Your First Step To Creating Natural HDR Images Starts Here

Hi, I'm Yaopey! If you like HDR photography, looking for a place to learn or maybe you just want to improve your post-processing skills, then this is for you!

I truly believe anyone can create great images. Why do I say create instead of take? Because all good images need to be processed out of camera. You don't need the newest camera or expensive equipments to do that. All you need is to know what your tools can do for you and how to get the most out of it.

I still remember the time when I first discovered HDR photography. I was so excited but but I didn't know how to do it. All I knew was I need 3 bracketed exposures. After years of trial and error, I eventually figured how how to do it the right way.

You see a lot of nasty HDR photos out there on the internet, photos that make people hate HDR. That's not how you suppose to do HDR!

I created this site to share my HDR workflow. I know my way is not the best or the only way, but I hope by sharing what I do, I can help someone who are just getting into HDR like I did many years ago.

I create most of my HDR using a technique called exposure blending. If you like my style and want to learn how you can do the same, download my free ebook, it's called The XDR Blueprint.

In the blueprint, I lay out step-by-step how to create a natural looking HDR image. This includes topics like dynamic range, how to use histogram to guide bracketing exposures and how to blend exposures.

So, just go ahead and download The XDR Blueprint. I'll see you on the inside!

Have you ever wondered...

What Is HDR Photography?

What Is HDR Photography?

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. The term is widely used in medium that captures or displays color and brightness. In the context of photography, HDR describes the range of brightness that normally cannot be captured by the camera in a single exposure.

Picture this: You are out catching the sunset by the beach. The sky is clear and the sun is shining brightly above the horizon. You take a picture with your camera but only to realize the foreground is too dark and only the sky is correctly exposed (image below).

shadows clipping

This is a classic example. The range of brightness in the scene exceeds the range of brightness your camera can capture. With a single exposure, you can either have the sky or the foreground correctly exposed but never both.

HDR photography is a technique to overcome this limitation. It works like this: take several images of the same composition but with different exposure, then combine all together during post-processing.

The XDR blog

What Is This Blog About?

Fotographee is an HDR photography blog that publishes free tutorials to help you master the art of creating natural HDR images and discover the creative side of you. Post-processing plays a significant part in the HDR workflow and it will be taught here as well. Many of these editing techniques are applicable to other types of photography.

HDR photography is exciting and attractive to many (particularly if you see it the first time!). But the number one problem is that most people don't know how to do it the right way.

how to do hdr photography

Ever wondered how to create a dramatic photo like this?

The result?

Over-processed HDR images that are hypersaturated, lack of contrast and look cartoony. This is why HDR generally has a bad reputation amongst photographers.

Many people do HDR for the sake of the effect and that's a huge mistake!

I will show you why you should do HDR photography, when you should do it and how to do it right so your images look amazing but stay natural.

For the first-timer

What To Expect?

Techniques come first, gear comes second.

This is the reason why articles published here focus on technical and post-processing techniques instead of what gear to buy.

To give you an idea of what this site is about, here are some of the most viewed articles:

The KickStarter's Guide To Using Luminosity Mask​ In Photoshop

​The Beginner's Guide To Exposure Blending In Photoshop

​The Ultimate Guide To HDR Photography

Exposure Fusion Vs Tone-Mapping: Which Should You Use In Photomatix?

​Luminosity Mask Vs HDR Software: The When, Where and Why

Sounds a bit overwhelming to you?

Not to worry, because the basics of HDR photography are covered extensively as well, particularly on how to create natural looking HDR images.

How to create an HDR image

HDR Workflow Explained

"You do not take an HDR, you make it" - Yaopey

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How Is HDR Photography Done?

That's what going through the mind of those who have never heard of HDR when they first saw an HDR image!

Remember, the aim of HDR photography is to include the entire dynamic range of the scene in a single image.

