How to Photograph Skies without Underexposing Landscapes


HDR gets a bad rap. It’s mostly associated with over-processed, unrealistic looking images. But used in the right way, HDR—through the use of exposure “bracketing”—can capture realistic-looking photos and bring out what the eye actually sees.

This is especially helpful when it comes to trying to capture a spectacular sunrise or sunset. Without bracketing, you usually have to sacrifice the foreground to get a properly exposed sky or sacrifice the sky to get a great looking foreground. This happens because the camera’s light meter tries to evaluate based on light values, evaluating for either the sun or for the darker foreground, and wrecking the exposure for everything else.

But with exposure bracketing, you can have it all.


  • post-processing program like Lightroom or Photoshop
  • wide angle lens (optional; good for sweeping landscapes)
  • shutter release remote (optional; helpful if working at slow shutter speeds)
  • tripod (optional based on your shutter speed; necessary for slow shutter speeds)


To take a bracketed shot, first adjust your settings for a shot that you feel is closest to what you’re actually seeing in the scene. Since you’re trying to capture foreground and background, you’ll want to get as much field of depth as possible. Try setting your aperture at f/16 and adjusting up or down as needed; the lower the number—which, unintuitively, means the larger the aperture— the less depth of field you’ll get. This is where having a tripod is handy; you can keep your ISO low (try setting it at 100) and use a slower shutter speed to grab the brightness you need for the photo.

*Note: Though a high ISO makes a brighter image, it also comes at a cost. To help keep noise/grain out of your photo, remember: the lower your ISO, the better—you can make up for it with a longer shutter speed.

If you don’t feel like messing with all the manual settings, you can set your camera to “Aperture Priority” mode to control the depth of field and allow the camera to adjust for the rest. Just set your f-stop (f/number) as directed above.

Under and Over-exposure in AEB SettingNext, go into your camera menu settings and look for a setting that allows you to turn on the “Automatic Exposure Bracketing” (AEB). Set the under and over-exposure you’d like to achieve for the bracketing shots by moving the line to the left of center for the underexposed shot, and the line to the right of center for the overexposed shot (shown to the left). 

This tells the camera to automatically take three (or more, based on your camera) shots in a row for you: one underexposed, one at the settings you chose in the first step, and one overexposed shot.

Don’t have this setting in your menu? No problem; you can still play along! Simply take three exposures manually: one underexposed, one with an exposure that feels natural to the current scene, and one over-exposed.  

Get it Steady

Finally, get rid of the shakes, especially if you’re shooting at a shutter speed slower than 1/60. You can do this by using a shutter release remote and a tripod. For extra insurance (and if your tripod has it), make use of the little latch at the bottom of the center column by attaching a weighted bag; this will help keep the tripod/camera steady if the wind decides to kick in during your exposures.

You’re ready; take the shot(s)!

Keeping the shadows behind the church and bushes along the road away while getting sun flare
Not the best photo out there, but it gives another example of this technique. This was my first experiment with the technique. The shadows would normally obscure the details of the church’s siding and its roof when trying to capture the sun flare. Using bracketing, I was able to get both.

Putting it all Together in Post-Process

Now it’s time to go into post-processing mode. Basically, our final step is to merge your photos into one final image.

Import your files from the shoot into Lightroom, Photoshop, or another similar program. For this example, I’ll be using Lightroom, but Photoshop has similar capabilities.

In Lightroom, select all images, right click and select “Photo Merge” > “HDR” let it generate a preview. Select “Merge.” From here, you usually only need a few basic edits like cropping it down to the aspect ratio that you prefer, or if you were shooting with a wide lens, a little lens correction.

Did you try this technique? Show us how it went by sharing your shots with us on social media; hashtag it with #HikerChat and tell us what you thought!

About the Author


Gina Begin

Although she’s a Florida girl, exploration called her away after the final bell of her high school career. Over the years, she has been consumed with skiing, climbing, kayaking, mountain biking and getting lost on back roads. When she's not playing the part of a photojournalist, Gina can be found collaborating with women worldwide through her nonprofit, Outdoor Women's Alliance, and working to improve her outdoor skills and wilderness safety certifications.