What is HDR photography? And how can you use HDR techniques to create unique and stunning photos?
In this article, I explain everything you need to know about high dynamic range imaging, including:
- An easy to understand explanation of HDR shooting
- When to use HDR techniques (and when to avoid them)
- Step-by-step instructions for taking HDR photos in the field
So if you’re ready to create amazing high dynamic range photos, let’s dive in!
What is HDR photography?
HDR photography is a technique where multiple bracketed images are blended together to create a single, beautifully exposed photo.
In other words, you take several photos with different exposures and then combine them – in a program like Lightroom or Photoshop – to create a very detailed file.
You see, your camera can only capture a limited range of lights and darks (i.e. a limited number dynamic range). If you point your camera at a dark mountain in front of a bright sunset, no matter how much you change the exposure of the image, your camera will fail to capture the details of the mountain. and The sky; either you will capture an image with a beautiful sky but a dark mountain with no details, or you will capture an image with a detailed mountain but a bright, blown sky.
High dynamic range photography aims to solve this problem. Instead of relying on the camera’s limited dynamic range capabilities, you can take multiple shots that cover the entire tonal range of a scene.
Then you can combine the detailed sections of each photo and end up with a file full of well-exposed shadows, midtones, and highlights.
In the case of the mountain at sunset, you could take three images:
- A darker image to capture sky detail
- A brighter image to capture mountain detail
- A mid-image to capture midtone detail
Then you can blend the three files, taking the sky from the dark image, the mountain from the bright image, and the midtones from the center image. Make sense ?
When should you use (or avoid) HDR photography?
Most scenes don’t require HDR techniques. The cameras have limited dynamic range capabilities, sure, but they’re still able to handle most standard situations; in other words, you don’t need to be doing high dynamic range photography all the time.
And HDR techniques come with significant limitations. To use the HDR process, you must take at least two “start” images, and neither the scene nor the camera can switch between shots. Therefore, you should always use a tripod and aim to capture Stationary scenes with little or no movement.
Therefore, I don’t recommend HDR photography when shooting action, such as sports, wildlife, birds, or even portraits; your subjects will move frequently and you will struggle to get two bracketed images.
On the other hand, HDR techniques are ideal for landscape photography, real estate photography, architectural photography, and cityscape photography. These genres allow for slow tripod shooting, and the scenes also feature limited movement.
Specifically, you should use HDR photography when you encounter still scenes with very bright and very dark tones. Here are some common scenarios where HDR techniques can be of great help:
- Sunrise and sunset landscape and cityscape scenes (with bright sky and dark foreground)
- Real estate and architectural interior scenes (with illuminated windows and/or artificial lighting)
- Twilight and night scenes (with artificial lighting and deep shadows)
- Landscape scenes with a mixture of bright light and shadow
Of course, it is impossible to say for Of course whether a scene will benefit from HDR processing, and camera sensors are steadily improving to handle high dynamic range scenes. But if in doubt, you can always take a few bracketed exposures; that way when you get home you can decide if you’ve captured enough detail in one shot or if you need to merge the files.
How to do HDR photography: step by step
In this section, I provide clear, step-by-step instructions for creating an HDR image, including both file capture and file processing.
Step 1: Configure your camera
As I pointed out above, it’s important to use a tripod when shooting HDR, so if you plan on using HDR techniques, be sure to keep a tripod handy.
Once you find a scene that could benefit from high dynamic range processing, mount your camera on the tripod and select your composition (as you would when capturing a normal non-HDR photo).
Select your camera settings. First, change your camera mode to manual; you don’t want the exposure to change from shot to shot.
Set your ISO to its lowest value to avoid noise and choose an aperture that gives you the desired depth of field (I often shoot at f/8 to f/11, but you can widen or narrow depending on your lenses) . Choose a shutter speed that gives you balanced exposure (i.e., be sure to expose for midtones, not highlights or shadows). Here it can be helpful to look at your camera’s exposure bar, which is usually visible at the bottom of the viewfinder.
Switch your lens to manual focus – you don’t want the focus point changing between shots! – and adjust the focus ring until you get the result you are looking for.
Step 2: Take a “properly” exposed image
Once you’ve set up your shot, take one last look at your camera settings.
If your shutter speed is slower than about 1/60s, be sure to use your camera’s two-second self-timer or a remote shutter to prevent camera shake.
Finally, take your first shot. Examine the results on the back of your LCD screen. Midtones should be well exposed, while highlights and shadows are much less prominent.
If your image is very dark or very bright (i.e. exposed for highlights or shadows, respectively), I recommend adjusting your shutter speed and reshooting. Then go to the next step:
Step 3: Take an overexposed image and an underexposed image
Keep your ISO, aperture and focus point consistent. Then reduce your shutter speed one or two stops and take a picture.
The result should look overexposed, but the darker parts of the scene should show plenty of detail. (You can check this on your LCD screen or your camera’s histogram.)
Next, increase your shutter speed by several stops, then take a photo. This time you should get an underexposed image, which lacks a lot of shadow detail, but accurately exposes the brightest parts of the scene.
Step 4: Consider the results (and take more photos if needed)
At this point, you should have three photos: a standard image (midtones), an overexposed image, and an underexposed image.
In many cases, this will be enough for a nice HDR mix, but if your scene has extremely high dynamic range, you might want to take five photos, seven photos, or even nine photos. Simply keep adjusting the shutter speed for increasingly brighter and darker photos until you are happy with the results.
Over time, you’ll get an idea of how many shots you need to create a good HDR file, but I always recommend reviewing your shots – and their corresponding histograms – on your LCD screen. If you find you’ve captured enough detail, you can move on to the next step:
Step 5: Merge the files together
After an HDR shot, you’ll need to mix the files to get a well-exposed composite image.
The specifics will depend on your choice of post-processing software, but most programs make it easy to create stunning HDR. Here’s how to create an HDR mix in Lightroom:
First, import your photos.
Select all the files you need to merge, then right-click and choose Photo>Photo Merger>HDR.
An HDR window will appear. I would recommend checking out the Automatic alignment box, especially if you’ve been shooting handheld or your tripod has moved from shot to shot. You can also check the Automatic settings box.
If your scene has moving elements (such as branches blowing or people walking), select the option Medium or High deghosting option.
Finally, hit Mergeand wait while Lightroom processes your image!
Step 6: Process your HDR file
At this point, you should have a high dynamic range file, but what should you do with it?
I would recommend standard post-processing. Adjust exposure, shadows and highlights; add (or subtract) contrast; add saturation and play with color grading; sharpen the shot as needed; then export them in JPEG format to view them.
HDR photography: final words
Now that you’ve completed this article, you’re ready to capture great shots of high dynamic range scenes!
So go with your camera (and tripod). Practice your bracketing. And get great pictures!
Now your turn :
What subjects will you be photographing using these HDR techniques? Share your opinion in the comments below!