When your camera fails to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene, one of the two ways is to photograph the same scene several times with a different exposure. Each exposure captures a part of the dynamic range. This process is called bracketing exposure.

multiple exposures

A set of 3 bracketed exposures

Before you start shooting multiple exposures, you need to find out if the scene you're shooting needs to be shot using the HDR technique. You can decide by looking at the histogram. I promise you the histogram is easier than you thought and you should know how to interprete it as a photographer.

raw histogram

Histogram in FastRawViewer

Once you have the bracketed images, you can merge into HDR in post-processing. There are two ways to merge these images: using a dedicated HDR software such as Photomatix Pro or combine it manually in an image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop. The latter is also known as exposure blending.

Having a merged HDR Image is only the beginning. You're making a big mistake if you stop here (which I did before!). Your fresh-out-of-the-oven HDR image is like a baby, it needs a lot of nurturing (in the form of post-processing!) to make it grow into a beautiful, stunning masterpiece.

This is the essence of the HDR workflow. Of course, the actual workflow is a lot more elaborated!

Can't wait to learn how to create your first HDR image?

Keep on reading!

Learn more: The ultimate guide to HDR photography

Everything you don't know but are too afraid to ask


Why Does My Photo Look So Different From What I See?

In a high dynamic range scene, part of your image will either underexpose or overexpose, depending where your camera meters the light. You won't be able to capture an image that reflects what you have actually seen in a single exposure.

This is because the human eye has a different dynamic range (14-20 stops of light) than that of our camera (10-12 stops of light).

The human eye ​is unique in a way that the pupil can adapt to extreme range of brightness very quickly (dilates and constricts in a fraction of second). This enables us to perceive the details in both very bright light and very dark shadow clearly at the same time.

In addition to a having a lower dynamic range in the digital sensor, our camera has a fixed aperture. It can only allow a fixed amount of light to enter the camera each time.

What Is Dynamic Range of A Camera?

According to Imatest, dynamic range is the range of exposure, i.e. scene brightness, over which a camera responds with good contrast and/or a good signal-to-noise ratio (SNR).

In simple words, it refers to the range of brightness that can be recorded or displayed by an electronic device. It is device specific. This means each device has a different dynamic range.

high dynamic range

The camera's dynamic range is represented in the middle. Any brightness and darkness in the scene that cannot be captured by the camera is outside in the "extended dynamic range".

​This also means every camera has a different dynamic range, which is dependent on how the digital image sensor is built. A good knowledge of dynamic range helps you decide when you should do HDR photography.

Learn more: Understand Dynamic Range To Change They Way You Photograph​

When Should I Do HDR?

You should only do HDR when your camera failed to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene. Not everything under the sun should be turned into an HDR image! 

​And how do you decide when to or not to do HDR?

Use the camera's histogram to guide you. Preview your image, check if either end of the histogram touches the vertical line.

If the graph touches the line on the far left, the shadows are clipped. If the graph touches the line on the far right, the highlights are clipped. Clipping, or blown out, means there are no information recorded in these areas and you won't be able to recover any details from it. In this case, your image will likely benefit from HDR.

Every photographer should know how to read the histogram. It is easy to learn and gives you information about your image at pixel level.

Learn more: When To Do HDR: Deep Dive Into Histogram

Can I Use Exposure Compensation To Increase Dynamic Range?

Exposure compensation affects the overall exposure of the image. It gives you the flexibility to fine-tune exposure without the need to change your exposure settings.

If you look at the histogram​ while moving the dial for exposure compensation, you will notice the histogram moves entirely to the left or right within the dynamic range of your camera.

So, to answer the question:

No, it does not change the dynamic range of your camera or image.

Which Camera Has The Best Dynamic Range?

A camera's dynamic range is determined by the quality of the digital image sensor. Every camera has a different dynamic range due to difference in image sensor technology.

You don't need a digital camera with the highest dynamic range for HDR photography. Because you are going to bracket exposure and combine it together in post-processing.

What you do need is a digital camera capable of shooting in aperture priority (Av) mode, manual mode and has automatic exposure bracketing (AEB). Most DSLR or mirrorless camera on the market today have these functions built in.

What Is Automatic Exposure Bracketing?

Commonly known as AEB. It is a built-in function in most digital cameras (probably all) today.

