What is HDR Photography?

There comes a time in every photographer’s life when you try to photograph a beautiful high-contrast scene and what you capture just doesn’t do it justice.

Maybe it’s a gorgeous sunset in the mountains. When you expose to the sky, the mountain range gets lost in shadow. So, when you change your settings to capture the details in the mountains, the sky becomes bright white and completely blown out. 

It’s a common problem with these types of situations, but one that can be solved with HDR photography.

This guide will explain the meaning of HDR and how you can use this process to capture details in your entire scene under difficult lighting conditions.

HDR landscape
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

What is HDR photography?

The letters in HDR stand for “high dynamic range”. In photography, dynamic range is the difference between the lightest and darkest colors and tones you capture in your photographs.

Our eyes have a very high dynamic range. It’s much higher than the capabilities of our cameras. This is why you might be disappointed that your camera can’t capture what you’re seeing. 

Once the subject you’re photographing exceeds your camera’s dynamic range, it’s nearly impossible to take a snapshot that includes all the detail in the darkest darks and the lightest lights.

It’s an age-old problem with a modern-day solution — HDR photography. It’s a specific style of shooting. It involves taking multiple shots of the same subject at different exposures and stacking. Or you can combine them in post-processing to include the entire dynamic range that couldn’t otherwise be captured with a single shot. 

When to use HDR photography

You’ve more than likely seen HDR photographs already — they are extremely popular in both landscape and real estate photography.

Depending on the photographer, they range from very natural photographs that mimic what your eyes see to extremely surreal, dreamy photographs that look like they were shot in another world. 

HDR photography example
HDR photography

If you find yourself in a difficult lighting situation, where you’re unable to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene in front of you, or if you want to create a surreal dream-like image, you may want to try your hand at HDR photography.

How HDR photography works

As we mentioned above, HDR photography works by stacking multiple bracketed exposures of the same image.

A basic sequence of images for HDR would include one that includes all the detail in the highlights, one that includes all the details in the shadows, and at least one more that represents the exposures in between those two extremes.

Then, you’ll use software to combine those three (or more) images to create a final HDR image, as in the example below.

examples of HDR photography
Creating HDR images

How to shoot an HDR photograph

To shoot HDR photos, you’ll need a few things:

  • Camera – Preferably a DSLR or mirrorless that will allow you to set auto exposure bracketing. 
  • Tripod – This is vitally important since you’ll be taking multiple exposures of the same image and any movement will be obvious when you stack your photos.
  • HDR software (Photomatix or Luminance HDR) or Adobe Photoshop to combine your images.

Camera settings for HDR photography

While the specific aperture, ISO, and shutter speed will vary depending on your setting, subject, and lighting conditions.

Here are a few things to always keep in mind when shooting images for HDR:

  • Since you’ll be stacking multiple images, never shoot objects in motion for HDR. You won’t be able to combine them properly.
  • To maintain the same depth of field from one shot to the next, always keep your aperture setting the same.
  • Set your metering mode to Matrix (Nikon) or Evaluative (Canon). This way, your camera can choose the best exposure for the entire scene.
  • Finally, use Auto Exposure Bracketing to automatically change the exposure between each shot in the sequence. This will not only be easiest and fastest but will prevent you from touching and potentially moving the camera between shots.

Using Auto Exposure Bracketing to shoot HDR

Almost all digital cameras these days have a feature called Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB). When selected, AEB will tell your camera to automatically take multiple shots at a different exposure for each frame.

AEB allows you to set the number of photos you want the camera to take and the difference in exposure between each image. 

Different camera models vary in the number of photos they will allow AEB to take. Some will only take 3, while others will allow 5, 7, or 9. But in the case of HDR, 3 brackets are often plenty as long as you can capture the entire dynamic range over those 3 images.

camera settings
Camera settings

Check your camera’s instruction manual for how to turn on and set the parameters for AEB as it will be different from one camera to the next.

A good place to start when choosing your AEB settings is with 3 pictures and 2 EV (Exposure Value or stops of light) between each photo. So the first image will be 2 stops darker than base exposure. The next image will be at base exposure, and the last image will be 2 stops lighter than that.

After you’ve got your camera set to Auto Exposure Bracketing, you can press the shutter one time. Your camera will automatically take three photos (or more, depending on what you set up in your camera).

The next step will be to combine those images in post-processing to create your HDR photograph.

How to combine photos into a single HDR image

We mentioned above a few different software options for combining your images to create a single, final HDR photograph. The benefit of using a specific HDR program is that you’ll have more creative options and tools specific to this type of photography.

That said, you can easily combine your images in Adobe Photoshop using the following steps:

  1. Open Photoshop;
  2. Choose File > Automate > Merge to HDR. A dialog box will open. Here, you’ll select the images you want to combine. (If the files are already open in Photoshop, simply select the “Add Open Files” option. If not, navigate to the folder that contains your bracketed images and select them;
  3. Check the box that says “Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images”;
  4. Click “OK”;
  5. A second dialog box will appear with thumbnails of the source images and a preview of your merged HDR image;
  6. Click “OK” to save your image.

You can also take advantage of a free HDR Photoshop action and create this effect in no minutes.

HDR photography example

Auto HDR mode

As cameras become more and more advanced, many of them now include an Auto HDR mode. The concept is the same as shooting an HDR photograph manually and combining it in post-processing, only the entire process is done in your camera.

This is an extremely easy way to take natural-looking photographs with high dynamic range. But you won’t be able to achieve the very surreal look that some artists get with HDR.

Final Thoughts

Using HDR techniques can open up a wide range of potential when it comes to your photography. When you find yourself in front of a scene with difficult lighting, high contrast, bright light & dark shadows, camera in hand, and aren’t sure how to capture it all — give HDR a try.

Getting great shots will take a bit of practice, but you’ll be sure to have fun and capture some great shots along the way.

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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