A Guide To HDR Photography For Beginners

Have you ever taken a photo and the conditions were perfect but when you uploaded it to your computer the whites were burnt out with no details in the shadows? If so, you should give HDR photography a try.

What Is HDR?

Dynamic range is the range of dark and light areas in a photo, so a high dynamic range means there’s a larger range of bright and dark areas. HDR photography allows you to capture more textures, tones and details that would otherwise be lost in the shadows and highlights of your image. HDR captures the whole dynamic range of the scene, so the photo looks a lot nearer to what you would see with your own eyes. A common example of lost details is in landscape photography, in which the sky often overexposes in order to capture the landscape at the correct exposure, and so details in the sky are lost in highlights. Usually photographers get around this by using an ND grad to darken the sky, but with HDR you can capture all the lost details in the sky and landscape without using a filter. HDR isn’t always used just for getting as much detail out of the photo as possible, it can be used for creating artistic, abstract or an unreal looking photo effect. You can create these effects and HDR images using software such as Photoshop or Photomatix.

How It Works

HDR images are created by first taking multiple exposures of your subject. You’ll need to use a tripod for this to make sure you capture the same image for all of the exposures. DSLR’s have the option of using something called bracketing, which automatically changes the exposure between each image, and is useful to use along with a remote shutter release or timer so you don’t need to touch the camera in between images which could move the camera slightly and blur the image. There’s no limit to the amount of photos you can take, but 3-5 is often sufficient to capture all the details you need. If you decide to take 3 exposures, using exposures of 0EV, +2EV and -2EV should give you some good results. However if the scene has very contrasting areas of dark and light, you may need to take more exposures to capture all this. Once you’ve got your photos, all you need to do is combine them in software that’s capable of creating HDR photos such as Photoshop or Photomatix.

When To Use HDR

HDR works best with landscapes, indoor and architectural shots. In landscape photos details can be lost in the sky because the sky is often a lot brighter than the landscape, so using HDR you can capture the details that would otherwise be lost. But if you’re only using HDR to avoid burning out details in the sky, it may be easier to use an ND grad filter instead. Indoor shots usually have a lot of shadowy areas, and if there’s sunlight entering through the windows this can create huge contrasts. So by using HDR you can capture all the lost details in the shadows and through the windows which otherwise would show burnt out white highlights. Take note that burnt out highlights are sometimes a desired effect, and you may not always want to see out of the window. Also another option is to use flash indoors to remove some of the shadows, but again this depends on what effect you want to create in your image. Architecture shots work well in HDR, because there’s often a lot of contrasting textures and details on the buildings, and this technique can be used to give the buildings an unreal, ghostly look.


HDR Tips

  • Because you’re trying to capture as much detail as possible in your photos, it’s worth using RAW to preserve even more image data.
  • You may need to change your composition using HDR, because areas that would usually be lost in shadows or highlights will now be visible in your photo, so compose your photos with this in mind.
  • HDR is most useful when there’s highly contrasting dark and light areas in your image.
  • Avoid using this technique with moving subjects, for example this wouldn’t work at all for sports photography, but also for nature photos the wind may move foliage slightly in between each exposure, which could blur the photo considerably.
  • It’s important to use a tripod to ensure you get the same image for every shot and avoid blur.
  • Use a remote shutter or timer to further avoid any camera shake.
  • Use bracketing so your camera changes the exposure automatically between shutter releases.
  • Make sure the camera is using a pre-set white balance mode, and not auto to avoid any changes between shots.
  • Use the lowest ISO possible. If you’re using a tripod there’s no need to increase the ISO above the lowest setting.
  • Make changes only to the exposure between each image, and make sure the white balance, aperture, ISO, and focus points don’t change.
  • Don’t over process your photo. Lots of photographers get carried away with HDR and tweak the settings so much in post processing that they create an unnatural photo that looks more like a painting. It may take some practice to get the right balance between a surreal looking photo, and one that doesn’t look over the top.
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