High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography Techniques

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography Techniques

Have you ever seen a photo like this – one where the lighting is even and natural, and it looks like what you’d see in real life? Have you ever tried to take a photo like this and been frustrated that either the dark areas of the shot are too dark, or the light areas too light? These shots are all produced using a technique called HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography. In this post we’ll tell you how to take great photos like these and share our top HDR photography techniques.

What is HDR (High Dynamic Range)?

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography Techniques
An HDR image processed from three different photos

Cameras normally have a standard dynamic range. That is, a photo you take with any type of camera will be properly exposed for only one set of lighting conditions. This is great if your scene is evenly lit, or if you’re using light to draw focus to a specific area of the image. But if you’re trying to capture a scene that has extreme dark and light elements…well, you may be disappointed.

Have you ever taken a photo around dusk or dawn and wondered why the shot doesn’t look like what you see with your eyes? Your eyes and your brain automatically adjust for multiple lighting conditions and “blend” the scene together in your brain so that it all looks normal. So, essentially, your brain is producing a high dynamic range image that you’re not even aware of.

Fortunately, with modern software and techniques it’s possible to produce a final image that merges multiple lighting conditions into a single image that’s closer to what your eyes see.

High dynamic range is usually referred to by the initialism HDR. For the remainder of this post, we’ll use the term HDR to refer to high dynamic range imaging and techniques.

HDR Photography Techniques

This all may sound great so far, but you likely have  follow up questions: how do I make images like the one shown above? What HDR photography techniques do I need to know?

Getting a high quality HDR image comes down to two separate techniques. The first is to use your camera to capture a range of exposures of a given scene. The technical term for this is exposure bracketing. The second technique is to merge them together using software. We’ll explain both parts in a quick HDR photography tutorial below.

What is Exposure Bracketing?

Remember that your camera can only capture one exposure setting at a time. That is, every time you take a photo, the camera determines the optimal shutter speed and aperture (lens opening) for the scene in front of you. We’ll call this your “base” image. With exposure bracketing, you take additional shots that are over- and under-exposed relative to your base image. These over- and under-exposures will give you proper lighting conditions for the extreme dark and light areas in the frame. Exposure bracketing always involves an odd number of shots – you’ll typically have your “base” image, and then either one or two over- and under-exposures each.

In the beginning of this post you saw an HDR image I created – it was taken in the fjords near Olden, Norway. To get this image I used the exposure bracketing feature of my camera and shot three images: a base exposure, one that was over exposed by one f-stop, and one that was under-exposed by one f-stop. Here are the three original images:

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography Techniques
-1 from base image
High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography Techniques
Base image
High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography Techniques
+1 from base image

You can see how each of these images are well exposed for the lighting conditions of a section of the photo. In the “-1” image the clouds are properly exposed, but the trees are too dark. In the “+1” image, the trees are just right but the sky is too light. This is exactly what you should expect to get from exposure bracketing. From here, it’s a simple process of merging the images together. We’ll cover that in the next section.

Many modern DSLRs have exposure bracketing as a standard feature. Check your camera’s manual to see how you can make use of the feature.

If you have a tripod, you should use it when shooting exposure bracketing. This ensures that your images are all exactly the same which makes them easier to merge. It also ensures that you don’t have shake or blur in your images with slower shutter speeds.

Merging The Images

There are several different HDR photography software packages available to create HDR images from multiple bracketed exposures. We’ll explore a few that I recommend.

