How to Shoot HDR Images

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HDR images bring out details that a single image just can’t capture.

Let’s get a little deeper into image creation. You’ll notice that I didn’t say photography. While there are hundreds of books written on photography, there are far less on the subject of HDR post-processing. If you don’t know, HDR means ‘high dynamic range’. As discussed in a previous article, your camera has much less ‘dynamic range’ than your eyes. This is why when a new photographer sees their finished image, they are often disappointed because it doesn’t ‘look’ like what they saw at the time. I remember this feeling quite vividly from my early days.

Your eyes can see detail in the deepest shadows on a brightly lit day. Your camera can not. Your camera may have several ‘stops’ of range, but not nearly as many as your eye. Every camera is different, so I hesitate to quote the exact range of any particular camera., but the human eye is said to have 20 stops of dynamic range (as long as direct light isn’t hitting the retina of course). A DSLR camera will have about 12 (currently). However, Technology is always improving.

Now, this can present a big problem in photography. Especially photography where there are subjects that you want to be seen in the lightest AND darkest parts of a scene.  If you’re out with your camera and ‘handholding’ it in a kind of ‘run and gun’ style, you’re going to have to choose what to expose for. Are you going to expose for the lightest area of the scene and allow the darkest areas to be shown as deep shadows? OR, are you going to choose to expose for the darker part of the scene and allow the brightest areas to be ‘overblown’, maybe even displayed as pure white with no details at all?

There are things you can do to avoid this choice. You can photograph scenes that have a more ‘even’ light. For example, an outdoor scene closer to sunrise or sunset when the light is more even presents an easier shooting situation.  If photographing a person, you can move them into a shadow area so the light falling on them is as even as possible. Actually positioning them just on the edge of a brightly lit area, but still in the shadow (like under a tree) usually provides the most pleasing light on a person’s face.

Let’s say, however, that these options aren’t possible. The photograph that you want has light and dark extremes and there’s nothing you can do about it.  Well, there IS something you can do. This is where HDR comes into play. Now, before we go any further, let me warn you that HDR images have a bad rap. This is because early users of this procedure took the process a bit too far and created unrealistic results (it’s very easy to get carried away).

My personal goal is always to present the scene the way it looked to my eye at the time, or as close to that as possible. I try not to take it too far, but like I said, it’s easy to do.

Alright, with all that aside, how do we create an HDR image? Well, you’re going to need a few things;

  1. A tripod (you don’t NEED one, but your images will be much better with one.
  2. At least 3 bracketed images (one under-exposed, one properly exposed and one over exposed.
  3. Finally, some software to merge them.

The software part is usually the most difficult part as your choices are limited and most of them aren’t free.

The below assumes that you’re photographing a landscape, just so it makes sense.

So, set up your tripod, go into the ‘settings’ area of your camera and set up some bracketed exposures.

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Some camera allow for three brackets, others allow for 5.

I will usually shoot three images; one 2-stops under, one properly exposed and one 2-stops over.

This set up usually works just fine, but not always. Like anything else, you’ll need to play around to see what works best for you. Also, what works will change from scene to scene. You may need 5 exposures (if your camera will do that) or you may need the ‘properly exposed’ image to be over (or under) exposed itself to get all the details that you’re looking for.

I should mention at this point that a remote shutter release would be helpful to avoid camera shake. It’s not 100% necessary, but you’ll want one eventually.

So, shoot your bracketed images and then go back and look them over on the display. Do you see details in the darkest areas of the overexposed shot?  Do you see detail in the brightest part of the scene in the underexposed image?  If so, you’re probably good. It’s always good to take several brackets with slightly different settings and to move around your subject (if you can). You never know which image will turn out to be your favorite.  Of course, make adjustments as necessary. Have fun with it!

Alright, you have all your images….. Now what?

This is where you’re going to need software to create a ‘tone mapped’ image. This simply means a flat image with details in all areas of the light and dark. These tone mapped images can look kind of strange, but hang on, we’re going to fix that.

As far as HDR software, you have a lot of options. For example;

  1. Aurora HDR .
  2. EasyHDR .
  3. Photomatix Pro
  4. HDR Projects 4 
  5. Oloneo HDR 
  6. SNS-HDR 
  7. Machinery HDR
  8. Dynamic-Photo HDR
  9. HDR Darkroom 
  10. HDR Expose
  11. HDR Efex Pro 
  12. Luminance HDR 
  13. PaintShop Pro 
  14. Picturenaut 
  15. Fusion 
  16. Full Dynamic Range Tool 
  17. Adobe Lighroom CC 
  18. Canon DPP
  19. Photoshop CC  
  20. PhotoStudio 

Of course, what you choose will be based on your budget and your personal taste in HDR images. It comes down to what ‘look’ are you going for?

I’ve used a few of the software packages listed above, but interestingly, my ‘go to’ and favorite is only number 11!

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I shoot in RAW so I open the images in Photoshop CC. I don’t make any adjustments to the images at this point.
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If you have HDRfexPro, you can merge your images right into the program as a plug-in.
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The merge screen is where you’ll get a chance to address image alignment as well as deal with chromatic aberrations. Once you’re happy with everything, create your HDR.
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This is where you’ll get your first look at the merged images as a tone-mapped HDR.
Once you choose a preset or make any adjustment, hit ‘OK’ to return to Photoshop CC.
I usually just choose ‘balanced’ and make adjustments later as outlined below.

I use HDRFexPRO from DxO (although they were first owned and developed by a company called NIK)

Here is a link.


This is BY FAR the best HDR software that I’ve used (in my opinion). Here’s why;

The results are very ‘real looking’. Sure, you can get carried away, but many of the presets are pretty lifelike.

Also, the software does a really good job of aligning the images (like if you didn’t have your tripod). I’ve shot a good deal of handheld bracketed images and this software saved my more than a time or two!

The software will also give you some control over chromatic aberration (sometimes when you align images, there will be red, blue, green or yellow ‘lines’ around the edges of objects in the photograph – especially leaves on trees or railings. This software lets you zoom in (WAY IN!) and adjust these aberrations until they’re gone (mostly).

Once the images are merged, the ‘balanced’ result will be displayed. From here you can apply some of the presets and further adjust those or just save this image and edit it further yourself from here.

HDRFexPro works as ‘stand-alone’ software or it can be used as a plug-in with Photoshop CC.

Now, speaking just for myself, I then take the image and give it a bit of a ‘boost’ in another DxO software package called; ColorFxPro. Here I usually use three presets;

1 brilliance / warmth

2 polarization

3 pro contrast

Here is the finished image (Again).

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I hope this article helped in some way, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. Thanks for visiting!Paragraph

One response to “How to Shoot HDR Images”

  1. Tips for Long Exposure Photography – William Wolfe Photography and Video Avatar

    […] A simple 1-second exposure (f-22, ISO 100) was enough to cause a passing car to be reduced to streaks of light. The waves were quite choppy in the East River, but this image was made with a 30- second exposure, f=22 and ISO 100. The long exposure smoothed the water. Same location, different angle. Here a few exposures were combined in a long exposure HDR image. HDR images were discussed in a previous post here. […]


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