HDR Photography: The Ultimate Guide

By YPHDR, Tutorials

HDR photography is powerful and visually attractive.

It extends the dynamic range to display light and color as we perceive. But here’s the thing: in the world of HDR photography, you’re either a blender or a tone-mapper.

In this tutorial, I’ll show you EVERYTHING you need to become a tone-mapper (HDR software).

No time? Get your copy of HDR Crash Course ebook, it’s free!

Without further ado, let’s dive in!




 

The Misconception of HDR Photography

You’ve seen the term on social media, on every photo posting websites.

I’m sure you’ve seen ‘HDR photo’. You’re probably mesmerized by the ‘HDR effect’ the first time you saw it, at least I did.

The ugly truth is…

This is probably what you and most people know it for:

misconception of hdr
The “HDR look”

My aim is to change your perception of HDR by the end of this tutorial.

So stay with me 🙂

 

It’s More Than Just Crazy Lights and Funky Colors

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range.

And dynamic range simply means the range of brightness and darkness present in a scene. It’s different in every scene.

For example…

The dynamic range during sunset is higher than the dynamic range during midday.

Sometimes, the dynamic range is so high that our camera can’t record the full range of brightness and darkness present at the same time.

So we use a technique called HDR photography to overcome this problem.

 

HDR Image Can Be Created In Two Ways

What most people know about HDR is:

You shoot multiple exposures, load them into a software and click ok for the magic to happen.

That’s creating with an HDR software, and this is what many of us known HDR for.

There’s another way of creating HDR image called digital blending or exposure blending – instead of merging the photos with a software, you do it manually.

You’re thinking:

Why would I do that?!

For the purpose of this tutorial, I’ll focus mainly on creating images with an HDR software.

 

what is hdr
HDR created with Photomatix Pro

 

What Is HDR?

HDR is a technique that allows a wide range of brightness and darkness to be included and balanced in a single image.

It extends the dynamic range of an image that wouldn’t normally be achievable with a single exposure.

Now here’s an interesting fact…

When we see something with very bright lights and very dark shadows, the pupils and the lens in our eyes change in size rapidly to control and focus the light entering our eyes.

That’s the reason we can see details in bright and dark areas at the same time.

And that’s how we’re different from how our camera “sees” a scene.

 

The Major Limitation of A Camera

The glasses insides a camera lens are rigid and cannot change in size to adapt the light entering from the front of the lens.

Here’s what happens:

When a lens lets more light in, the darker areas may be correctly exposed but the very bright areas will be overexposed.

When a lens restricts the amount of light in, the very bright areas will be correctly exposed but the darker areas will be underexposed.

This is exactly what happens when you point your camera directly at the sun.

Before we go any further, you should know the different between dynamic range and extended or high dynamic range.

 

Dynamic Range

Dynamic range is the range of brightness that can be seen or recorded by a medium.

And what’s a medium?

It’s a substance that transmits or carry on the information.

In photography, a medium can be the human eye, a printed photo or a photo displayed on a monitor.

And remember this…

Dynamic range is relative and different medium has a different dynamic range.

 

Extending The Dynamic Range

Remember we said how cameras sometimes cannot record the same amount of brightness we see?

When we create a high dynamic range image, we extend the dynamic range of the image by exposure fusion.

What does that mean?

We combine multiple images of different exposure into one single file. This compresses all the brightness and colors into one place.

By doing so, we’ve extended what a single exposure image normally can’t achieve.

We have created a high dynamic range image.

 

high dynamic range
Dynamic range explained

 

3 Reasons To Create HDR

It’s to create what a camera couldn’t.

That’s not all…

There are other good reasons why we bother to spend time to create HDR:

  1. It’s necessary. I’ve told you all about dynamic range and how our camera cannot capture the full dynamic range at times.
  2. In the name of creativity. Express the creativity within! You can choose to create natural or surreal HDR effect. There is no right or wrong, get the HDR photo effects that you want!
  3. Shadow de-noise. Even though some of your images looks well exposed, you can still get noise when you brighten up the shadows significantly. This is because of the higher noise-to-signal ratio in the photosites. By merging into HDR, you add new brightness and color information to the pixels in the shadows.

