In recent years, HDR photography has taken the world by storm. Advances in technology have allowed amateur and professional photographers alike to produce incredibly detailed photographs, using only straightforward techniques and easy to use software.
This has allowed low-budget photographers to create the kind of images that 10 or 20 years ago might have been costly and time-consuming. In short, HDR has made pro-photography accessible.
Maybe you’ve been captivated by the work of pro HDR photographers like Trey Ratcliff, or you simply want to experiment coin your own digital style.
This article will explain what HDR photography is, how to get started with HDR photography, and what techniques and software will help you create stunning images.
It’s an intermediate to advanced level tutorial which assumes you have a basic grasp of your camera’s settings, including how to use it in manual mode.
So, prepare to immerse yourself in the world of HDR photography.
- What is HDR photography
- Types of HDR Images
- When To and When Not to Use HDR
- How to Create HDR Photographs on Your Phone or Compact Camera
- Creating Images at Multiple Exposures
- Creating Your HDR Photograph Using HDR Software
What is HDR photography
Cameras have come a long way since the birth of digital photography. Still, they come with some limitations. One of these is dynamic range.
In short, dynamic range is the range of light levels that can be seen in an image. Or, in other words the difference between the lightest and darkest values and how well the details in these areas are represented.
Even the best digital SLRs cannot rival the dynamic range of the human eye. This means that in the harshest lighting conditions, we often need to make the choice about whether to render the shadows completely black or the highlights completely white (which can result in overblown skies).
This is one reason, why many photographers prefer to shoot in golden hour conditions (i.e. just after dawn or just before dusk) or in blue light conditions (i.e. just before dawn or just after dusk) when the shadows are softer.
The first image was taken at normal exposure, and as you can see the camera overexposed the highlights. The second image used HDR on three images at different exposures to fix this.
HDR stands for ‘High Dynamic Range’ and simply refers to the set of techniques used to bring out the entire dynamic range of an image so even the darkest and lightest areas are rendered in detail.
This enhances both the interest and 3-dimensionality of an image. Many photographers use it to render photographs much closer to what the eye can see, hence also enhancing realism.
But nowadays HDR software has become so advanced that you can also use it to create surrealist, painterly, or many other types of custom styles. This allows you to leave your own footprint on your photographs.
Types of HDR Images
Before I go into detail about how HDR works, I want to cover two kinds of HDR in use today.
The first of these is called Pseudo HDR or Fake HDR. This involves lightening the shadows and darkening the highlights of an image to bring out the details in both areas. You end up with an HDR look which can be quite effective (though rarely as good as True HDR, mentioned below).
For Pseudo HDR to work effectively, you need enough detail in the light and dark areas of the image for the computer to process, otherwise you will end up with a noisy image. Very quickly, this is how you can create a Pseudo HDR image in Adobe Lightroom.
- Set the shadows slider to as high as possible
- Set the highlights slider to as low as possible
- Ramp up the clarity in the image to as high as possible
- Make further changes to settings like exposure, contrast and vibrance until you get the look you want.
True HDR on the other hand involves taking photos at multiple exposures and then stitching them together in some way using computer software.
Typically, this is done using three exposures, one at normal exposure, one at a lighter exposure and one at a darker exposure. Many cameras come with auto-bracketing features that allow you to do this quickly.
However, True HDR can involve merging as few as 2 to as many photos as you like, although most photographers wouldn’t use more than 9 exposures for practical reasons. Generally, you should try use as few images as you need to achieve your desired effect, as more images increases the risk of artifacts.
As you’re getting started on this, I recommend sticking with three exposures. Then, once you’ve learned the techniques, you can increase this number as you gain experience.
When To and When Not to Use HDR
HDR is an incredibly powerful set of techniques. Unfortunately, like most things in photography, it’s not suitable for all situations. So when should you use HDR?
In short, you should use it whenever you have plenty of time to set up the shot and you want to bring out the complete dynamic range in your scene. You shouldn’t use it when you need to shoot fast, when the light and dark details are unimportant, or you want to mask certain details from the viewer.
To elaborate, times you might use HDR include:
- When you have extreme areas of light and dark and you want to draw out the details in both areas
- When you have both indoor and outdoor elements visible in your scene (e.g. when you want to shoot indoors and bring out the details outside the window or when you want to include both the outside and inside of a temple in the same scene).
- When shooting into the sun and you don’t want to create a silhouette
- During the highest point in the day when the shadows are harsh
- At night when you want to draw out the qualities of the light as well as the dark (e.g. astrophotography, getting details of the moon, shots of city lights reflected in a river, etc.)
- When you want to bring out the details of reflections
- When you have a tripod, steady hand and aren’t taking photos of moving subjects
- When you want extra creativity over how your shots look.
Don’t use HDR when:
- You want to display a scene with vivid colours or high contrast (e.g. silhouettes)
- You don’t want to bring out the details in the shadows or highlights (such as when you want to show soft skin)
- You have moving objects in your scene. The exception is water and clouds where HDR can add a nice softening technique. Note, HDR software has deghosting methods for combatting slow moving objects. But this involves some guesswork which might introduce unwanted artifacts.
- You don’t have a means of steadying your camera. HDR deghosting can also combat slight camera shake, but if you’re trundling along off-road in a jeep then HDR might be a bad idea.
- You have limited storage available on your card as HDR has more extensive memory requirements.
How to Create HDR Photographs on Your Phone or Compact Camera
Some cameras, particularly phone cameras, can automatically create HDR images. To do this, simply find the HDR mode in your phone settings, point and shoot.
The phone will take multiple photos and stitch them together in the background. It will take longer to take the photograph, but after that you should see a vivid and detailed image on the screen.
