the moonlight filtered through clouds can be a prime opportunity to capture vibrant hues with a soft atmosphere.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/1.4 • 300 seconds

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/1.4 • 300 seconds

This late-night photograph was a 300 second exposure taken at f/1.4, with the moonlight filtered by a very thin layer of clouds after a passing rain shower. Water increases the saturation of color, and when combined with the diffused moonlight, it can create an exemplary stage for intense autumn colors.

There was another reason for photographing this scene at night. Since foliage begins to lose its color as soon as it drops from the tree, I knew that these leaves would be less vibrant if I waited until morning. Additionally, the recent rain shower would cause the leaves to dry up and crumple, thus losing the wonderful texture and detail at this vantage point.

Autumn Perspectives

Changing your vantage point can produce stellar results, especially with fallen foliage. A simple shift in perspective can create a more captivating and versatile autumn portfolio, one that will grasp attention and satisfy your creative need for expression.


It comes natural to photograph at standing height, and this perspective may produce a perfectly respectable autumn photograph. However, you can instantly transform your atmosphere and add depth by shooting at a lower vantage point. I find laying flat-out to be especially successful in adding layers to an otherwise flat image, with foliage being my foreground subject. I can easily find a strong focal point during autumn, and I tend to take full advantage of the vibrant colors and textures which nature provides.

Red and yellow maples create an autumn carpet on the forest floor.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/1.4 • 5 seconds

Focal Length

Selecting a focal length for fall foliage should be a deliberate choice. Wide focal lengths add depth and a sense of otherworldliness by exaggerating distances between elements in your frame. I’m particularly fond of combining a low vantage point with a wide angle lens. Autumn is an ethereal time of year, and I find this effect to enhance the dreamlike atmosphere.

With my 24mm lens at ground level, I was able to dramatically change my perspective and add substantial depth to this mushroom that would not be possible if my camera was just 6 inches higher.

Mushroom and bokeh during autumn foliage.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/1.4 • 1/200 seconds

In contrast, long focal lengths will compact your distances, allowing you to bring forth those background elements that would be rendered indistinguishable with a wider length. In reality, the background trees and foliage in my image below were much further away than they appear. However, the reach of my 85mm lens was able to render them as having a more dominant presence.

Red foliage and bokeh during autumn.

Canon 85mm f/1.8 • f/1.8 • 1/1250 seconds

Aperture & Depth of Field

Controlling your depth of field can greatly enhance the autumn atmosphere you wish to create. While more traditional images tend to adopt a deep depth of field, I find much success with a more shallow experience. For me, it amplifies the ethereal experience of autumn, and adds layers and depth to an otherwise flat, unimaginative scene.

A red maple on the shores of Eagle Lake in peak foliage.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/1.4 • 1/8000 seconds

With a shallow depth of field, you can easily isolate pieces of foliage that you find particularly interesting or powerful, allowing you to direct attention onto a subject that would otherwise be overpowered by the surrounding environment.

Duck Brook Bridge poplar in autumn.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/1.4 • 1/500 seconds

One method I use frequently during the autumn season is to deliberately adjust my plane of focus to fall over the background or foreground; both methods provide intriguing results, and the method you use depends on your intent and creative vision.

Foreground Point of Focus

Selecting a foreground element as your point of focus can help to redistribute the weight and balance of your frame that is altered by a shallow depth of field. Small, unnoticeable focal points (such as a fallen leaf) that would otherwise be lost in a deep depth of field now take center stage in your composition.

Acadia National Park fall foliage.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/1.4 • 1/800 seconds

Background Point of Focus

If you find yourself selecting a background element as your main subject, you don’t have to limit yourself to a deep depth of field to compensate. Instead, push your plane of focus back to your subject while obscuring your foreground. A background focal point with a shallow depth of field adds depth and layers, creating an atmosphere thick with a sense of discovery and exploration.

Acadia National Park Fall foliage

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/1.4 • 1/640 seconds

In my image here of Duck Brook Bridge in Acadia National Park, the shrub foliage in the foreground acts as a simple atmospheric enhancement to my main subject, enveloping the bridge without distracting too much attention away from it.

Shallow depths grant you greater control over the flow of your frame, which is highly successful for those awkward compositions that need a better balance between focal points. There are several factors beyond a wide aperture that contribute to creating bokeh and a shallow depth of field, such as distances between subjects and the quality of light. In my eBook Bokeh, I explain this process in great detail.