 

5 Steps To Create An HDR Image

Follow these step-by-step guide to a successful HDRI. 🙂

 

#Step 1: Tools

You probably already have most of these.

E.g. a camera?

  1. A camera capable of manual control of the shutter speed and recording image in RAW
  2. Tripod or a steady pair of hands
  3. Remote release but it’s not absolutely essential
  4. HDR software

 

#Step 2: Exposure Bracketing – Automatic

Use the automatic exposure bracketing (AEB).

exposure bracketing hdr
Setting 3 bracketed exposure at 1EV

You can use this to bracket 3, 5, 7, or even more images.

Noticed how it’s always in odd numbers?

Bracketed images are always in pairs [-1EV, +1EV] or [-2EV, +2EV], and this is coupled with the base image [0EV].

What about EV?

EV stands for exposure value, also known as “stop”. One stop up doubles the value of the shutter speed (1/250 to 1/500) and one stop down halves it (1/250 to 1/125).

Now here’s what you do:

  1. Go to the menu of your camera, look for “automatic exposure bracketing” or “AEB”.
  2. Depending on your camera, you can set the number of bracketed exposure to 3 or 5 (I’m not sure if some cameras can go even higher).
  3. You can also set the interval between each EV: 1 stop, 1/2 stop or 1/3 stop in most cameras.
  4. Mount it on a tripod. If you’re shooting handheld, hold the camera still by supporting the bottom of the camera with one hand and holding on the side where the trigger is with the other.
  5. Switch the camera mode to aperture priority (Av). Set the appropriate ISO (as low as possible or keep it at 100 if you have a tripod). Use matrix metering.
  6. Frame the scene and take your shots.
  7. To make your life easier, set the shooting mode to continuous. Press and hold the trigger to take all bracketed shots in one go.

 

#Step 2 (Alternative): Exposure Bracketing – Manual

You must be scratching your head on this and ask: Why would you do that?

Some photographers like to do it themselves.

That’s not all…

You’ll need to go manual if you want to bracket more than what your camera can do for you (e.g. 9 exposures).

  1. You MUST use a tripod or stabilize the camera with a bean bag/put it on a hard surface.
  2. Switch the camera mode to aperture priority (Av). Set the aperture you want, half press the trigger and take a note of the shutter speed.
  3. Now switch the camera mode to manual. Set the shutter speed, aperture and ISO to the settings in Av mode earlier.
  4. Frame the scene and take a shot.
  5. Now either stop up or stop down the shutter speed. I recommend stopping up or down by “1 stop” to start with until you’re more confident in calculating the shutter speed. E.g., if the initial shutter speed is 1/500, 1 stop down would halve it to 1/250, and 1 stop up would double it to 1/1000.
  6. Take all the “stop up’ images first, then go to “stop down”. You can do it the other way round if you like.
  7. Check the histogram for each image and bracket as many exposures as you need!

 

#Step 3: Choose A Method To Create HDRI

2 ways to create hdr in photomatix pro
Load multiple exposures or a single RAW for HDR in Photomatix Pro 5

You’ll still need an HDR software.

But you don’t always need multiple exposures depending on what kind of images you have.

  1. Merging multiple exposures. You want to create a high dynamic range image for a high contrast scene.
  2. Tone mapping a single image. Sometimes all you have is a single RAW file. Or maybe you want to use HDR software’s tonal adjustments can do for a dull image. Works best if you have a photo with mostly midtones.
  3. Triple or double processing a single RAW image. This means duplicating your image an extra or 2 copies. Change the exposure of the copies to, say, -1EV and +1EV. Now you have the images in different exposures and you can merge into HDR using the first method.

 

 Expert Tips

  • Switch on “mirror lockup” for the absolute sharpness of your images. When mirror lockup is on, press the trigger first to lock up the mirror and the second time to open the shutter curtain.
  • If you find the above tedious, switch to live view and press the trigger. The mirror locks up during live view so you only have to press the trigger once! (this only applies to DSLR user)
  • Shoot RAW. You’re going to need all the color information for tone mapping.

 

Below is the before and the after of a single RAW image tone mapped in Photomatix Pro 5. Not too shabby!

 

#Step 4: Software

This is where most beginners stuck.

