The most important part to digital exposure blending is to autobracket the correct way, giving you a solid base to edit your image in Photoshop. You can’t create a stunning photo in post process – you can only improve upon a great image.
With that in mind, I’m going to show you how to execute an autobracket the correct way so that you can capture images with an outstanding tonal range, like this one:
I’ll also explain how to bracket your images manually for those instances where autobracketing is too limiting for your environment.
It’s very important that you have a sturdy tripod – one that’s capable of withstanding the weight of your camera, lens, and your tripod head. Solid legs with a good grip are imperative to not only hold your camera in place, but to make sure it stays there when you change your settings, adjust your focus, or if a strong wind comes along. Even the slightest movement can alter your alignment, making it more difficult to exposure blend in Photoshop.
Place your camera on your tripod and adjust your focus properly. Please read my focusing tutorial here as this is a very important step to ensure that you have consistent images.
Switch into aperture priority mode so that your camera will only change your shutter speed to alter the exposure and NOT your aperture – otherwise you’ll have an inconsistent depth of field, making it near-impossible to exposure blend accurately.
Follow the instructions in your camera manual to turn on your auto-bracketing. This is usually a simple process with a few clicks and adjustments.
Hold down the shutter button while your camera takes three consecutive images. When finished, review the histogram to make sure that you’ve have the proper tonal range to work with – meaning that it indicates you captured one image with no blown highlights and another with no blocked shadows.
When finished, you should see something similar to the images below:
Your base image – one that has been metered on average (evaluative).
Your longest exposure – horrible for the sky but it eliminated the blocked shadows from your foreground rocks nicely.
Finally, your least exposed image – the blown highlights in the first two photos have been eliminated (except, of course, for the center of the sun) and has given some nice shape to the sun as well.
At times, you may find that your camera’s autobracketing system is too limiting for the tonal range you’re working with – usually only +/- two full stops. If you’re shooting a high-contrast scene with many highlights and dark shadows (such as the sunset above), two stops will certainly not give you the full tonal range where all your shadows and highlights are recovered.
When this happens, you’ll have to abandon the autobracketing and do it manually, which is also quite simple to do.
Autobracketing is great because you can press some buttons and capture three exposures without having to adjust your settings. In reality, it’s only a time saver – autobracketing does nothing more than what you can do manually.
Repeat step 1 above and set up your tripod, but instead of turning on your autobracketing, just meter your image (in aperture priority mode) and make a note of your settings. The aperture you choose to use should always remain the same throughout your images – instead, you’ll be adjusting your shutter speed.
Switch into full manual mode (your instructions will tell you how to do this) and set your aperture and shutter speed to what it was when you metered. Take one image, then adjust your shutter speed two stops faster (underexposed) to capture another image. Check your histogram for any blown highlights – if you still see some overexposed areas, keep increasing your shutter speed until they disappear. Repeat this step for your shadows as well – continue to decrease your shutter speed (overexpose) and check your histogram until you see that your unrecoverable shadows are fully exposed. During this process, never change your aperture or ISO to ensure that you have smooth exposure blending.