Read more about Bokeh and how it can enhance your shallow depth photography.

Long Exposures

I’ve always been drawn to the ethereal quality of long exposures, and the surreal colors of autumn provide a unique opportunity to develop stellar imagery. The unsettled autumnal winds can create painterly textures and colors as it blows through the foliage, and extended shutter speeds can create an incredible atmosphere.

A brook in Acadia National Park swirls with autumn leaves.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/16 • 2 seconds

With a shutter speed of two full seconds, I was able to track the movement of fallen leaves floating downstream, rendered as the streaks you see in the water.

I frequently combine my shallow depth work with long exposures, usually with an aperture of f/1.4, which allows for a substantial amount of light to hit my sensor. To compensate, I require some intense ND filters to slow down the shutter enough to capture the windswept movement.

Using a long exposure combined with wide apertures can create a surreal blend of colors and tones.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/1.4 • 52 seconds

With two ND400 filters stacked, I was able to reduce my exposure by 18 full stops and attain a shutter speed of 52 seconds at f/1.4. The autumnal winds softened my bokeh for an ethereal rendering.

Polarizing Filters

polarizing-filter-autumnMany photographers use polarizing filters in their landscape photography, and these filters are especially beneficial for autumn foliage. Not only will one saturate the colors of your landscape, but it will reduce any color-washing glare from light reflecting off of leaves and water. I’ve found polarizing filters to be very helpful for those unsettled autumn mornings where the sun is out but the foliage is damp from melting frost, eliminating any reflective glare. Lens flare and sun reflections have the ability to desaturate your hues, so reducing this effect on foliage is a welcomed benefit.

It’s important to note that polarizing filters will typically reduce your exposure by 1 to 2 full stops. When combined with a small aperture, this can slow down your shutter speed enough to cause camera shake and blur. As always, I recommend using a tripod and to employ a typical long exposure workflow (as described in my free Exposure Blending eCourse).

When is Peak Foliage?

From a photography perspective, the foliage season is actually quite longer than what many consider to be peak color. From the first sign of autumn hues to the last fallen leaf, opportunities to create are plentiful before, during, and after the height of color.

The rusty gold oak trees hang onto their color a bit longer than the more attractive reds and oranges. Although this scene below was taken weeks after the end of peak foliage, I was still able to create one of my favorite autumn images by focusing on the scene I had in front of me rather than what I had already missed.

A dirt lane covered in fallen leaves leading to a small graveyard. This photo was taken in the fall in Harpswell, Maine.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/1.4 • 1/640 seconds

It’s never too early to begin your autumn photography once you spot foliage. The early turners are often some of the most vibrant, and there are methods you can use to isolate your subject and obscure the predominantly green environment. By using a shallow depth of field on this leaf below, I was able to focus solely on the bit of color I found, highlighting the more delicate details of autumn.

A red and yellow poplar leaf sits on moss in early autumn - Acadia National Park, Maine

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/1.4 • 1/500 seconds

Look Beyond the Foliage

The siren-like quality of autumn vistas may dominate your attention in the field, but try to explore other subjects – you may be pleasantly surprised with your results.

Yellow maple leaf reflected in water during fall foliage in Maine.

Canon 24mm f/1.4L II • f/11 • 1/6 seconds

Cooler temperatures and drier air bring vibrant, crisp colors and textures in the sky, especially during the golden hours. I’ve found that my most visually intriguing sunsets were captured during the autumn months.

A rainbow of colors at sunset and clouds reflected in the water in autumn.

Canon 17-40mm f/4L • 17mm • f/11 • 1/5 seconds

A dynamic autumn portfolio is possible simply by being aware of your environment and knowing how you want to translate it. Night or day, diffused or golden hour light, vistas or minimalistic, peak color or long past – the opportunity to create powerful autumn photographs are plentiful. Nature determines the environment we find ourselves in, and foliage begins to fade as soon as it falls from the tree. Don’t wait for “better light”. Instead, use it as an opportunity to acclimate to the unpredictability of nature by exploring new creative methods.

How to Create Crisp Sunstars

When shooting into the sun or other light sources, you may notice that some of your images have a “sunstar” effect where visible rays of light stretch across your frame. This creates a very strong focal point and adds an entirely new dimension of interest to your image.