If you’re using a phone’s digital camera, I recommend using HDR mode whenever speed isn’t an issue. You’ll get much better images this way.
But remember that better cameras have better dynamic range. This is largely due the fact larger sensor sizes can manage lower light conditions better. So, you’ll get improved results from professional cameras over phone cameras.
Also note that phone cameras will rarely give you much control over the HDR settings. Given it’s all done automatically, this gives more room for things to go wrong.
Creating Images at Multiple Exposures
To create true HDR photographs, you’ll need multiple images at different exposures. You’ll also need special HDR software to merge these photos together. I’ll discuss some of the software options in the next section.
Other than exposure, you’ll want to avoid changing anything else in the shot. This means no camera movement and no variations in aperture. I recommend putting your camera in manual mode to avoid unwanted changes, making sure nothing is on automatic (TIP: double-check ISO), and using a tripod.
An external shutter button or use of the camera’s wireless interface on your phone can also help reduce camera shake.
You’ll also need to be careful with the autofocus on your camera lens. You can avoid any unwanted refocusing by setting the camera to manual focus after you’ve finished focusing. Although, you probably won’t need to worry about this when auto-bracketing.
To vary the exposures, you have two options:
- Use your phone’s exposure auto-bracketing feature. This typically will take three shots at a specified difference in exposure. The more expensive your camera, the more advanced the auto-bracketing features are likely to be.
- Vary the exposure by adjusting the shutter speed manually.
Of course, you’ll need to decide how much to vary the exposure by (if your camera allows it) or what shutter speeds to use. If you wish to save time, you can just guess and you’ll get better at this with practice.
Or (more advanced), you can use the spot metering setting on your camera (or an external light meter) to determine what shutter speed you’ll need to properly expose the areas you wish to focus on.
After everything’s ready, you’re ready to take the shots. Take multiple shots at each exposure level, just in case something flies into the scene (e.g. a seagull) and ruins your shot. Then, all you need to do is take the photos off your camera and stitch them together.
Oh, and one more thing. Remember to set your camera so the images are saved in RAW (not jpeg) format. There’s a lot more information in a RAW image which is crucial to HDR.
Note: if your camera supports it, a compressed raw or C-RAW format is just as good as RAW since the compression is lossless. However, you’ll need convert the files to DNG format before exporting to some of the HDR software packages. You can use a program like Adobe’s DNG to do this.
Creating Your HDR Photograph Using HDR Software
Once you’ve taken your photographs, the rest of the HDR creation project is done behind a computer screen. In recent years, there’s been an explosion in HDR software, so you have plenty to choose from.
Here’s a brief review of five of the most popular: Aurora HDR, Photomatix, Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop and Luminance HDR.
Note, you can use Pseudo HDR techniques on a single image in all these software applications.
1. Aurora HDR
Aurora HDR is the creation of HDR pro photographer Trey Ratcliff and his company, Skylum Software. Its algorithms are fast and it’s easy to use – simply drag the HDR image set into the software and it will generate the HDR image for you.
Aurora comes with a ton of post-processing settings and plenty of one-click filters (kind of like Instagram), which is great for exploring different possible styles.
Best of all, it has both Lightroom and Photoshop plugins. So, it’s useable as part of your photo-editing workflow. Most of the True HDR images in this post were generated using Aurora HDR 2018.
Photomatix is another major competitor on the scene and it has very similar features to Aurora HDR. One advantage of Photomatix is it allows better control over the HDR image merge process than Aurora with more settings for things like ghosting.
Some HDR photographers prefer Aurora, others Photomatix. Fortunately, both programs come with free trials, so you can play about with them and decide which one works better for you.
Photomatix also has Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop plugins.
3. Adobe Lightroom Classic CC
If you don’t want to fork out for any specific HDR software and you’re an avid Lightroom Classic user, then you’ll be happy to learn it has HDR settings built in. They’re not as feature rich as Aurora HDR’s or Photomatix, and the processing is slower.
However, Lightroom still gets the job done. To use HDR in Lightroom Classic CC, simply select multiple photos in library mode, right click, then select Photo Merge > HDR. A dialog will come up with some basic settings for auto-align and deghosting. Clicking on Merge will create a new HDR image as part of a stack.
Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the newer Lightroom CC doesn’t ship with HDR.
4. Adobe Photoshop CC
If you’re using Photoshop, you probably already have Lightroom, whose cataloguing features make it easy to visually select which images you wish to use for HDR. However, Photoshop’s HDR features are slightly more advance, so if you’re sticking with Adobe, sometimes Photoshop will give you more control.
There’s two ways to access Photoshop’s HDR features. The first is to open the images manually from File > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro. The second is to select the files in Lightroom and then right click and select Edit In > Merge to HDR in Photoshop.
After merging a dialogue will pop up with settings that allow you to finalize the image. You can then continue to edit the image using Photoshop’s toolset.
If you want ultimate control over the HDR process, you can also use Photoshop to create HDR images manually. This, however, requires a lot more work.
5. Luminance HDR
If you have zero budget and want to dip your toe in the water without spending anything then Luminance HDR is free and open source. It’s not as pretty, feature rich, or fast as Aurora and Photomatix but it can still produce some good results.
So that concludes my brief primer on HDR photography. This is a broad subject and it would take a book to cover it in detail. However, this should be enough information to get started in the world of HDR photography.
The key with HDR is patience. This isn’t a point-and-shoot strategy and to get the best images, you need to carefully consider the light levels in your scene then set up a tripod to get the best shot. But the results you can get from this are well worth it.
Chris Behrsin is a travel writer, fiction writer, freelance copywriter, stock photographer and a co-author of the Being a Nomad travel blog. He’s travelled to over 30 countries, enjoys playing the piano when he has access to one, as well as photography, reading, digital painting, writing and, of course, travelling.