High Dynamic Range Photography (HDR)

The world is full of immense beauty, everywhere you look the world is bursting with colors, shapes… design. If you’re anything like me, you probably can’t quite capture all of that beauty in one image, even if you have a spectacular camera… odds are the picture still doesn’t look like our eyes see it. I remember one time I was in the Cypruss Black Bayou, near Benton Louisiana, taking in an amazing scene at Sunset. The sun was peaking through the trees reflecting on the lake water. The soft orange and blue sherbet like sky was incredible. The trees were a deep green, almost black. The shadows were so pronounced that I felt like the trees had multiplied. All I wanted to do was capture this breathtaking scene on film. When I snapped the image I thought to myself, this is going to be an amazing picture! Not so much. When I looked at it later I was really disappointed with how it turned out, or rather, how it didn’t turn out.

In photography, light can be a tricky thing to work with. Ferrell McCollough describes Exposure Value (EV), in his book Complete Guide to High Dynamic Range Digital Photography, as “an integer that corresponds to scene luminance such that EV =0 when correct exposure is 1 second at f/1.0. An EV increment of one (1EV)  is the same as a “stop and refers to half as much or double the amount of light. The greater the exposure value, the greater the luminance of the scene.” The human eye can see about 20EV, while the typical D-SLR camera can only capture about 6-8EV.  This is why no matter how hard you try, you just can’t quite get that image to look like it did in real life. Photographers have developed a technique called High Dynamic Range Photography (HDR) to make up for the failure to capture all of the available light. HDR, while generating a brilliant image, can be a lot of work & can get pretty technical. If you’re not careful, it can be frustrating enough to make you give up & just accept a less than “true to the eye” picture. For those patient enough to learn, however, it can be one of the most rewarding forms of photography.

In an earlier post I briefly touched on HDR basics, I’m hoping that this post will be more useful for those interested in learning the how to do it. The first thing to do is choose what you want to shoot. I’ve found that clouds provide excellent texture to an HDR picture. Also, you want to shoot on a day where there isn’t a lot of direct sunlight with clear blue skies. It can be difficult to correct later. For this particular shoot, I took pictures of the campus I teach at. Notice how the picture is properly exposed, yet the majority of the image is dark & useless. It did NOT capture the freshness of that particular morning.

Properly Exposed, f/3.5 1/2,000

When shooting HDR you want to consider the amount of light in the scene, your ISO settings, your White Balance settings, a stable tripod all to ensure consistency in your shots. If the frame shifts, even slightly, it can cause blurring in the final edit. You really want to keep things as consistent as possible. If you set everything on your camera to manual (including ISO & White Balance), you then have full control of the scene, its easy for the picture to be slightly different just by an automatic ISO. Usually three pictures (under exposed, properly exposed, and over exposed) will produce enough variation in light to make a good HDR image, sometimes 5 shots (or more) are necessary. It all depends on what you’re taking a picture of & the light around it.

On Manual Exposure and Aperture Priority modes, you can roll your dials to get the exposures you need (however many stops you desire), but I’d recommend keeping a note pad with you as you’re shooting to jot down what you’ve already shot (or you could look at the image info on your camera). The easiest way to shoot HDR is to use the Bracketing (BKT) button. On a Nikon, its usually located below the flash pop up button just behind your lens. Depressing the bracketing button and rolling the rear main-command dial to to select the number of shots. usually it will be abbreviated in your LCD as 0F = Bracket not set, 3F = three-shot bracket, -2F = two-shot bracket, normal and under exposed, or +2F = Two-shot bracket, normal and over exposed.  Selecting 3F will then give you the option of selecting how many steps ranging in the increments 0.3, 0.7, 1.0, 1.3, 1.7, or 2.0. McCollough recommends an image set of 5 frames at 2EV spacing. For the images below I used three shots at 2EV each.

Properly Exposed, f/3.5 1/2,000

Under Exposed

Over Exposed

The next thing to do is to process your images. I have used both Photoshop and Photomatix Pro & I have to say I really like Photomatix Pro better. With Photomatix, you have a lot more control over the image & it just does an all around better job layering the pictures together. Depending on what program you use, then next step is usually to process the images.

Next I loaded the three images using Photomatix Pro

Photomatix Pro gives you a lot of control over Noise Reduction and Alignment options, if you want to do it manually. But the Automatic option does an excellent job on its own. Once the images are processed, comes the really fun part!

Next, select the settings that convey the look you’re going for.

Photomatix Pro’s sliders are very user-friendly and gives you a lot of control of the image itself. I was disappointed with the lack of control Photoshop gave me at this point in the process. Photomatix Pro also has a lot of great preset options that look pretty good by themselves. You can actually download Photomatix Pro online for a free trial to see if you like it, but the software is only $99 & worth every penny!

The final result is an image that comes closer to the real scene actually looked than any other type of photography i’ve seen so far. That is also one of the downfalls of HDR photography, some of the effects that you can create with it can become… overdone. Its easy to get carried away with the effects, the next thing you know, it doesn’t look real anymore. So use the effects in moderation, but have fun with it too! Below are some of my favorite HDR shots I’ve taken so far.

Sunrise on the campus I work at

On the Blue Ridge Parkway

Below Looking Glass Falls, near Asheville NC

Downtown Asheville NC

This picture was taken along a quiet creek near High Springs FL

The Vanderbilt Estate in Asheville NC

Bench & Tree

Christmas in my living room

More from the Vanderbilt Estate in Asheville NC

A view from the back porch of the Vanderbilt Estate

The Vanderbilt Estate in Asheville NC

The Stables at the Vanderbilt Estate


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