  • Adobe Lightroom: If you’re using Lightroom to store your photos, creating an HDR image is dead easy. You simply select the images that you want to merge together, right click, then select “Photo Merge –> HDR”.
  • Photomatix Pro: Photomatix’s flagship product produces very high quality HDR images and allows you to tailor the output to get the look you want. It also works well for those doing real estate photography or shooting interior architecture. A free trial is available – just be aware that images produced with the trial version will have a Photomatix watermark on them. You can purchase the Essentials version (currently $39 US), or the Pro version (currently $99 US). The pro version also has integration with Lightroom. From within Lightroom you can right-click a set of images and select “Edit In… –> Photomatix Pro.”
  • Aurora HDR: If you’re really interested in tweaking and tuning your final image, Aurora HDR from Skylum Software could be your best option. It offers very fast processing, and allows you to apply pre-defined settings (referred to as “Aurora HDR Looks”) to the image before saving it out.
High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography Techniques in Lightroom
The results of the Photo Merge process in Lightroom Classic

What If I Can’t Use Exposure Bracketing?

Most DSLRs do support exposure bracketing, but some lower-end cameras (and most smartphone cameras) don’t. But never fear, not all is lost. You still have a couple of options to produce an HDR-like image from a single photo.

  • If you’re using Lightroom to store and edit your photos, you can create virtual copies of a “base” image. Remember that HDRs require an odd number of images, so you’ll have to create an even number of virtual copies – these, plus the base image, will form your HDR. After creating the virtual copies, go into edit mode and change the exposure setting on the image. If you create two virtual copies, adjust one to -1 on the exposure, and +1 exposure for the second image.
  • Aurora HDR can also create an HDR-style image from a single photo. Simply open the software, load the image, and it will automatically adjust specific areas of the photo to make it more natural looking.

HDR Photography Techniques – Getting It Right In Camera

Another HDR photo taken on a cloudy day in Norway.

As with most types of photography, you’ll want to make sure you get your images “right” in the camera. “Right” means that the images are crisp and well focused, have a minimum of noise, exposed properly for the light conditions, and are well-composed. It doesn’t matter how good your software is – if you don’t practice the right HDR photography techniques when you’re taking the raw images, your final photo won’t look good.

With that in mind, here are our best HDR photography techniques for getting it right in the camera:

  • As noted above, you should use a tripod. This will ensure your images are pin-sharp and that they all merge together cleanly in post-processing.
  • Shoot with a higher f-stop like f11 or above. This may produce a slower shutter speed, which is all the more reason to use a tripod. The higher f-stop will give you a bigger depth of field, which means that more of the image will be in crisp focus.
  • Look for a scene with an interesting foreground object. A rock in a stream, a table inside a building, etc. This provides something to draw the viewer in.
  • A handy tip to make sure you know where a bracketed image starts and ends: shoot your fingers! Before shooting a series of images for HDR, I take a shot of one finger in front of the camera. I then take a shot of two fingers at the end of the sequence. Sometimes in post-processing it’s not always easy to tell which images should go together. This makes it foolproof.
  • If you’re photographing water or moving clouds, combining exposure bracketing with long exposure. Switch to shutter-preferred mode and pick an exposure of 1 second or more. This can give your final image a dreamy, smooth quality to it.

When Should I Avoid HDR Photography Techniques?

HDR is a great tool, but it has to be used in the right way. There are some times when it’s best to not use HDR photography techniques, because your image won’t turn out well. Some situations that don’t warrant HDR are:

  • Bird photography is a poor choice for HDR, even if the subject appears to be sitting still. Micro movements and changes in the background may well produce blurred images. The same rule applies to any other type of animal photography.
  • A shot where you’re trying to make dramatic use of lighting. HDR evens out the light in an image, but if you’re emphasizing a dark corner or blown out highlight in your image, the effect will be muted.
  • Interior shots in locations where you can’t use a tripod. Some older buildings, especially churches, don’t allow the use of tripods. Unless you have a way to steady the camera (against a wall, pillar, table, etc.) and take multiple sharp exposures – especially the ones that have higher shutter speeds – your HDR won’t render well.

Final Thoughts

Not all photographs are suitable for HDR processing, and not all cameras support exposure bracketing which is necessary to shoot in HDR. However, HDR photography is a key technique for landscape and architecture photographers to practice and to master.

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