High dynamic range or HDR can bring out beautiful pictures. There is a thin line between an awesome HDR picture and an exaggerated picture.
As a photographer, you only have full control over the light in your studio. Everywhere else, you have to work with natural light.
With light comes contrast. The difference between the brightest highlights and the deepest shadows defines the dynamic range.
HDR helps maximize dynamic range in a high contrast scene. It is useful for interior sets of images.
It also adds a fantastic element for creative photo manipulation photography.
HDR (also called High Dynamic Photography) is the method of blending images to produce a final photo. To do this, we took many photos and then merged them.
Each picture captures the scene at different exposures. When merged, the image provides the correct overall exposure.
We need to take at least three images—one for performing a mid-range exposure capture, which meters for highlights, and a third for shadow.
You can take many pics, as long as the number is divisible by
. These images are displayed as plus or minus on the exposure value indicator.
is a common choice.
For example, if you capture three images, your shots will be
+3. -3 and +3, 0
is equivalent to three light stops, increasing exposure.
reduces the median exposure by three stops.
For seven images, your range might look like this:
+1, +2, +3, 0, -1, -2, -3.
Your camera will most likely allow you to change the settings to capture three images this way.
Other cameras may have a special section for HDR imaging, allowing you to configure your photos however you want.
It's late afternoon, and finally, the sunset you've been looking for begins. The sky is a glorious display of red, yellow, orange, and blue colors. The clouds light up with warm undertones. The city below lights up. Sunrise and sunset provide perfect HDR images.
Because sunsets don't last long, you got into position early. With the camera installed and the remote shutter release in hand, you bide your time and click!
More often than not, what comes next is a disappointment. Your photo is nothing like the scene you saw with your eyes.
It depends on the exposure you want to set (automatic or manual); you may find that:
As a general rule, soft, diffused light, such as on an overcast day, will reduce the scene's contrast.
The cloudy sky acts like a giant lightbox by scattering sunlight and diffusing it all around. Hence, the contrast between shadows and highlights (dynamic range) decreases.
If it's a sunny day with a clear sky, the light is harsh and direct then it casts deep black shadows while objects in direct sunlight are very bright. This high contrast scene has a broad DR.
At sunset, the foreground is much darker than the sky, and you can't get the correct exposure for both. These landscapes can have extreme DR.
In short, if you do not shoot in the studio, you will often be faced with very contrasting scenes. These can improve with a high dynamic range.
Camera sensors are electronic devices. They react to light by converting it into electrical signals. The sensors have minimum and maximum light sensitivity.
Too little light, and the sensor will not see anything. Too much, and it will go blind. Modern sensors are capable of handling a DR of 12 or more stops.
A shutdown is a measure of the change in the amount of light available. Every time the amount of light hitting the sensor doubles, you stop.
Every time the light is halved, you lose a stop.
Shooting in HDR is not tricky. Prevention is better than cure. You should take HDR photos when presented with a high contrast scene. You can decide later what to do with your images.
Can you capture all the details of the scene in a single frame?
To find out, you can use your camera's photometer. Please place it in spot meter mode to measure the brightness of different parts of the scene.
This way, you have an idea of the DR you need to capture. You can also use your mobile with a photometer app, such as the iOS Light Meter app.
In the three images below, I'm showing the darkest, mid-exposure, and brightest area.
To expose the street in deep shadow (photo 1), I need a shutter speed of
of a second.
1 / 200th
For shallower shadows (photo 2),
of a second is sufficient.
1 / 800th
This means that those lighter shadows are two full dots brighter than the darker ones.
The sky (Photo 3) has the correct exposure to
of a second. The sky is thus almost five stops (or EV) brighter than the deepest shadows. It is more or less the DR of the image.
1 / 5000th
You can create HDR images on a single file. But it is better to rely on multiple exposures.
Your streak should cover excellent DR. Better to take a few more images than realize later that you need more.
Plus, you don't need to collect the same number of underexposed and overexposed images. It depends on the scene you want to shoot.
For sunsets, it may be best to use more underexposed images. It will capture all the details in the bright sky.
Pro tip: Before starting a new sequence, take a photo with your hand visible in the frame. This will help you see the different sequences later.
You will combine different images. Thus, it would help if you had as little movement as possible between images.
Set up your camera on a tripod. Use a remote shutter release button to prevent the camera shake. Most software allows you to combine pocket images by performing image alignment.
Handheld is only possible when your slowest shutter speed is faster than your focal length. Otherwise, you will end up with blurry images.
It is also best to photograph a still scene with no clouds, people, or fast traffic. Some degree of movement between different exposures is acceptable.
You can fix it with a hijack procedure, available in any HDR software.
Some phones and compact cameras have a built-in HDR mode. You can use it, but generally, it only works if you save the jpeg format images. Plus, you have little control over the entire process.
Here is a short checklist for HDR camera settings:
Some camera’s essential components have automated bracketing functions. They are great if you want to limit yourself to the
in 3 to 5 photos. It depends on the settings and the camera.
+/- 2EV range
HDR isn't just useful for sunsets. It's a technique you can use with any high contrast scene.
Real estate photography is not as easy as it sounds. Natural light from windows with a bright exterior view call for HDR. The same goes for uneven lighting indoors.
The city's night landscapes are excellent situations for HDR processing. This is due to many dark areas and bright lights. Even far from the city, HDR is useful at night. Read More about Night Photography
In the image below, it was not possible to get everything in one go. The details of colored lights and the interior of the building do not work well with shadows.
Instead, I took eight different exposures and combined them into one HDR image. Due to the long exposures required, I could not suppress all cloud movement.
A dramatic sky goes a long way in adding interest to your landscape. But bad weather usually means dramatic contrasts, especially when we compare the sky and the foreground. HDR photography lets you tap into this great DR.
Before concluding this article, here is a useful list of software for HDR photography.
Lightroom and Photoshop have a photo blending mode. This allows you to combine different photos into one HDR image.
You won't have a lot of options to change HDR, but you can automatically align images. This function is useful for portable sequences. You can also apply the automatic settings to the final exposure and choose the forces for defrosting.
Many phone cameras have an HDR mode feature in their default camera app. But there are plenty of dedicated apps available, like True HDR and Pro HDR X for iOS.
One problem with HDR photography is that it has gained a bad reputation.
HDR was particularly popular among photographers a few years ago. Unfortunately, with automated tools, the internet has been inundated with bad images.
They show surreal, fake, oversaturated, and grainy HDR images.
The problem is, it's easy to overprocess HDR images. There are many presets available in the automated HDR software. They produce surreal, overcooked images.
Over time, these images have become synonymous with HDR mode. But HDR is not a style; it is a technical tool. The goal of HDR mode is to expand the dynamic range of your photos.
Good HDR photos are subtle and retain the natural, but a richer, look of your images. Plus, you don't need to remove all the contrast. Contrast is what keeps things natural. How you then manipulate the image has little to do with HDR. You can go for a realistic edit, or you can go wild.
HDR doesn't have to produce grainy, surreal, over-baked images. It is a powerful photographic technique that can help you photograph your subject in all its glory.