As a photographer, you’ve certainly run into situations where your camera couldn’t capture both the light and the dark parts of a scene. The resulting photo lack detail in either highlights or shadows, and you wished you could have restored it somehow.
Luckily, with HDR photography, you won’t have this kind of problems any more.
What is HDR photography?
HDR (high dynamic range) photography is an advanced technique of capturing several photos of the same scene using different exposures and then combining them with a photo editor into a single image.
HDR stands for high dynamic range, and if you’re unfamiliar with photography lingo, dynamic range is the difference between the darkest and the lightest part of a photo.
In general, the human eye has a vastly superior dynamic range in comparison to the digital sensor, and that’s the exact reason why some of your photos lack detail in either shadows or highlights.
To make up for the shortcomings of the digital sensors, we take multiple photos and stack them together.
How HDR photography works
In essence, an HDR photo is just a clever combination of two or more photos taken at different exposure values and then merged.
Look at one of your photos of a high dynamic range scene. You’ll notice that you either properly exposed the highlights with shadows being simply black or you properly exposed the shadows, but now all the highlights look white.
To create a basic HDR photo, you would take 2 photos at a minimum, one with properly exposed shadows and one with properly exposed highlights. You would take these 2 photos to a specialized photo editor and let it merge them for you; a result will be a high dynamic photo that has properly exposed highlights and shadows.
How to take an HDR photo
Before you head out on terrain let’s make you have the necessary equipment. For the best results, here’s what you will need:
- Camera: a camera that has an auto-bracketing feature will significantly simplify and speed up the process, but any camera in manual mode will do.
- Tripod: for HDR photography you need several identical photos (except for the exposure), so there can be absolutely no movement.
- HDR merging software: several photo editors can merge HDR photos such as Lightroom, Photoshop, Aurora HDR, ON1.
Once you gathered the necessary equipment, you’re all set to go out and take HDR photos.
Step 1. Find the scenery you want to photograph. HDR photography only works for non-moving subjects; otherwise, you’ll see ghosting (more on that later) in your photos, that’s why HDR is the most widely spread in landscape photography.
Step 2. In your camera menu, select auto-bracketing. As a general rule, we take series photos that are each separated by 2 EV (exposure value of 2 stops). You should take a photo that retains full detail in shadows, and a photo that retains full detail in highlights. If these two are more than 2 EV apart, you should take additional photos in between the two extremes.
For example, you can take 3 photos, at -2, 0, and 2 EV. If you’re dealing with a higher dynamic range in the scenery, you can go for a 5-photo sequence, -4, -2, 0, 2, and 4.
Step 3. Change shutter speed to adjust the exposure, while keeping the aperture and ISO setting fixed. If your camera supports auto-bracketing, you only need to choose the EV values and press the shutter button; the camera will adjust the shutter speed automatically.
Don’t forget to use the timer. Not only will it reduce camera shake and produce sharper photos, but it will also create the entire sequence with one press of the shutter button.
If your camera doesn’t support auto-bracketing, you will have to adjust the exposure manually. Let’s say you use 1/500th of a second shutter speed for the darkest photo in the sequence. For the next one, you would skip 1/250th and choose 1/125th of a second (remember, we’re using a 2-stop bracket). For the next one, you would again skip one exposure time, 1/60, and go for 1/30. You repeat this process until you reach the brightest photo.
Here’s a list of shutter speeds.
1/8000, 1/4000, 1/2000, 1/1000, 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, 0.5, 1.
If you bracket by 2-stops, you skip one shutter speed each step, and if you bracket by 3-stop, you should skip two shutter speeds each step.
Step 4. Review the sequence of the photos taken before you leave the place and make sure that you properly captured shadows and highlights, and took all the necessary photos in between.
Step 5. Upload your photos into a photo editor to merge them into an HDR photo.
How to edit HDR photos
Once you’re ready to post-process the photos you captured, there’s a workflow you should follow to avoid making crucial HDR photography mistakes.
There are two tools I use and recommend for HDR photography: Lightroom and Aurora HDR. Both give similar results, but the Aurora HDR gives you more settings to play around with than Lightroom does.
HDR Photography in Lightroom
To create an HDR photo in Lightroom, follow these steps:
- Import at least 3 photos of an HDR sequence into Lightroom.
- Select the photos by holding Ctrl (or Command) and using a left mouse click.
- Right click on an image > Photo Merge > HDR or press Ctrl (or Command) + H. HDR panel will open up.