Crisp sunstars can be created by choosing a small aperture.

For landscape photographers, a sunstar can add some much needed interest to a flat or uninteresting sky, or simply create balance between other strong focal points within your frame. It’s a great way to direct focus and flow, and there are certain steps you can take to create beautiful sunstars with almost any light source.

The creation of sunstars is not by chance – actually, there are quite a few steps to follow which will control not only the appearance of sunstars, but also the quality of it. Factors like your aperture, quality of light, and even what elements surround your light source all play a role to how sharp and prominent those rays of light appear.

Sunstars are not limited to the sun, however; any source of light that is significantly brighter than the surrounding environment can potentially produce a sunstar. During the daylight hours, your bright light source is typically just the sun as it is exceptionally brighter than the sky at this time. After sunset, your options for sunstars are expanded as those weak light sources during daylight (such as lamp posts and city lights) become stronger and more defined. The contrast between light sources and the darkened environment is great during this time, and the art of creating sunstars at night is coveted by many urban and astrophotographers.

There are several moving parts to the sunstar creation machine. If you find that your sunstars are lacking in clarity or their appearance seems to be random, below you’ll find some helpful tips for greater control over their development.


The aperture you choose can greatly affect the appearance of your sunstar, rendering it indistinguishable or tack-sharp and crisp. While this certainly isn’t the only factor that goes into creating a sunstar, it’s one of the most important.

Those fantastic rays of light which create a sunstar is directly related to your aperture blades – specifically, how sharply they intersect. When your aperture is stopped down, the blades converge at a more dramatic and defined angle, and these overlapping points create each ray when the light hits your sensor.

Wide apertures have the opposite effect. Since your aperture blades spread out and create a rounder opening, those defined angles needed to develop sunstars are softened.

With this in mind, you’ll typically need small apertures (f/11 or higher) to create a well-formed sunstar. For truly crisp light, I would not go smaller than f/22 since diffraction will begin to affect image quality and overall sharpness.

To help illustrate this point, let’s take a look at how two different apertures react to the sun when it’s directly in the frame.

At f/16, the sunstar here is crisp and sharp:

Black and white sunstar at f/16 with the Canon 17-40mm.

When I open up my aperture to f/1.4 however, the results are quite different:

Using a wide aperture of f/1.4, the sunstar is now completely invisible.

I usually set my aperture at f/16, which provides a nice balance between a deep depth of field without any noticeable deterioration in image quality from lens diffraction.

Your f/stop number is only one aspect of how you can control a sunstar with aperture. The number of blades your lens has is directly related to how many “rays” of light your aperture creates: an even number of blades will create the same number of points (8 blades will produce 8 points), while an odd number of blades will produce double that number of points (9 blades will create 18 points).

Another aperture variable is the type of blades your lens has: curves blades will produce a softer sunstar, while blades with a straight edge will give you crisper and cleaner lines. While this does not make a considerable difference, there is a slight improvement in quality.

Focal Length

Another key piece of information that controls how your sunstar will appear is your focal length and how it can greatly change the weight (or size) of the sun.

Longer focal lengths will increase the size, while shorter lengths will make it appear smaller. Depending on the intensity of your sunstar and the weight of other elements within your scene, the focal length you choose can greatly shift the balance and flow of your overall composition.

Quality of Light

Although your camera controls the size and shape of your sunstar, your technical settings are entirely dependent on the quality of light you’re photographing.

The purer your light is, the crisper and cleaner you sunstar will be. Atmospheric elements such as thin cloud cover, fog, mist, or even pollution can filter the light between the sun and your lens, which will soften the appearance of your sunstar.

In the image below, you can see how the cloud layer (although rather thin) cut off the top of my sunstar as it passed over.

When your sunstar is filtered by clouds, it will reduce the appearance and strength.

And again here: Although I photographed this at f/16 with a lens that had historically produced stellar sunstars, the thin layer of clouds softened the effect to the point of obscurity.

The sunstar was washed out by the thin layer of clouds with my Canon 24mm f/1.4L.

Camera filters can also affect the quality of your light, and thus interfere with the clarity of your sunstar. Remember: pure, unfiltered light hitting your sensor is needed for that sharp sunstar detail. If you’re using any filters that do not serve a very specific purpose for your shoot, make sure to remove them for the purest sunstar.