Because of budget or don’t do HDR frequent enough to invest in a software.

Fear not.

Google has recently released the entire Nik Collection for free. This includes Nik HDR Efex Pro.

There are other freeware but their capabilities are often limited compared to a paid software.

So, here’s a list of free and paid HDR software currently available on the market (details correct as of April 2016):

Software Platform Price Plugin/Standalone
Photomatix Pro 5 Mac & PC From $79 Standalone + PS & LR plugin
Aurora HDR Pro Mac $99 Standalone
Adobe Photoshop Mac & PC $19.99/mo Standalone
Dynamic Photo HDR PC $65 Standalone
EasyHDR Mac & PC  €29 Standalone
HDR Efex Pro Mac & PC Free Standalone + PS & LR plugin
HDR Expert/Expose Mac & PC from $75 Standalone + PS plugin
Luminance HDR Mac & PC Free Standalone
Oloneo PhotoEngine  PC From €49.17 Standalone
Fusion (2 versions) PC Free or $25 Standalone
Picturenaut 3  PC Free Standalone
FDRtools Mac & PC Free Standalone

 

HDR Software Tutorials

You don’t have to signup for a course to learn the software.

Some are pretty easy to figure out and some have many adjustments that may overwhelm you.

Anyway, here are some hand picked quality free tutorials available on the internet today.

 

Do I Need Other Software?

Merging and tone mapping are not the only steps in creating HDR.

It’s only the beginning.

A tone-mapped image is like a photo straight out of the camera. It needs further post-processing in an image editing software (click here for a list of free and paid software)

There are also software you can use to apply filters. To name a few:

  • Nik Color Efex Pro – A huge collection of filters to tweak your photos.
  • Nik Silver Efex Pro  – Convert and craft a black and white HDR image.
  • Topaz – Clarity is my favorite tool to add an extra oomph to the image.
  • Any de-noising software (e.g. Nik Dfine)
  • On1 Effects 10 Fee – A freeware with basic but powerful adjustment tools.

 

Should I Create HDR For Every Photo I Take?

Yes and no.

“No” would contradict to what I said in “reasons for HDR?“.

If you like the HDR effect then there’s no reason not do to it.

But…

If you prefer realistic HDR, then you should consider doing it selectively.

Not all situations would benefit from this technique.

 

3 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Deciding On Shooting HDR

These are the questions I constantly ask myself when I’m thinking of doing HDR.

  1. Are there very bright or blown out areas in the highlights?
  2. Are details lost in the shadows?
  3. Can I achieve the same result with a single exposure?

If there are extreme contrasts and a single image can’t capture the rich color and brightness of the scene, then HDRI is the answer.

Set your AEB and start shooting!

If you take a test shot and everything looks beautiful on the LCD screen (check the histogram for the distribution of the graph), then HDRI may not add anything different from what you have already.

But there’s a catch…

Check the shadows because brightening dark shadows can reveal the noise within.

 

Software Comparison

So far we have gone through the basics of HDR photography, how to do it, what HDR software are available and links to free resources.

How good the HDR photo effects ultimately lies on how you tone map and further process the image.

A good software means a versatile and powerful HDR algorithm that helps you bring out the best of your 32-bit (or 16-bit) image.

So here’s the deal:

A good HDR software costs money.

So, shop around, find out more about the ones you’re interested before you commit.

 

Popular HDR Software

These are some of the common software most photographers use:

  • Merge HDR in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom
  • Nik HDR Efex Pro 2
  • Photomatix Pro 5
  • Aurora HDR Pro.

 

To give you an idea of how your image may look with these software, I’ve processed 3 bracketed exposures with each for comparison.

Just to bear in mind…

No further processing is done to the final image. These are straight out from the HDR software oven!

I’ve also compared it to the 0EV to give you an idea of the visual effect.

And here’s our 3 bracketed exposures:

bracketed exposures for comparison

 

Adobe Photoshop & Lightroom CC 2015

If you didn’t know before, Photoshop has a merge HDR function.

Go to File > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro.

It’ll ask you to select the images to merge, click ok and it will do its job.

Merging into HDR with Adobe Lightroom has been thoroughly covered in this tutorial already, so I won’t go through it here.

