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High Dynamic Range Photography: The Ultimate Guide

What is HDR photography? And how do you do it?

You’ve come to the right place.

Because this article is going to tell you everything you need to become a master of HDR photography. You’ll discover what it is, when it makes sense to use it, how to pull off stunning HDR photos, and much more!

Let’s dive right in, starting with:

What is HDR Photography?

First things first:

HDR stands for high dynamic range.

And the dynamic range is the tonal spectrum of a scene.

In other words, the dynamic range of a scene is the difference between the brightest brights and the darkest darks. So a scene that has an extremely bright sky in the background and a very dark building in the foreground has a high dynamic range, because there’s a significant difference between the brightest brights (the sky) and the darkest darks (the building).

A scene of a well-lit white candle on a well-lit white background has a very low dynamic range because it stretches from the white of the candle to the white of the background. In other words, there’s almost zero tonal difference.

Now that you understand the concept of dynamic range, you can understand what HDR photography is all about:

Capturing photos of high dynamic range scenes.

The reason that HDR is a special photography technique is because cameras can’t accurately render every tone in a scene. When a scene becomes too HDR, a camera will start to lose detail in the blacks and the whites. And that just doesn’t look good.

This is why HDR photography techniques were invented — techniques that allow cameras to capture HDR scenes and render them perfectly, without any loss of detail in the whites or blacks.

If you like to look at photography online, I guarantee that you’ve seen at least a few HDR photos. Some of them will have looked strange and even garish, like the scene is vibrating with light:

Whereas you’ll hardly even know that others used high dynamic range techniques, given how natural they look.

Make sense?

How Does HDR Photography Work?

Now that you understand the theory behind HDR photography, it’s time to look at its technical aspects:

Simply stated, HDR photography involves taking several photos of the same scene at different exposure levels, then blending them together to create a single, perfectly exposed image.

So for a mountainscape with a beautiful sunrise, you might take a photo that properly exposes the dark foreground, a photo that properly exposes the medium midground, and a photo that properly exposes the bright background. Then you’d blend them together and end up with a beautiful final shot.

Most basic post-processing programs have an HDR blending toolkit, though there are some programs that are dedicated specifically to HDR photography (for instance, Aurora HDR).

More HDR Posts

You can also manually blend HDR photos, using a layer-based editing program such as Adobe Photoshop CC.

Note that you can do HDR photography using a smartphone, and that many smartphones have an automatic HDR setting which does all this blending work for you. When a smartphone is set to capture an HDR photo, it will fire off a number of quick shots, then blend them together for a final photo.

Most serious HDR photography, however, is not done with a smartphone, which means that you have to do some of the work yourself. So when you find a scene you’d like to shoot using HDR techniques, just follow this step-by-step plan:

First, set up your camera as you normally would, carefully composing the photo.

Second, take several shots of the scene (between 2 and 9), making sure to expose some of them for the darkest areas of the scene, and others for the brightest areas of the scene. All the other shots should sit between the two extremes.

In other words, if you take three shots, one should be very dark, one very light, and one in-between.

To actually pull off this exposure bracketing, you’ll need to have your camera in Manual mode or in one of the semi-automatic modes (i.e., Program, Aperture Priority, or Shutter Priority).

If you use Manual mode, then you’ll need to change the shutter speed with each photo that you take. If you use Program, Aperture Priority, or Shutter Priority, you’ll need to change the exposure compensation to brighten and darken the scene.

Note that many cameras have an Auto Exposure Bracketing setting (AEB), which will ensure that the camera brackets for you when you hit the shutter button. This is a real benefit for photographers who frequently use HDR techniques, and I recommend you check your manual to determine how it can be activated.

Third, blend your exposures together in post-processing.

And you’ll end up with a stunning HDR image!

When Should You Use HDR Photography?

Some scenes require HDR techniques.

But for other scenes, HDR is overkill.

So when is HDR photography necessary?

First, HDR techniques are helpful all the time in landscape photography. You’ll often be faced with bright skies and dark foregrounds, which require HDR techniques for accurate exposures. In situations like these, you’ll want to capture an exposure that deals with the sky and a second exposure that deals with the foreground, at the very least. But it often pays to shoot even more than this, in order to ensure you cover the middle tones of your photos.

HDR techniques are also useful in architectural photography, where you may be faced with bright skies and dark buildings. Even architectural interiors can benefit from the aesthetic that HDR photography brings.

Night photographers use HDR photography on occasion, because it allows them to capture dark scenes with bright streetlights. HDR shots at night can also create interesting effects, especially when there’s movement in the scene (people, cars, etc.).

A few areas where HDR photography is (generally) useless:

First, wildlife and bird photographers almost never use HDR photography. HDR photography requires unmoving subjects, because you’ll need to capture several shots in a row — and birds and animals rarely stay still for so long.

Second, sports and action photographers avoid HDR photography for the exact same reason. There’s no real value in capturing several shots of fast-moving subjects when you’ll fail to blend them properly.

Third, HDR photography isn’t very popular among street photographers and photojournalists. Again, fast-paced photography and HDR don’t really go hand in hand, plus HDR photos can look somewhat unnatural, something that street photographers and photojournalists like to avoid.

HDR Photography Tips: 3 Ways to Improve Your HDR Photos

If you want to capture stunning HDR photos, consistently, then pay careful attention to these tips:

Always Use a Tripod and Remote Shutter Release

HDR photography involves capturing multiple photos of the same subject.

For this reason, you need your camera to stay as still as possible.

And to do that, you should always use a tripod.

Technically, you can try to handhold HDR photos. But hands are rarely ultra-steady, so you’ll inevitably end up moving and ruining the shot.

I also recommend you use a remote shutter release. This will ensure that you can activate your camera’s shutter without creating any vibrations.

If you don’t have a remote shutter release, you can always use the self-timer (I often use the 2s timer when in a pinch!). While not quite as convenient as a remote shutter release, the self-timer will certainly do the job.

Bracket as Much as You Need

Remember how I said you could create an HDR photo out of 2 shots or more, all the way up to 9?

Take advantage of this fact.

If your scene has a huge dynamic range, then capture 5 shots, or even 7. Don’t be afraid to capture more shots than necessary. You can always discard some later — it’s really not a big deal.

So do as much bracketing as necessary (more is better!).

Only Process as Much as Necessary

While it pays to bracket lots and lots, one area where you don’t want to overdo things is with post-processing.

Because it’s very easy to blend several images and end up with an unpleasant HDR effect, as I discussed above. Something like this:

It’s often very tempting to produce that type of image, especially when you’re new to HDR photography. But I recommend you resist the temptation, because there will come a time when you’ll wish you had never created such images in the first place.

Why?

The ultra-HDR effect is just too much. It makes areas of your photos look unnatural, and oversaturated, and very muddy.

So keep the HDR effect to a minimum, and everything will be just fine.

The Ultimate Guide to HDR Photography: Conclusion

Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re basically an HDR export.

You know what HDR photography is all about.

You know when HDR photography should be used.

And you know how you can create stunning HDR photos, consistently.

So get out and capture some photos. HDR photography offers a whole new world of fun — and I recommend you get practicing!

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