It works by taking exposures sequentially in a bracket. This means once you have set it up, a different shutter speed will be used to take the image until all the exposures set within the bracket are complete.

exposure bracketing hdr

Automatic exposure bracketing (AEB) setting in my Canon 5D MKII

Depending on the camera, you can turn it on and off via the main menu. When it is enabled, you can set the exposure value (EV) you like each bracketed image to be apart. You can also set how many images to be taken with each series of bracketed exposure. To make your life easier, change the shooting mode from single to continuous. When you press the shutter speed, hold it to let the camera take all the exposures in one go.

To set the exposure value between each exposure, go to AEB from the main menu. For example, if the 0EV exposure of an image is taken with a shutter speed of 1/500sec (0EV), 3 bracketed exposures with an interval of 1EV will be 1/250sec (-1EV), 1/500sec (0EV) and 1/1000sec (+1EV). AEB is almost always used in aperture priority mode (Av). This means the ISO and aperture remain constant in all images.

What Is Tone-Mapping?

In the simplest explanation, tone-mapping is changing the tonal value of a pixel to a new value.

Merging multiple exposures using an HDR software creates a 32-bit HDR image, a true HDR image. Unfortunately, limited by the current technology, our monitors cannot display a true HDR image. The tonal value of the pixels have to be remapped into a lower dynamic range so the image can be displayed properly.

The actual process of tone-mapping is done by the HDR software's algorithm. This is where people tend go overboard to create over-processed images that give HDR photography the bad reputation.

Any Other Ways of Doing HDR?

There is only one way of doing HDR - bracketing exposure and merge them into a single image.

But there is more than one way to deal with a high dynamic range scene!

A neutral density (ND) filter is a piece of resin/glass that is dark on one end and bright on the other. When the transition from dark to bright is gradual, it is called a graduated neutral density (GND) filter. It is normally held in a filter holder, which is then attached to the front of the lens.

The dark side of the filter is placed over the brightest part of the scene to compress the dynamic range so that it can fit into the dynamic range of the camera.

But it has two major drawbacks: (1) It takes time to setup and the light may have gone when you are ready; (2) It only works well when the horizon is relatively straight. Any subject that crosses the transitional zone of the filter will be under or overexposed.

Learn more: Graduated Neutral Density Filter Vs HDR In High Dynamic Range Scene​

Can I Use The Built-In HDR Mode In My Camera?

Some digital cameras have built-in HDR mode where it merges bracketed exposures into an HDR image. All the processing is done within the camera and what you get is the final image.

Although it sounds like a great technology, there are some major drawbacks: the HDR image is delivered in JPEG or TIFF but the bracketed exposures are deleted, the HDR image is automatically tone-mapped for you and the quality of the HDR image is poor.

The technology seems premature. So, if you are serious about HDR photography, I honestly wouldn't recommend using the built-in HDR mode.

What Is The Best HDR Software?

This is like asking what is the best mobile phone to get. No one is going to give you THE answer because everyone has a difference preference.

All HDR software merge multiple exposures to create an HDR image. What they differ from each other is mainly the software's layout, tone-mapping algorithm and the ability to post-process the HDR image further.

Although I can't tell you what is the best for you, I can give you a list of the most popular HDR software. You need to try these yourself to see how it works for you. Most software have a free trial so there is really nothing to loose!

1. Photomatix Pro 6
2. Aurora HDR Pro
3. HDR Efex Pro
4. EasyHDR
5. Oloneo HDR
7. Adobe LIghtroom
8. Adobe Photoshop
9. Machinery HDR
10. HDR Projects

Of all the software above, I have used Photomatix Pro when I first started doing HDR. It is simple to use and the menu is pretty intuitive. I have also tried Aurora HDR Pro for a short period of time when it first came out. It is certainly more powerful than Photomatix Pro (it has layer masking like Photoshop), but the number of tools in the adjustment panel can be overwhelming for a beginner.

What Is Ghosting In HDR?