Play Against Defined Edges

When the sun is partially hidden behind a well-defined edge, such as the ridge of a mountain or a flat horizon line, the harsh contrast will reduce flare and render you a cleaner sunstar. I wouldn’t advise to build your composition around hiding the sun behind a rock, but if the situation calls for it (for example, waiting an extra 10 minutes while the sun gets closer to the horizon line), this little extra effort will yield fantastic results.

Down East Sunset

Reducing Unwanted Lens Flare

Another way to reduce flares from shooting directly into the sun is to exposure blend two different frames together: one taken normally, and another with your thumb blocking the sun. You can then exposure blend the flare-free foreground into your base exposure in the event that your flare is a bit too distracting or washes out too much of your composition.

Do you tend to skip the boring task of cleaning your glass before every shoot? If you like sunstars (or just shooting into the sun), those water spots will be all the more apparent as the light hits your lens. Flares will become very distracting on a dirty lens, so please make sure you remove any spots on both your glass and your filters.

Reflected Light

Don’t forget that reflected light can be just as powerful as a direct light source itself, which can create fantastic sunstars. This method is very popular for macro photographers who use reflections in water droplets to mirror the sun, thus creating their own mini-sunstars.

For the image below, I decided to use the mirror-like water to reflect the setting sun, which produced a dual sunstar. Since I used a very wide focal length, their prominence is not overpowering but rather a complimentary focal point.

The rocky coast of Maine makes for an outstanding landscape to photograph, and Penobscot Bay provides outstanding sunsets.

Recommended Lenses for Sunstars

Although there are many steps you can take to enhance the appearance of a sunstar, it may all come down to what kind of lens you have. Due to aperture construction and glass quality, there are a few particular lenses that create extra-crispy sunstars while also reducing interference from unwanted lens flare.

canon-16-35-IICanon 16-35mm f/2.8L II Lens

The Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens is widely considered to be the best Canon lens for producing sunstars. It has 7 aperture blades, which will give you a 14 point sunstar for a truly stunning focal point. Aside from fantastic sunstars, this L series lens is generally used by many landscape photographers; the focal length range is ideal for grand vistas, and the f/2.8 aperture allows you to get creative with shallow depths and bokeh.

The Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens is fantastic for sunstars.Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G Lens

For Nikon shooters, your ideal choice is the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G lens for creating those strong, well-defined sunstars. The focal length is a bit long for those who like to shoot wide angles, but the quality and clarity you receive in return is phenomenal. The aperture has 9 blades for 18-point sunstars, and like the Canon lens above, the f/2.8 aperture really opens up your creative possibilities (especially at 70mm).

Exposure Blending and Sunstars

If all of your conditions are correct and you still think your sunstar is lacking in clarity, it may be because your shutter speed is too long. This will wash out your sunstar and reduce its definition, even if the highlights of your sky are not blown. Contrast will enhance a sunstar; with this in mind, the exposure of your sky can be reduced in order to bring out any hidden sunstar details.

Let’s take a look the difference two full stops can make on a sunstar. The left frame shows my scene shot at 1/25s – a decent exposure for foreground detail, but the sky is beginning to blow out a little. When I increase my shutter speed to 1/100s (right frame), notice how much detail is recovered in the sky – in particular, how well-formed and crisp the sunstar is compared to the longer exposure.

By blending exposures, you can create crisp and clean sunstars.

At this point, you would blend these two exposures together to combine the best detail of both shutter speeds. To receive my free exposure blending eCourse, which uses a combination of written instructions and video tutorials to guide you through the entire blending and bracketing process, simply fill out the form below and a free download link will be emailed to you.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris is Changing

I know many of you who read my eBooks and articles like to photograph the golden hours, which means that you probably use The Photographer’s Ephemeris: an invaluable program that shows you where and when the sun (and moon) will appear along the horizon line.

Google has decided to discontinue Google Maps for Flash API, which The Photographer’s Ephemeris depends on. This goes into effect on September 2nd, 2014, and when this happens your TPE desktop program will not work properly.

Good News!

The wonderful folks over at TPE have been busy anticipating this event, and have launched a web-based app to replace the desktop program you have installed on your computer. And, it’s still free!

The new Photographer's Ephemeris web-based app.

If you use the desktop program frequently, then it’s a good idea to head on over to the new web-based app now before you get that error message on September 2nd.

