Using the Bracket Pro App with Sony’s Nex-6, 5R, and 5T

The original version of this post has been getting lots of attention, lately, so I decided to update it with the full information from my ebook (coauthored with Gary Friedman) about the Sony Nex-6/5R/5T.  The book is available at The Friedman Archives.  (If you’re not shooting one of these three cameras, then you’ll still find books about virtually every Sony Alpha and Nex camera produced in the last few years.)

This is actually quite an unusual camera application.  For years, we’ve had the capability to automatically bracket exposure in our cameras, and initially, this was designed (in the days of film) to help make sure we got a correct exposure since changes were much more difficult (impossible with color slides) to make after the fact.  Not like today’s digital files that give us much more latitude to make corrections.  Then, just a few years ago, HDR (high dynamic range) became popular and we began to demand that our cameras give us at least 3 bracketed images and up to +/- 3.0 EV between each image.
Now, with “Bracket Pro”, bracketing takes on a whole new meaning: the camera keeps the exposure for each image the same, but changes either shutter speed, aperture, focus distance, or flash on/off.  In the case of shutter, aperture, or focus, the camera shoots three images with different settings.  With flash bracketing, it shoots two images: one with flash off and one with flash on.

Let me reiterate … this is not an HDR function, and the camera saves all of the images for you, with no in-camera merging.

So, what’s the big deal?  Well, let’s take a look at each of these four functions and talk about what they can do for you.  But first, if you are not intimately familiar with shutter speed and aperture, and how they relate to each other, depth of field, and exposure, then please do a quick review.
These are all easy to invoke by selecting: Menu → Application → Bracket Pro → (and then either) BRK Tv, BRK Av, BRK FOCUS, or BRK (flash symbol).  Most likely, the first thing you will see is a warning.  For instance, if you are in Program Mode and select BRK Av (aperture bracketing), the camera screen will say “Unavailable in this shooting mode” and that it will automatically switch to Aperture Priority while in BRK Av.  So just select “OK” and keep going.  The display and controls for BRK Av and BRK Tv are very similar.
With Tv (shutter) or Av (aperture) bracketing, you can modify the size of the steps with the Control Wheel from 0.3 to 3.0 (Av) and 0.3 to 5.0 (Tv).  In these two bracketing modes, the Control Dial functions as it would in either Aperture or Shutter Priority by changing that setting.  In Flash Bracketing, the Control Dial and Wheel do nothing, and in Focus Bracketing, the Control Wheel selects between 3 distance settings from Narrow to Wide, while the Control Dial operates according to whatever camera Mode you are in.
Shutter Speed Bracketing
Sometimes, we want to freeze action … like in sports, when we try to catch athletes in action but still show them in sharp crisp detail, with no blur from their motion.  On the other hand, there are times that we prefer to blur the motion, like when shooting a busy street at night or the flowing water of a waterfall.  There, we typically go for a slow shutter speed to show the movement of the cars by blurring their lights into streaks.
Sometimes, we’re just not sure what might work best and may not have the luxury to stick around and take multiple shots.  So, set the Bracket Pro app to Shutter Bracketing.  The first thing to understand is that this app requires Shutter Priority, so you will set the primary shutter speed with the Control Dial and use the Control Wheel to select the range of f/stops between each shot.  Here, what you need to know is that the NEX-5R will automatically put the camera in Shutter Priority regardless of your set mode, BUT the NEX-6 will just tell you to switch to Shutter Priority (a function of having a physical mode dial as opposed to the “soft” mode dial on the 5R.)
I also recommend setting ISO to Auto unless you need a specific ISO for the planned photo.  The reason is that when you take the shot the camera will use the shutter speeds as set by you and then attempt to get correct exposures by varying the aperture and ISO, IF in Auto.  So this just allows you to use a wider range of shutter speeds and still get correct exposures.
So, once you’ve got Bracket Pro running and you’ve selected Tv, you are presented with a screen that can be confusing at first.  Refer now to the photo at the top, the first screen after selecting Tv. On the left you see the three shutter speeds, with #1 showing your primary shutter speed selected by the Control Dial.  On the right is the range, and in this case it is set to 2.0.  And there in the lower middle is “The Graph”.  Across the bottom (left to right), you’ll see the complete range of available shutter speeds and the left side represents apertures from wide open (bottom) to the smallest available (top).  The orange rectangle seems to reflect the available range of exposures.  As you adjust the primary (#1) shutter speed with the Control Dial, the orange square moves left and right accordingly.  The width of the orange square corresponds to the selected range.
Now, the important part.  To insure that all three exposures are correct, you must adjust the settings so that points #3 and #2 do not touch the top and bottom edges of the orange square.  If #3 goes to the top, then that image will be over-exposed, and if #2 touches the bottom, that image will be under-exposed.  This happens because you are asking the camera to exceed the available ranges of aperture and ISO.
So, you’re all set up.  All that’s left is to compose the shot and press the shutter button.  The camera will fire off three shots, varying the shutter speeds according to your settings, while “attempting” to correctly expose by also changing the aperture and ISO as necessary.
The downside with Shutter Bracketing is due to those changing apertures and ISO settings.  For instance, if you’re going for a shallow depth of field, it may not be there in all three shots.  Likewise, using Auto ISO you may end up with one or more images with unacceptable noise levels.  Those are just some of the tradeoffs to keep in mind when using this function.
Aperture Bracketing
This function operates almost identically to Shutter Speed Bracketing with one obvious difference – it brackets the aperture to give you different depths of field in each of three images.  It also attempts to maintain a proper exposure for all three images and is thus not suitable for HDR work.
Focus Bracketing
This is the part of this app that makes the least sense to me.  The available adjustments are very vague (Wide, Narrow, or something in between) and the results were consistently unpredictable, at least for me.
Generally, it takes one image at your selected focus point, another at some “other” focus point, and then an image that is completely defocused.  (Frankly, I get plenty of poorly focused images without this kind of help.☺)
I called Sony technical support about this one, and they weren’t much help either.  Although, that was where I found out about why one of the images was never in focus … by design!
Flash Bracketing