 

It doesn’t look too bad at first sight.

The foreground is very vibrant but I couldn’t bring out the color in the sky.

The adjustments panel:

Limited to basics adjustments only. There’s no option for image alignment or sharpening. Also, the presets are limited and terrible.

Is there anything good?

It does merge to 32-bit but you can only apply further adjustments when you exit the HDR merge panel or in Lightroom.

Also, you can use luminosity mask to apply local adjustments to tease out the best of every single pixel in the image. Just a thought!

 

Nik HDR Efex Pro 2

Nik software was bought over by Google in 2012 and has recently been released as a free download.

The good side of that is everyone can now use Nik software.

But…

Because now it’s free, Google is unlikely to develop the software further.

This means any major updates in the OSX, Windows or Photoshop will kill of Nik software entirely.

For now…

We are thankful that it’s widely available and you should download it if you haven’t.

 

 

The adjustments tool are way better than Photoshop’s merge HDR.

Anything else good about it?

You can apply adjustments for brightness, contrast, saturation and texture anywhere you want in the image. I have to say, it’s fun to use this and a lot of room for creativity!

Like your HDR effect?

You can set the strength of the effect from natural or dramatic.

I was also able to darken the sky by applying ND filter to bring out the hue and the snow capped hill behind.

But you can’t sharpen the image and any further processing needs to be done else where.

 

Photomatix Pro 5

Photomatix Pro is my all time favorite.

It has the option to merge multiple exposures or tone map a single image.

You can alignment image automatically and remove chromatic aberration.

The best part?

It has deghosting tool. I find this really useful in my workflow.

Plus…

There is a long list of presets, you can customize the settings and save it as your very own presets.

 

Photomatix Pro has more options to adjust for tones, color and sharpening following tone mapping.

The sharpening algorithm is not great so I normally save and open it in Photoshop for further post-processing

Click here to learn how to create HDR in Photomatix Pro.

 

Aurora HDR Pro

Aurora is new in the market but is a very powerful software.

It’s only available to Mac user at the moment. (PC version coming soon)

What I like about Aurora is the impressive adjustment tools.

It has most of what Photomatix Pro and Nik HDR Efex Pro have to offer.

If that’s not enough…

You can add split-toning, clarity and very fine tuning of details in highlights and shadows.

And this is what I love the most:

Layer masks! You can create multiple layers with different adjustments and blend it all together.

Did I mention there’s also blend mode for layers just like in Photoshop?

Completely blew me away!

But here’s the catch.

There seems to be a lag in image rendering following adjustments. I’m pretty sure it will get fixed in future updates.

In the example image below, I’ve made full use of split-toning and added a purple hue to the highlights to emphasize the mood in the cold, early morning.

 

Aurora Pro could potentially be the “dreamware” for the enthusiasts.

For the beginner, the long list in the adjustment panel can be overwhelming and daunting.

 

 

Software Review

I’ve given you some example images processed with 4 different software.

I’ve also given you my opinion on each of them.

To give you a more independent and objective review of each software, here’s a list of resources that hopefully can help you decide which software to invest.

 

Aurora HDR Pro

 

Dynamic Photo HDR

 

Nik HDR Efex Pro

 

HDR Expose 3

 

Oloneo Photoengine

 

Photomatix Pro 5

 

Fusion

 

Comparison

 

Challenges In HDR

Here are some common issues that you may come across when processing your bracketed exposures.

Movement

People, moving vehicles, trees, water.

You name it.

Anything that moves or changes position while you’re bracketing exposure will create what we called “ghosting”.

Movement can be a big challenge in crowded places like in the image below.

 

HDR ghosting
Movement causes ghosting in HDR

This was taken inside the Pantheon in Rome. There is no way you can get a clean shot in a tourist hotspot like this.

So what can you do?

Software like Photomatix Pro or Adobe Lightroom has deghosting tool to clean up the mess.

What it does is replaces the ghosting with one of the bracketed exposures to get rid of the movement artifact.

Alternatively, layer masking in Photoshop:

Place a bracketed exposure on top of the image and add a black mask. Use a soft white brush to gradually paint over the mask, starting with a low opacity. Apply a few passes until you’re happy with the result. You can change the blend mode to make the masking more unnoticeable.