You can also transfer your saved locations from the desktop program to the new web app. Step-by-step instructions on this process can be found here: Moving Locations from TPE to the Web App.

There are also some new enhancements which I think you’ll enjoy – for instance, the ability to generate links that will show your photographer friends where and when you’ll be photographing the golden hours.

Take a look at the new TPE Desktop App.
Read more directly from TPE about the switch-over.

TPE for Mobile Devices

If you would like the convenience of TPE on your phone, you can purchase the app for both Android and iOS devices – a great bargain for the convenience of TPE wherever you may be.

TPE for Android (via Google Play)
TPE for iOS (via the App Store)

Note: This change only affects those who have the application installed on their computer – it does not affect iOS or Android users (those who paid for a TPE app).

Sky Replacement in Photoshop


I’d like to use my most recent photo of Good Harbor as an opportunity to discuss sky replacement in Adobe® Photoshop, which has become increasingly popular for landscape photographers.

When I came across this scene, I instantly felt a connection and knew this was going to be my photograph for the evening. However, the sky detail was quite lackluster and disappointing (above left), which has the ability to spoil an otherwise interesting golden hour landscape. Rather than seeing the lack of sky texture as a roadblock I could not overcome and move onto another scene that was second-best, I instead went ahead and captured this fantastic light before it faded, knowing I was going to blend in a sky from a different evening later in process.

After Camera Raw processing, I used Tony Kuyper’s luminosity mask action panel to create a custom selection along the tree line and around the entire sky, and then refined that mask with the overlay brush (as described in my exposure blending tutorial). With this custom luminosity mask, I could blend in the sky of another evening with great ease and accuracy as it follows the exact contours of the horizon; this workflow even selects those little pockets of sky you can see in between tree branches. Since the resulting layer mask is 100% black and white, I did not have to worry about the original sky still being partially visible.

It’s the same exact workflow I detail in my free Exposure Blending eCourse – but instead of blending in another bracket, I’m bringing in a different sky entirely.

The key to accurate sky replacement is to match the light and time of day to your original sky in order to retain harmony and cohesiveness between all elements in your frame. For example, blending in an overcast sky with a foreground taken at sunset under direct light will make for a particularly abrasive pairing.

My Views on Sky Replacement

As you can probably tell, I’m very open-minded when it comes to digital processing and image manipulation.

I go into much detail about my processing philosophy (specifically, the detrimental effects on your creative development by limiting your workflows) in my color processing eBook. The take-away point is if a particular workflow expands your creative horizons and results in an image that conveys the message you wish to tell, then the path you traveled to get there should not matter.

Sky replacement has allowed me to focus more on enjoying my photography rather than accepting defeat when clouds and light do not come together as I had hoped. Instead, the requirement of both foreground and sky interest to be within the same frame is no longer concrete. Although I do not use this process as an excuse to avoid finding sky and ground interest together, it has allowed my work to be a little more liberated from the whims of weather and nature.

Of course, there are other options you can pursue when presented with a lackluster sky: turn to other subjects, use alternative techniques (such as a wide aperture to create bokeh), or simply be a witness to nature and enjoy the moment. However, I was so pleased with the foreground interest and dramatic lighting here (especially on the house), and knew how disappointed I would be if I walked away from this scene.

Although I have the logistical benefit of revisiting this location on a whim for a more interesting sky, many who travel for landscape photography do not. A week’s stay in the mountains only gives you a handful of opportunities to capture that iconic scene of the sun setting behind the snow-covered valley below. If your favorite cloud formation does not occupy the same frame as the foreground interest you want to use, then combining the best elements of each scene would allow you the creative freedom to convey your vision.

Through my years of developing both my camera and processing workflows, I’ve learned that the less restrictions you impose on yourself, the easier your creativity will flourish and the more you will enjoy your photography.

Good Harbor Beach

When I arrived to Good Harbor Beach, it was only a matter of moments before I found the composition I wanted. This house sits prominently on the ledge, and the setting sun provided some fantastic golden hues along the coastline. Layers of vibrant grass and textured rocks easily became my foreground as I raced the dissipating light.

Gloucester, MA

Exposure Blending Tutorial: Why Autobracket Your Landscape?

