Ditch your tripod – try handheld HDR instead!

Handheld HDR
(Image credit: Kim Bunermann / Digital Photographer Magazine)

The concept of high dynamic range (HDR) is widely used in photography. This method involves taking a series of photos at different exposure levels and merging them in post-processing using photo editing software. If this is done well, your image will benefit from the increased visibility of highlights and dark elements.

When capturing the same scene at different exposures, it may be necessary to use a tripod. Unfortunately, this is not always possible as there are many restrictions as to when you can use one. In large crowds or at historical sites or museums, it may not be practical to set up a tripod. Using a tripod also means you lose some flexibility and spontaneous shots become more difficult. 

There are further reasons why a tripod may limit your workflow. Longer exposure times create problems when shooting moving elements, such as water, trees, or clouds, which can appear blurry. Of course, this may be intentional, but it’s not always the case.

To achieve HDR photography, a tripod is no longer a must. Modern cameras are equipped with functions that allow you the freedom to ditch your tripod. With the combination of specific settings and automatic exposure bracketing in continuous shooting mode, handheld HDR photography and editing become possible.

Before and after

Before: Ghost elements Incorrect settings increased the risk of movement. The result is blurry and marked by inconsistencies (Image credit: Kim Bunermann / Digital Photographer Magazine)

Handheld HDR

Final: Ideal exposure Light and dark areas are shown in more detail and an atmospheric photo is created. Smooth merging of the images resulted in a much better shot (Image credit: Kim Bunermann / Digital Photographer Magazine)

Shooting steps

1.  Aperture priority settings 

(Image credit: Kim Bunermann / Digital Photographer Magazine)

Set your camera to A mode (Aperture priority mode) to ensure that the depth of field is not affected by automatic changes in aperture values. Choose wider apertures to allow as much light as possible to reach the camera’s sensor.

2. Increase ISO values

(Image credit: Kim Bunermann / Digital Photographer Magazine)

Make use of the higher ISO settings to enable fast shutter speeds. By doing so, you will minimize the risk of small movements between image sequences. Take some test shots and keep an eye out for any possible digital noise.

3. Focus manually 

(Image credit: Kim Bunermann / Digital Photographer Magazine)

Adjust the focus manually to avoid unwanted automatic refocusing between shots. Also, activate the image stabilization of the lens or camera body to achieve sharper results even at a slightly slower shutter speed. 

4. Auto exposure bracketing

(Image credit: Kim Bunermann / Digital Photographer Magazine)

Find the auto exposure bracketing function or drive mode in your camera menu. The camera automatically takes variable exposures via shutter speed in continuous mode. Set your preferred number of stops and shots.

5. Find your position

(Image credit: Kim Bunermann / Digital Photographer Magazine)

Shoot by looking through the viewfinder to achieve a more stable position. Check if the location provides additional support for your stability. For example, leaning against a wall could help you to reduce camera shake.

6. Analyse results

(Image credit: Kim Bunermann / Digital Photographer Magazine)

Check the image and pay attention to the histogram. This lets you determine whether the darkest and lightest elements of the image are providing sufficient information. Take some additional shots to increase the possibilities while editing.

For more tips and techniques, check out all of our photography cheat sheets!

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Kim Bunermann
Technique Editor

Kim is the Technique Editor of Digital Photographer Magazine. She specializes in architecture, still life and product photography and has a Master's degree in Photography and Media with a distinction from the FH Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences in Germany. While studying, Kim came to the UK for an exchange term at the London College of Communication. She settled in the UK and began her career path by joining Future. Kim focuses on tutorials and creative techniques, and particularly enjoys interviewing inspiring photographers who concentrate on a range of fascinating subjects including women in photography, the climate crisis; the planet, its precious creatures and the environment.

With contributions from