Ghosting is an artefact in HDR images. It is caused by moving subject(s) while shooting multiple exposures. Commonly people, animals, vehicles, literally anything that moves.

ghosting in hdr

Ghosting after merging 3 bracketed exposures in Photomatix Pro

As a result, the subject(s) looks weird with shadows and might not even be in the same position.

long exposure

Long exposure effect created with 16-stop ND filter

Ghosting is different from motion blur or the trailing effect in long exposure. Motion blur is caused by camera movement while the shutter curtain is still open and long exposure is a deliberate special effect created by prolonging the shutter speed while keeping the camera still.

What Is Deghosting?

As the name implies, deghosting removes ghosting in HDR images.

Deghosting these days is actually not difficult. Most HDR software have built-in deghosting tool and it can be done in just a few clicks. If you like to have more control, layer mask it using one of the multiple exposures in Photoshop. Another way to do it in Photoshop is to use the Healing Brush tool to remove ghosting in one click.

How Do I Combine Two Images of Different Exposure In Photoshop?

It is called exposure blending and can be done in image editing software that supports layer masking, notably Adobe Photoshop.

Before you dive into exposure blending, you need to know what layer masking is and how it works. Without any prior knowledge to these fundamentals, the learning curve is very steep.

To blend two exposures, stack both images in the Layers Panel. I prefer to stack the darker exposure on top but it works either way.

I like to call these two layers "blending set". The image on top is the blend layer while the image below is the base layer. The aim is to blend the blend layer onto the base layer.

blending set

A blending set with the brighter exposure at the bottom

The next step is to make a selection over the area you want to blend. There are many ways to do that, you can check out my tutorial on The Ultimate Guide To Exposure Blending where I'll show you how to blend images in several ways.

Personally, I prefer to use luminosity mask to create selections. If you don't now what that is - it is a powerful selection tool in Photoshop. If you like to learn more about luminosity mask, click here to kickstart your way to luminosity mask!

With the selection being active (you will see marching ants), you can create a layer mask for the blend layer or create a black layer mask first then blend in the selection using painting a mask technique.

The most versatile selection tool in Photoshop

Luminosity Mask Tutorial

What Is The Big Deal About Selection Tool?

That's a great question! 

As digital photography evolves, we emphasize more and more on selective adjustment because it is more refined. Gone are the days when you apply adjustment that affects the entire image. You can still do that, but don't expect your image to stand out from the crowd.

Selective adjustment means applying changes to only a selected part of the image. For example, if you want the clouds to have more contrast, apply Curves adjustment and exclude the effect from the foreground with a layer mask.

Sounds simple, right?

But the question comes: How are you going to make sure you mask out the foreground precisely with a smooth and seamless transition?

You can do that in many ways, but I find luminosity mask to be the most efficient way to get the job done. It is not difficult but it does have a learning curve.

I hope these tutorials help you understand luminosity mask better.

The kickstarter's guide to understanding ​​​​luminosity mask

How to dodge and burn the smart way with luminosity mask

Luminosity mask vs HDR software: when, where and why using it

An idiot's guide to luminosity mask

How to do exposure blending with luminosity mask

How to refine luminosity mask in 5 simple ways

How to apply color adjustment with luminosity mask

How to apply tonal adjustment with luminosity mask

How to create custom mask with color range

How to fine-tune contrast with midtones luminosity mask

Create tasteful, artistic XDR images

Stylizing Image

Merging and Blending Should Not Be Your Last Step!

I used to feel very satisfied when I merged multiple exposures and saved the file because that was the last step in my workflow.

If you are nodding your head, you are making the same mistaken like I did!

Having a freshly merged or blended image should NOT be the end of your workflow. In fact, it is only the beginning. Your new image is like a raw file straight out of camera. It has many potential that needs you to tease it out in post-processing.

Do you know you can do more that just tonal and color adjustments?

You can style it! 


Let me show you some examples.

Light Painting

This is a technique I use together with selective saturation and desaturation to accentuate light. Despite what the name implies, you don't actually add light that does not exist in the image. You merely enhance the highlights and shadows to make light more visible.

I often use this with selective dehaze/adding haze to accentuate the depth of the composition. The key to good light painting is to keep the effect subtle and natural.

How do you do it?

Dodging and burning - a really simple technique, can be done in a few different ways depending on your preference and you can really embrace your creativity with it!