Exposure blending is a revolutionary digital darkroom technique that will assist you in overcoming the limitations of your camera and capture a scene with the full tonal range you witnessed in the field. This is a common challenge for any area of photography, but landscape photographers find this especially difficult since we typically can not manipulate or alter the ambient light.

You’ve probably recognized this challenge in your own work: an overexposed sky, a foreground with crushed shadows, or a disappointing combination of the two. The incredible detail and light you witnessed in person has disappeared, and you instead go home with a lackluster representation of the beauty you intended to capture.

Since your camera sensor (the digital equivalent to a negative) is limited to one aperture and one shutter speed across the same frame, it’s difficult to capture a scene with a dynamic tonal range without some areas falling outside of your selected exposure, which produce blown highlights and/or crushed shadows.

By autobracketing your landscape and blending exposures in Adobe® Photoshop, you can recover this lost data for a more accurate and complete rendering of the scene you intended to capture – like in the example below.

By autobracketing and combining different exposures in Photoshop, you can recover any lost detail.

Blending exposures in the Exposure Blending eCourse.

How Autobracketing Works

Simply put, in order to capture the full tonal range of a scene that extends outside of what your sensor can render, you’ll need to combine different exposures together. The number of exposures you need depends on how large your tonal range is, but typically you’ll have one exposure metered for your highlights (a faster shutter speed to limit light), one for your shadows (a slower shutter speed to let more light in), and one as your base exposure (the average metering between your highlights and shadows).

This is where the term “bracketing” comes in since you’re creating a bracket that encapsulates your entire tonal range, from brightest to darkest.

Exposure blending can also be referred to as HDR blending in the sense that we’re expanding the tonal range, however this method will create a more natural looking image than tone-mapping with automated software.

With exposure blending, you have much more control over the end result by manually choosing exactly where you want to blend your exposures together, and at what strength you want that blend to be. It’s a method that is entirely customizable to your scene, which will produce a more pleasing result.

The group of brackets above shows how you can take three different exposures of the same scene and combine the best details of each one to create one final image that has no loss of data for a complete tonal range.

Using exposure compensation to autobracket a landscape will help to blend exposures in Photoshop.

By using a combination of written instructions and video screenshots, I’ll teach you how to autobracket your scene and achieve a seamless blend of exposures so you can fully enjoy your photography by overcoming your camera limitations.

The need to bracket a scene in order to capture the entire tonal range is quite common, which is why camera manufacturers have made it easy to photograph the same subject at different exposures. “Autobracketing” is a fantastic feature available on most DSLRs, which allows you to take multiple exposures automatically without having to change your shutter speed manually.

When you set your camera to autobracket, it takes three (sometimes more) sequential images at different shutter speeds, usually 2 full stops apart. This helps to streamline your workflow when presented with a wide tonal range that one exposure can not contain.

The amount of stops between each exposure can be adjusted depending on your scene, and for most situations three different exposure values (EV) capturing a four stop range will be sufficient: your base exposure (EV +/-0), an exposure to recover blown highlights (EV -2), and another to recover any crushed shadows (EV +2).

What is Raw Format?

Your exposure blending capabilities depend greatly on the quality of your brackets; a basic image format will give you basic results. However, the more data you have to work with, the easier it will be to blend multiple exposures together.

This is especially important for expansive tonal ranges which require a more intricate blending workflow. In other words, the best exposure blend begins with the strongest foundation to build your image upon, and that foundation is raw format.

A raw file is the digital equivalent of a film negative before it is printed onto paper; it’s the “raw” state of your image that you can’t really use as a photo, but all the information you need to create a photo is there. You can’t upload a raw file to your website or email it to others without special viewing software, but you can take that raw file and turn it into a universal format (such as TIFF or JPG) once you have finished with your processing.

There are many specific benefits of raw format over JPG, but it all comes down to a higher-quality image as you are working in the pure, uncompressed state of your photograph, which is essential for exposure blending.

The Advantages of Raw Format and Bit Depth

Raw format is notable for its enormous color depth (also known as bit depth) when compared to the more universal JPG.

With a raw image, you are working with a minimum of 12-bits, which translates to 4,096 tones for each of the three color channels (red, green, and blue). However, JPG is limited to 8-bits, which gives you only 256 tones for each channel. Technically, raw format is immensely superior to JPG as there is much more data contained for each color channel.