This very simply takes two images, one with flash and one without flash.  Once selected, you only have to be sure to either pop-up the flash (on the NEX-6) or attach an external flash and turn it on.
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HDR with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 is Much Improved

HDR image using Nik HDR Efex and 5 exposures at 2ev.

My biggest complaint with the various mirrorless cameras I’ve used over the last couple of years has been their rather anemic HDR (High Dynamic Range) capabilities.  Generally they only offered to bracket 3 or 5 images with up to about 1ev spacing.  They’ve been getting better, but now the Olympus OM-D E-M1 has raised the bar and given us extensive HDR functions.

The new E-M1 has an awesome HDR setup.  Auto HDR is there if you want, but even better are the great options for bracketing your exposures with either 3, 5, or 7 frames at 2ev, or 3 or 5 frames at 3ev. Nice!

Out of the box, the default settings are to press the HDR Button and turn the Front Dial to choose your HDR settings.  (The HDR Button is the front half of that button on the top left shoulder of the camera.)  Olympus has gone even further by having the camera automatically set the ISO to 200 and Drive to Sequential Shooting so it will take all the desired shots with a single press of the shutter button … you don’t even need to hold it down for the full sequence.

The Auto HDR offers two settings called HDR1 and HDR2, with each of those taking 4 exposures and combining them in-camera to create your HDR image.  If you’re in JPG only, you’ll just get one exposure, the HDR.  However, if you have RAW+JPG selected, you’ll get an HDR JPG and a normally exposed RAW file.

I should mention that the E-M1 also offers an AEB (auto-exposure bracketing) mode in a separate menu (Menu > Shooting Menu 2 > Bracketing), for those who really just want to bracket the exposure of their images to make sure they get the perfect one.  The options on that menu are much more limited than the HDR options.

The above image is a full HDR image, created by taking 5 exposures at 2ev spacing into Nik HDR Efex and then back through Lightroom 5.  Below are in-camera HDR images, using HDR1 and HDR2, plus a normal exposure and a copy of HDR1 edited further in Lightroom5.

For more information about HDR with the E-M1 (and E-M5II), be sure and check out Gary Friedman’s excellent and very thorough books.
Available at:  www.FriedmanArchives.com

Normal Exposure – note the blown highlights out the window
In-Camera HDR2
In-Camera HDR1
HDR1 Edited in Lightroom5.  Cut the highlights, enhanced the shadows, and added Clarity and Saturation