Capturing a scene with a full range of tones is one of the biggest challenges faced by everyone from amateur to professional photographers. Our tutorial on HDR photography shows you subtle ways around this common photography problem by learning how to set up, shoot and process a high dynamic range image. Even if it isn’t your first time practicing HDR photography, we’re confident you’ll learn something new.
One of the limitations of digital camera sensors is that they simply cannot record detail in both the shadows and highlights in high-contrast conditions. You’ll frequently encounter this sort of situation shooting outdoors on bright days, or when you’re photographing interiors or night photography scenes.
Landscape photographers typically resolve this by using graduated filters to balance the exposure between the land and the sky. However, there are limitations with this.
Not only are the filters expensive, they are fiddly to use, and the technique relies on a straight horizon for the best results as there’s no way to mask out a lone tree or standing stone that breaks through the horizon.
However, there is another solution. You can take several pictures at different exposures and combine them in the digital darkroom to create an image with an expanded range of tones. This is known as a High Dynamic Range image – better known as HDR photography.
Shooting HDR photography is not as complicated as it sounds. All you need to do is take a sequence of images by bracketing at different exposures, from underexposed to overexposed. How many images you need and what the difference in exposure between shots should be largely depends on what you’re photographing.
Here’s how to make a high dynamic range image.
HDR photography step by step
01 Keep it steady
As you’ll be combining multiple shots to make your final image, the composition needs to be exactly the same in each photo. This means a sturdy tripod is vital. You’ll also need to take steps to avoid any camera movement between shots, so use a cable release so you don’t have to touch the camera at all during the process.
02 Camera settings
Your aperture has to remain constant throughout the sequence, otherwise the depth of field will change between shots and this will make aligning them more of a challenge. So, switch to your digital camera’s A, or aperture-priority mode. Now the camera will vary the exposure by changing only the shutter speed. We used an aperture of f/11.
03 How many shots?
In most cases, three to five images with a one- or two-stop difference between one shot and the next is enough for constructing an HDR image, but if the scene has a very wide brightness range you may need to shoot five or seven frames. Most HDR software can process NEF files, so set image quality to raw format for the best results.
04 Auto Bracket
Activate your camera’s auto bracket feature. This will calculate and adjust the exposures in your sequence. There are two settings. One is the number of shots – three is the normal number, but some cameras let you shoot five. The second setting is the interval between the shots. This can be 1EV, 2EV or, on some cameras, 3EV.
05 Continuous mode
Now set your camera to the continuous shooting mode. If you have a choice of speeds, pick the fastest available. This will minimise any cloud and tree movement between each shot which can cause nasty ‘ghosting’. You’ll now be able to take all the shots you need for the HDR sequence without touching the camera.
06 Test shots
Take some test shots before starting. The longest exposure should show detail in the darkest areas, such as the shadows, while the shortest exposure should show detail in the brightest ones, such as the sky. Use the histogram to assess exposure. Our scene had a medium to high brightness range, so we took three shots at intervals of 2EV.
07 Get HDR software
Download the free 15-day trial version of HDR Efex Pro 2 from Nik Software. We’ve installed it as a plug-in to Photoshop CS5. Browse to your images in Adobe Bridge and select the five raw files. Go to Tools>Nik Software>Merge to HDR Efex Pro. Your images should open in the HDR Efex Pro window. This can take several minutes.
08 Blend your shots
You’ll notice presets on the left panel of the HDR Efex Pro window. These are especially handy if you’re new to this technique. We used the Realistic Strong preset. These settings can be further refined using the sliders in the panel on the right side. We applied these settings: Stricture 48%, Blacks -44%, HDR Method Clean and Method Strength 35%.
PAGE 1: HDR photography step-by-step
PAGE 2: HDR photography from bracketed shots
PAGE 3: Your 4 options for making an HDR image
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