HDR photography is a tool to circumvent a common issue with digital cameras...
That it cannot capture the full dynamic range in the presence of extreme contrast.
One way to get around this is to use HDR technique.
This means bracketing exposures and merging them later in post-processing.
But what is the optimal setup for exposure bracketing?
In this post, you’ll learn a quick and easy way to setup your camera to shoot HDR photography.
What Gear Do You Need?
First things first:
A camera, a tripod and accessories.
Sounds pretty obvious, right?
But would any camera do?
It doesn’t matter whether you shoot with a DSLR or your smartphone…
As long as you have manual control over shutter speed and aperture.
Having said that, you might also want a camera that has automatic exposure bracketing (AEB)...I’ll explain more below.
The purpose of a tripod is to hold the camera still in position.
This ensures the composition of every bracketed exposure is the same. Otherwise, you’d have a lot of problems in post-processing with misaligned images.
I won’t go into the details of choosing a tripod because it doesn’t matter.
In fact, as long as you can keep the camera still, you can use anything from resting the camera on a flat surface to a sandbag.
You’re good to go with a camera and a tripod…
But some accessories may help to improve the quality of your images.
For example, polarizing filter, remote release, spirit level, etc.
These are the ones I use frequently but you can use anything that helps you get better images.
The Ideal Camera Setup
Assuming you have mounted your camera on a tripod and compose the image...
It's time to dive into the nitty-gritty of camera settings now.
Below is a step-by-step approach to the setup:
Step 1: Camera Mode
This is probably the first thing you’re thinking…
...and the answer is fairly straightforward.
The preferred method for most photographers is to shoot in aperture priority mode.
Because in aperture priority mode, you decide on the aperture and let the camera set the shutter speed based on the metering mode.
This also makes sense because you’re going to enable AEB (which will be discussed below).
Step 2: Metering Mode
There shouldn’t need much consideration in metering mode generally but I’ll explain it briefly just to avoid any confusion.
Metering mode is how the camera samples reflective light within the frame to derive the optimal exposure setting using mathematical calculations.
By default, most cameras are set to matrix/evaluative metering mode (both are the same).
It divides the frame into several zones to calculate the average exposure setting required for the entire image.
Because you’re bracketing exposure, matrix/evaluative metering mode will do just fine.
Step 3: Aperture, ISO and File Format
Assuming you're shooting landscape/seascape/cityscape, which is what HDR photography is used for normally, an ISO of 100 is the most ideal.
This applies even in low light situations. With a tripod (hopefully you do), camera shake and blurry images are the least of issues.
Low ISO keeps a high signal-to-noise ratio, therefore minimizing image noise and better image quality.
For aperture, you want a small-ish one which can be anywhere from f/8 to f/22. Every lens has a sweet spot for optimal sharpness. Best check with the manufacturer or experiment it yourself.
Lastly, always shoot Raw.
Raw files retain all the information recorded on the image sensor.
Because we're merging multiple images into HDR, you want all the data available to avoid degradation of image quality in post-processing.
Step 4: Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB)
AEB is the secret weapon to bracketing exposure!
The chances are, your camera has AEB if it’s a DSLR/mirrorless.
To enable AEB, you have to go through the menu. Check the manual because every camera has a slightly different way of accessing it.
Once you’re in, you need to set two things: the bracket and the interval.
Bracket sets the number of images to shoot.
Interval sets the “gap” between these images in the bracketed tonal range. These gaps are described in exposure value (EV).
Three bracketed exposures in 4EV (i.e. -2EV, 0EV, +2EV) with a 2EV interval.
To learn more, check out this post that explains AEB in A LOT more detail.
Step 5: Timer and Mirror Lockup
This step is optional.
Its purpose is to minimize camera shake and blurry images. It only takes another 2-3 seconds so why not do it, right?
Even though your camera is mounted on a tripod, there’s still a possibility of camera shake when you physically press the shutter release.
This is particularly true in low light situations when the slowest shutter speed of the bracketed exposure is in seconds.
To be 100% sure you don't "introduce" movement, avoid any contact with your camera/tripod when the shutter curtain is open.
This means setting a short timer (2 seconds will do) so you don’t have to be in contact with your gear.
For DSLR users, there’s a theoretical risk of micro-vibration when the mirror flips up to expose the image sensor to light.
The good news is, most DSLR has mirror lockup feature.
When switched on, pressing the shutter release once will flip the mirror up first. Pressing it the second time will then open the shutter curtain to capture the image.
When you’re composing an image through live view on the LCD screen, pressing the shutter release will record the image straight away without any movement from the mirror.
That’s because in live view, the mirror has already flipped up!
Step 6: Take More Than One Bracketed Exposures
You’re ready to go!
Press the shutter release and enjoy the mechanical sound of the shutter curtains.
When you’re done, review the histogram of each image on the LCD screen to ensure you’ve captured the full dynamic range.
Also, don’t just take one bracketed exposures...take a few and pick the best ones in post-processing!
Handheld HDR Photography
Maybe you're feeling confused right now…
We were talking about bracketing exposures with tripods and now I’m telling you to do it handheld?!
Well...despite your best effort, using a tripod is not always practical or even possible.
Tripods are not allowed in some places…
...and lights are changing too quickly sometimes. You’d have missed the moment when you're messing around with the gear.
Is Tripod Really Necessary?
Contradicting to what I’ve explained above…
You don’t always need a tripod to shoot HDR photography.
A tripod may not be necessary when the light is good. E.g. when you’re shooting HDR in daylight.
But when you’re shooting HDR during the golden hour or twilight, a tripod is almost always necessary because the light is softer and dimmer...this means a slower shutter speed!
The Pros and Cons of Handheld
Can't decide what to do?
Let's look at the pros and cons of shooting HDR photography handheld.
Another difference in shooting HDR with and without a tripod is that the latter needs a bit more time in post-processing, mainly in corrective adjustments.
How To Shoot Multiple Exposures Handheld
One way is to support the bottom of the camera with your left hand and holding it on the side with your right hand.
Kneel down with both elbows resting on your knees.
This position lowers the central gravity and keeps your arms and legs together to support the camera.
Shooting HDR handheld is no different to shooting it with a tripod...
Except, you have to pay attention to stabilizing your camera.
There are many ways to stabilize a camera without a tripod. I won't go into the details but here's a useful article that you may be interested.
Essentially, you want the camera to be well supported, either by your hands or rest it on a flat and immobile surface. You can also do a combination of both to maximize stability.
Keeping the camera as stable as possible becomes more important in the early and late hours of the day. Shutter speed is generally slower because there's less ambient light.
Built-In HDR Mode
HDR mode is relatively new, only came about within the last few years.
Having said that, it has gained popularity especially among smartphone users because it's so much easier to create HDR images.
How does it work in a DSLR?
You switch the camera to HDR mode, select the bracketed exposures you want, compose the image and click.
The camera takes a few seconds to process and merge the images in-camera. The HDR image is then displayed on the LCD screen.
It's pretty awesome, right?
But here's the downside:
The merged HDR is saved as JPEG, although the bracketed exposures are available to download.
Also, you have no control over the output. The in-camera software decides how the image should look and applies the necessary adjustments for you.
It definitely saves a lot of time but the technology is not quite there yet.
I certainly wouldn't rely on it to create my HDR images.
Shooting Your First HDR
I still remember the moment I created my first HDR image…
The overwhelming excitement and elated feeling to start exploring more on the possibility of HDR photography!
But hold your horses…
Don't start turning everything into HDR!
Applied it only when necessary and it will serve you a longer way.
For more tutorials on HDR photography, check out the HDR resource page!