If this is too technical…

Then tone map a single RAW image or do double/triple processing.

 

Halo

Very common and you see it all the time especially in the ultra-surreal effect.

This happens as you increase the strength of the effect to darken the highlights and brighten the shadows.

I’ll give you an example:

The transition between indoor and outdoor like the image below. There’s a rim of light around the round window that’s supposed to be bright (because of the light coming in).

 

HDR halos
Halos

The solution is simple…

Reduce the strength. It’s a sign that you’ve applied too much to your image.

 

Alignment

Sometimes you get images that are not aligned very well.

And you wonder why…

This typically happens when you bracket your exposures handheld or your tripod moved.

Some HDR software like Photomatix Pro has a few options for you to align the images.

If the issue with alignment is significant, then you essentially have 2 options.

  1. Pick and choose the ones that are more aligned to each other and try again.
  2. Use single image tone mapping or double/triple processing.

And for secret option number 3, don’t merge into HDR photo. What’s the worst that can happen, right? 🙂

 

Noise and Grain

If your bracketed exposures have noise because of high ISO, then your image will inevitably inherit the problem in a more exaggerated way.

But it’s not the end.

You can fix it with a denoise filter such as Nik Dfine or Topaz DeNoise.

You may also see grain in your image especially in the sky. This is caused by HDR algorithm that enhances every single detail in the image.

Remember: Grain ≠ Noise.

 

grain and noise
Grain vs noise

Grain looks like texture.

This is caused by enhancing detail in the software algorithm.

You’ve probably guessed the solution.

Reduce the details adjustment, increase the highlight smoothing or mask out the sky when apply sharpening.

 

Oversaturation

The tone mapping algorithm tends to oversaturate the image.

What was perceived as “stunning” at the beginning will soon turn into “horrible” later on when your eyes have re-adjusted back from the HDR hype.

It happens all the time!

I normally reduce the saturation during tone mapping and reapply it later if necessary during further processing.

oversaturation
Oversaturation

 

Sharpness

Images straight out from tone mapping are not sharp at all.

As HDR photography software don’t have the best algorithm for sharpening, it’s best to apply it in Photoshop, Lightroom or your choice of image editing software.

In the example below, you can see how much the photo has improved after adding clarity and sharpening in Lightroom.

Another reason why you should do further processing with your merged image!

 

Learn More

As this is a guide for beginners to start exploring the possibilities of HDR photography, I’m aware that it may not have covered everything in detail.

So here some hand-picked resources to a few quality tutorial that you might find helpful.




Written Tutorial

 

Video Courses

If you’re searching for a video course to consolidate your knowledge and transform your skills to the next level, I would highly recommend a video course.

Here are 3 recommended video courses that I’ve watched myself.

Trey’s Complete HDR Tutorial

This video tutorial contains 10 separate videos and each lasts for about an hour. Click here to find out more.

The videos explain everything in depth from composition to how to post-process with Photomatix Pro and expert tips to help you master the art.

Being the co-creator of Aurora Pro, he also has a video course based on the software.


hdr video course

The Art of HDR Photography

If you prefer shorter and concise videos, The Art of HDR Photography by Jimmy McIntyre might suit you better.

There are 10 videos and each lasts about 30 minutes or so. Each focuses on a specific scene and will go through the entire image workflow in Photomatix Pro and Photoshop.

the art of hdr photography

HDR Photography Tutorial by Andy Anderson

Another video course that I found to be really good for beginners is HDR Photography Tutorial: Learn To Create Stunning HDR by Andy Anderson of Infinite Skills.

I’ve watched Andy’s instructional videos before on Photoshop. He’s a good teacher and often explains a complex subject in simple terms.

The course includes the basic fundamentals, shooting for HDR to post-processing with Photomatix Pro and Adobe Photoshop.

This course is on Udemy (an online course hosting website) so you’ll have to register first.

udemy

 

Conclusion

Learning how to create HDR is not difficult.

The tricky part is:

To master the art of creating an HDRI with good tonal and color balance, yet exhibiting the unique look.

I hope this guide has given you the necessary resources to expand your photography skills.