While 4,096 tones for each channel may seem excessive, consider this: the more data you have to work with, the easier it is to maintain color integrity. When blending different exposures together, this becomes extremely important as you may need to call on that extra data to recover your crushed shadows and blown highlights (explained later).

If you have the ability to use a more sophisticated format, it makes sense to use it as exposure blending is entirely dependent on recovering as much detail as possible.

For the purpose of exposure blending, this additional data gives you an enormous advantage over JPG when adjusting your exposure, and will also reduce processing artifacts (such as pixelation and/or posterization) later on if you decide to process your image further after blending.

Here you can see how the expanded color depth of raw can benefit your photography.

This sunset image was originally overexposed for the sky, and as a result important cloud detail was lost to
blown highlights. To reverse this, I would need to reduce my exposure and bring back that lost sky interest.

When I work in JPG mode and reduce the exposure by two full stops (top), not much detail has been recovered since an 8-bit file has a very limited range to work with.

However, when I use a raw file of the same exact photograph (bottom), which is uncompressed, you can see how much more detail is recovered when I adjust the exposure down by two full stops.

Raw Adjustments vs. Autobracketing

With raw being such a versatile format, why is there a need to autobracket when you can create multiple exposures straight from one raw file?

It would save time spent on setting up a tripod, taking three (or more) images, and also save on disk space. Isn’t raw a magical exposure recovery tool?

It’s always best to capture the optimal exposure for a scene in-camera simply because you’ll have more data in a correctly exposed image than one that has been adjusted artificially, even if it’s in raw format. The more data that is rendered onto your sensor, the more detail your image will have. Raw has its limitations; it does not give you the power to shoot blindly with no regard to proper exposure.

One substantial benefit to bracketing a scene vs. adjusting a raw file is that the exposure recovery power of raw format is typically limited to +/- two full stops before the quality begins to deteriorate. Depending on the tonal range of your scene, you may need 3 stops, 5 stops, or even more between your longest and shortest bracket in order to recover all of the detail.

Recovery limits aside, capturing an exposure that has been adjusted in-camera vs. adjusting a raw file by the same number of stops will always give you the higher quality photograph.

The recovery capabilities of RAW format should not be a replacement for bracketing a scene, and here we can see why.

The top image is the same example used in the previous image: a raw file that has been reduced by two full stops in processing. The bottom frame is the same exact scene, but is a bracket that was captured two stops less in-camera, so no exposure adjustment was needed in process. When you compare the cloud detail between each example, you can see how much more data was recovered by bracketing.

This comparison shows that instead of trying to recover missing detail in processing, you’ll obtain a better result if you adjust your exposure in the field.

Why Autobracket in Raw Format?

If it’s better to adjust your exposure in-camera rather than as a raw file, why even bother with raw at all and instead autobracket in JPG?

Although raw format can not replace autobracketing, it’s still a file format that has many benefits over
JPG and should be used when you bracket. Not only is there more data in raw format, but you’ll greatly increase your tonal range for editing.

If you autobracket in JPG format, you’ll typically be taking three images: your base image, one taken two stops faster, and another two stops slower, for a total range of four stops. However, if you shoot in RAW format, you can increase or decrease your brackets by two stops in process. That safety net will add another two full stops to your range on both ends of your bracket, bringing your total tonal range up to eight stops (assuming you capture three brackets in two-stop increments).

Blending exposures using one raw file is best for those candid shots where you didn’t have enough time to set up a tripod but need to correct some blown highlights, or simply want to brighten/ darken parts of your image – like in wedding or action photography.

It’s a fantastic way to save an otherwise unusable photo, but if you have the time and ability to autobracket your landscape for exposure blending, this is the method which will give you the highest quality output with the largest tonal range.

Exposure blending and bracketing is not just for combining bright skies with dark foregrounds; you can use it in many different ways as part of a non-destructive workflow.

You can recover blown highlights in water reflections, bring back detail lost to the shadow of a tree, or to blend a brighter foreground with a darker background (like under stormy, overcast skies).

Another popular use of this technique is to blend different long exposures together – for example, blending an extended exposure that captures moving clouds with an image that shows stationary grass that would otherwise be windswept if taken at the same shutter speed as the sky.

Now that you know why we autobracket for exposure blending, it’s time to go over the in-camera workflow; the process I go through to capture those bracketed images to later blend in process.

Next: The Autobracket Workflow >>>