- Check Auto Align
- Optionally: Check Auto Settings. You can also skip this and do it later in the basic panel > Auto.
- Select the Deghost amount. If you had no movement in your HDR sequence, select None; alternatively, select Low, Medium, or High, depending on how much movement you had in your HDR sequence. Use Deghost overlay to visualize deghosting.
- Press Merge.
- A new HDR image named Your_image_name + HDR will appear in your Collection.
Whichever tools you use, you should check the setting to align the images, because although you (hopefully) used a tripod, the camera can still move during the sequence of photos.
Next, you will also want to use deghosting (also ghost reduction), which fixes the moving objects in the photo, such as tree leaves, grass, and clouds. While deghosting helps in these cases, it won’t help you if your main subject moved during the sequence.
Once you successfully merge the images into one image with a full dynamic range, you have to apply basic adjustments; and that’s where a lot of beginners to HDR photography go wrong.
Just because you can lift the shadows or drop the highlights without introducing noise in your images, it doesn’t mean you should do it.
Unless you’re after a specific artistic effect, HDR photography’s purpose is to make up for the shortcomings of the digital sensors in comparison to the human eye; thus, I urge you to lift the shadows only to the point until you create an image similar to what you saw with your eyes.
When you take the shadows away from the image and reduce the highlights to the point where they are no longer bright, you flatten the image and reduce its interest.
Include the Sun in your HDR photos
Including the Sun in photos is difficult because of the high dynamic range it produces, but now that you know how to create HDR photos, it shouldn’t be a problem anymore.
We, landscape photographers, love to photograph the golden hour more than other photographers. This time of the Sun is low on the horizon, so using it in your photos to make the scenery more interesting shouldn’t be too difficult.
Since the Sun is significantly brighter than the rest of the landscape, you’ll have to take several exposures (think more than 3) to produce a good HDR photo.
HDR Photography on iPhone
HDR Photography is the same across all Apple devices – you’ll find three HDR options: ON, Auto, and Off.
By setting the “On” option and pressing the capture button, your iOS device will automatically take three separate photos and merge them into a single HDR image that will be saved in your camera roll.
Turning on the “Auto” mode will enable that your device uses HDR mode automatically when it recognizes a high-contrast scene.
Lastly, the “Off” option will disable the HDR capture mode.
In iOS 11 and more recent devices, you only have Auto and Off options.
HDR Photography on Android
While HDR mode is the same across all Apple device, Android is not always as straightforward. Every manufacturer designs the user interface differently; however, the final experience is the same for all devices.
Inside the camera app, you need to enable the HDR or Rich Tone mode first. When shooting, you Android device will automatically capture several photos and merge them into the final HDR photo that will be saved to your gallery.
HDR Photography without a Tripod
While I teach beginner photographers to always use a tripod to create the sharpest HDR photos, I have occasionally broke this rule myself. While using a tripod for HDR photography is ideal, it’s not always possible.
To successfully take HDR photos without a tripod, follow these tips:
- Set your camera on Auto Exposure Bracketing
- Set your camera on APerture priority mode
- Enable auto focus, but don’t change the focus during the sequence
- Use the lowest possible ISO setting
- Find a wall or a beam to lean on to reduce movement
- Redo the HDR sequence multiple times
- Review the sequence to check for excessive movement
- Use “Align images” in post production
HDR Photography Examples
HDR Photography Example #1
An example of a landscape photo of a waterfall.
HDR Photography Example #2
HDR Photography Example #3
An example of a real-estate HDR photo.
Conclusion | HDR Photography
HDR photography opens new doors to your creativity. Although HDR photography is based on a simple concept, it will take you some time to master it – don’t expect to take outstanding, National Geographic-worthy photos right away, but with some practise you’ll get there.
Do not be afraid to experiment with bracketing settings and scenery, push the limits of your camera, photo editors, and HDR photography to the limits.
Do you know anyone who’s trying to learn HDR photography? Consider sharing this post with them; it really helps me 🙂
About your guide
Matic Broz is a multifaceted creative professional, with experience as a photographer, graphic designer, and business owner. He has a decade of experience in helping other creatives improve their craft and start their own businesses. His writing and research have been featured in notable publications such as The Guardian, PetaPixel, and USA Today. Additionally, his scientific research has been recognized with a cover feature in the prestigious MDPI-owned journal. In his leisure time, he enjoys photography, hiking, and spending time with dogs. Read more
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