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HDR as easy as 1, 2, 3: A beginner’s guide to High Dynamic Range photography

Ever tried to photograph a high-contrast scene, only to be frustrated when you find that the pictures you snapped just don’t do it justice? Don’t worry, it’s not just you. Even with the perfect exposure, there are certain scenes that will always tend to get blown-out highlights, flat shadows, or both. But despite the fact that it’s nearly impossible to find a happy medium in these types of situations, there is a solution. This age-old dilemma can be solved through the magic of HDR processing.

What is HDR?

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. For those who aren’t so acquainted with this high-tech shutterbug lingo, dynamic range is basically just the difference between the lightest light and darkest dark you can capture in a photo. Once your subject exceeds the camera’s dynamic range, the highlights tend to wash out to white, or the darks simply become big black blobs. It’s notoriously difficult to snap a photo that captures both ends of this spectrum, but with modern shooting techniques and advanced post-processing software, photographers have devised ways to make it happen. This is basically what HDR is: a specific style of photo with an unusually high dynamic range that couldn’t otherwise be achieved in a single photograph.

You’ve probably seen these types of images scattered across the Web. Depending on how they’re processed, HDR photos can be anything from stunningly accurate reproductions of what your eyes see to mind-blowingly surreal works of art that transform reality into a high-def dreamscape. Here are a few examples from HDR guru Trey Ratcliff:

How it works:

At the most basic level, an HDR photo is really just two (or three, or nine) photos taken at different exposure levels and then mashed together with software to create a better picture. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but not much more – that’s basically the gist of it. Ideally, the photographer takes a range of bracketed photos – that is, photos of the same subject taken with varying shutter speed/aperture combinations in order to produce a set of images with varying luminosity and depth of field. Then, with the help of advanced post-processing software, the photographer is able to blend the photos together and create a single image comprised of the most focused, well-lit, and colorful parts of the scene. Check out the images below to see how it looks:

HDR w: tone mapping

Stitched-together HDR image

How to create an HDR image:

Before you set out on your mission to create a mind-bogglingly beatiful HDR image, you’ll need a few things. For best results, here’s what we recommend:

  1. A camera, preferably with an Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) function. AEB isn’t 100-percent necessary, but without it you’ll have to adjust your camera settings manually between each shot, which a.) increases the chances you’ll move the camera, and b.) takes more time, thus increasing the likelihood that your subject will move or change positions. If your pictures don’t line up, the final HDR image will probably come out looking weird. *Not sure if your camera has an Auto Exposure Bracketing feature? Check out this chart to find out.
  2. A tripod or other type of stabilizer. You can shoot by hand if you must, but you’ll likely have trouble aligning your images later on, so a tripod is definitely recommended for best results. It’s true that certain HDR software programs are equipped with image alignment features, but they don’t always work perfectly, so generally speaking the best plans is to take measures necessary to ensure a stable shot.
  3. HDR photo-blending software. There are a number of different programs out there that’ll get the job done, but the general consensus amongst the HDR photography community seems to be that Photomatix is the best option. It’s powerful, fast, and full-featured – but those features do come at a price: $99 for the Pro package and $39 for the Essentials pack. Obviously, this isn’t exactly ideal if you’re just looking to dip your toes into the HDR pool and do a bit of experimenting, so for those of you looking for a good free option, we recommend Luminance HDR. Despite the fact that it doesn’t cost a dime, Luminance is one of the most capable and flexible HDR programs we know of. It sports six different photo-blending algorithms for you to mess with, so no matter if you’re going for a more realistic or surrealistic look, you should be able to achieve it with Luminance. These programs are a good place to start, but keep in mind that once you’ve stitched the images together and have something to work with, there’s nothing stopping you from using other programs to achieve further effects.

Once you’ve got all the necessary equipment gathered up, it’s time to go out and snap that jaw-dropping, eye-popping, National Geographic-status photo. Here are a few tips for getting a good shot:

  • Due to the nature of HDR and exposure bracketing, you probably won’t be able to capture a moving subject very easily. HDR just isn’t meant for things that move. Stillness is the name of the game here, so do your best to shoot a scene that isn’t going to change very drastically in a 5-10 second period.
  • Try to keep an eye out for scenes and subjects that have a large, noticeable contrast between light and dark areas. This is usually easier said than done since our eyes see in HDR already, but if you can spot these types of scenes it totally pays off in the end. These are the kinds of shots that benefit most from HDR post-processing techniques, since you otherwise wouldn’t be able to capture all the full dynamic range in one shot.
  • If your memory card is big enough, shoot in RAW format. JPEGs use heavy compression to cut down on file size and will typically result in a noticeable loss of detail in your photos. Shooting in RAW is better for quality, but takes a bit longer for your camera to process and write to your memory card. For best results, snag yourself a class 6 or class 10 SD card – these have faster minimum write speeds and will help reduce the time your camera takes to store RAW images after you shoot them.
  • Above all, remember that these tips are nothing more than loose guidelines. It’s all good advice, but don’t let our tips impede your artistic impulses. Experiment and play around lot, and you’ll start to get a feel for it on your own. Happy shooting!

Got any pro tips for taking great HDR photos? Share them with us in the comments below!

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