Learn more: How to dodge and burn the smart way with luminosity mask​

Orton Effect

The Orton effect creates a soft, gentle glow in your image. It was pioneered by Michael Orton in the 1980s using a combination of camera and darkroom technique. It was later adapted into the digital workflow. You can read about the Orton effect on Michael's website if you are interested.

Technically, you can apply the Orton effect to create a dreamy look to your image in any situation. Having said that, you will probably see this most often in landscape or portrait photography.

To create the Orton effect in Photoshop, here is what you do:

First, duplicate your image. Next, apply Gaussian blur to the duplicated layer and change the blending mode to Screen, the effect will be strong. Now, lower the opacity of the layer until the effect is more visually pleasing.

Bear in mind that the method described above is one of the many ways to create the Orton effect!

Light Bleed

Light bleed works best when there is a source of light or you know where the source of light is in relation to the composition.

What exactly is light bleed?

Imagine yourself watching a sunset. As the color in the sky becomes more intense, it bathe everything in sight with the same color. It is called light bleed because the color of the sun is "bleeding" out to other objects in the scene.

It sounds similar to light painting but they are different techniques and you will see why.

There are many ways to add light bleed to your image in Photoshop. I'm going to show you one that I think is the simplest and most effective.

I usually add light bleed towards the end of my workflow because if you apply further tonal and color adjustments following that, the effect will diminish.

First, add a new layer. Select the Brush tool and sample the color of the light using the Color Picker by holding down Opt (Mac) or Alt (PC). The foreground color should now changed to the color you have just picked. With the Brush tool, paint in the area where you want the effect on the new layer. Lastly, change the blend more to Soft Light and lower the Opacity of the layer to your liking.

Matte Look

While that doesn't sound very appealing, check out the example to see it yourself.

You might be wondering how the effect looks? A matte finish gives the surface a non-shinny, flat and contemporary look. I like to apply this on architectural photographs.

This is one of the easiest stylization you can do in Photoshop, Lightroom or any editing software.

Matte look can be achieved using the Levels or Curves adjustment in Photoshop or Lightroom. Personally, I like to use Levels. Similar to adding light bleed, I tend to do this towards the end of my workflow because any further tonal adjustments will ruin the matte effect.

Once you are done with your image, add a Levels adjustment layer. In the Adjustment Panel, click on the arrow on the far left of the Output Levels (the darker end). Move the arrow to the right slowly and you will notice the shadows in your image starts to brighten up and reduces contrast.

Light Rays

While I don't add light to my images, I like to accentuate the existing one to create a more dramatic effect. This is different to light painting because instead of enhancing the highlights and shadows, you enhance the light itself.

You can see it in the example above, both images look natural but the 'after' looks brighter, more contrast and energetic. This is because I made the light that is already there more prominent.

There are many ways to accentuate light rays. All are based on the same principle. Create a new layer, paint white with the brush tool in areas you want to enhance the light then apply radial and gaussian blur to it.

Always keep it low-key. A subtle effect looks natural and more believable.

Break your limits

How To Be More Creative

1. Know Your Gear

This is so simple yet so easy to forget. You gear includes camera, lenses, tripod, filters, software, etc. These are the tools you use to create your work. You should know how to operate them, understand what they can do for you and what their limitations are. Your gear are your best friends in photography. Know them well, know them inside out.

2. Think Outside The Box

When you are shooting, move around, try different camera settings or use a different lens. Always ask yourself how you can make your image unique. Resist the temptation to snap photos on your first encounter with your subject. Observe, study the light and think composition.

3. Never Stop Learning

There are a ton of resources on the web on almost everything about photography. Learn a new skill every week or month. Connect with other photographers to draw inspiration. Learn their style, replicate it and develop your own eventually. Don't be afraid to experiment, every bit you do counts. You will naturally become a better photographer with time.

the xdr blueprint

Download The XDR Blueprint

Whether you are new to HDR or want to learn more about exposure blending, click the button below to get a FREE copy of The XDR Blueprint.

In the blueprint, I will teach you how to improve your HDR photography by having the right mindset and the skills you need to post-process your images. I will also show you the exact steps I use to craft my images.