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HDR Photography Tutorial: 3 Methods Explained to Get Started

Looking to introduce some “wow effect” to your photography? This HDR photography tutorial can literally take your photography to a whole new level, and help you stop shooting “average” or “random-looking” pictures.

Let’s see what HDR photography is and how you can get started today!

Chasing The Dynamic Range

HDR stands for “High Dynamic Range”, but what is the dynamic range of a picture? The dynamic range is the range of light, the amount of light that something like your eye or a camera sensor is able to capture.

In photography, we measure the quantity of light by what are called stops. The dynamic range of the human eye is very large at it can see about 20 stops of light, while your best camera for photography can capture around 8.

And this results in issues we all have encountered. We have a wonderfully exposed scene…with a totally white sky. Or we have a fantastic sky but the trees or buildings at the bottom are dark or even completely black. That’s because the camera couldn’t capture the whole dynamic range of the scene.

With our eyes, we can see the sky, the details of the clouds, and what’s going on in the shade under the trees with no difficulty. For a camera, the range of light to capture from the shadows to the highlights was too extended. As a result, if you expose for the sky, the shadows will be underexposed and if you expose for the foreground, the sky will be overexposed.

So we need to find tricks to extend the camera’s dynamic range, reveal many more details, and create these beautifully enhanced HDR images.

I will list here 3 methods that I use to create images with a higher dynamic range. The first method is an “easier” way to get the HDR feel in your images, but it is the third method that is considered “real” HDR photography. The second method is something in between.

#1 – HDR from a single RAW With Lightroom

This method implies shooting with a DSLR camera in RAW format. The RAW format records all the details of an image as the sensor captures it, which represents much more data than your average JPG image.

As a result, an overexposed sky as shown in a JPG picture, can sometimes actually be recovered from the RAW file. Same thing with the shadows that are too dark. Without even dealing with such extremes (after all, not all of our pictures have overexposed highlights and underexposed shadows!), this method helps reveal lots of details in the image and gives them the punchy, appealing HDR look.

It is the method I like to use to enhance the quality of my panoramas and most images on this website.

So how do we do this?

First things first. Let’s talk software. Good work needs good software, and the absolute best software I can recommend to you is Lightroom. It probably doesn’t surprise you, most photographers on this planet swear by Lightroom!

Basically, what we want to do is play with the sliders (in particular the highlights and shadows sliders) to reveal the details that were stored in the RAW file but were not immediately visible.

Here are the settings I typically use in Lightroom and example images:

  • At the top, I usually don’t need to touch the white balance, and leave it “as-shot“. But every picture is different and you might want to play with it.
  • The exposure is what I set last, to adjust the general lighting after the other settings have been applied.
  • I like to give a little punch to the image by increasing the contrast a little, usually between +10 and +15
  • Highlights: This is where you recover the overexposed highlights, I usually push it down to -90 or -100, to reveal all the possible details in the clouds, etc.
  • Shadows: This is where you recover the underexposed shadows. I usually push it to between +80 and +100, to lighten the details that were too dark. These highlights and shadows sliders pushed to the extreme are what create the HDR look.
  • I often don’t use the whites slider, as I am usually happy with what the highlights slider did, but you can play around with it.
  • Even though I like to make the dark areas lighter with the shadows slider, it is still nice to have some touches of black, which enhances the contrast of the picture. Therefore, I enhance the blacks a little, pushing the blacks slider to around -10 or -12.
  • Clarity is a wonderful tool to enhance an image, so much that beginners tend to push it a little too much. A good range that works for most pictures is around +20 to +25. If you are wondering what clarity does, it is a tool that increases the contrast but only for the mid-tones. It gives the picture a bigger impact by emphasizing the sharpness and the textures.
  • It is now time to make our picture a little more colorful. I like to use the vibrance slider rather than the saturation one because I find that the vibrance slider does a more subtle work.
  • I am usually happy with what the vibrance slider did, so I don’t really need to use the saturation slider.

Limits of This Method

This method works well when the contrast between the shadows and the highlights is not too big. The camera could capture most of the dynamic range of the scene and store it in a RAW file, and you revealed it in Lightroom.

However, this method can quickly show some limits. There are situations where this technique simply doesn’t work. If your shadows are really dark, if you try to lighten them you will see that noise appears. As for the highlights, darkening them works to a certain extent but there are times when it was too bright and there is no data to recover.

When the contrast is very strong, the camera can’t capture everything. Even if you follow the above procedure, your highlights will remain white and your shadows won’t reveal much detail.

Here are two example images where this method didn’t work very well.

#2 – Exposure Blending With Photoshop

When you take a picture of an outdoor or indoor scene, most of the time the range of light to capture is within the reach of your camera – the shadows and highlights are not too extreme.

But imagine you are in a dark cave, looking at an outside view through a small opening. What will happen? The outside will be completely overexposed and appear totally white! If you focus and measure light on the outside view, the cave will be totally black. The contrast between inside and outside the cave is so strong that it’s impossible for your camera to capture everything.

Sometimes, even a landscape image can be problematic, with lighting conditions and contrasts that are too challenging for the camera. A solution to the problem is Exposure Blending. It consists in taking a picture properly exposed for the foreground, and the same picture properly exposed for the sky. You can then blend them in Photoshop.

In order to take your pictures, you need to use a tripod to make sure you will get two identical pictures. The only thing that will vary is the shutter speed. By shooting with a fast shutter speed, your picture will be darker and the sky will be properly exposed. By shooting with a slower shutter speed, your picture will be brighter and the foreground will be properly exposed.

How to do exposure blending in Photoshop

Here are the steps to exposure blending/ You will need to have basic Photoshop skills.

  • Open your two images in Photoshop as layers. You can open the two images separately and drag the darker one onto the lighter one and make sure they are perfectly aligned.
  • Add a layer mask to the dark image (should be the top layer) and fill it with black.
  • Take the paintbrush tool and use the white color. Reduce the opacity to control better what you are doing.
  • Paint the sky and/or other overexposed areas of the image.
  • Proceed to last adjustments to harmonize everything, if necessary.

#3 – HDR from Bracketed Shots With Photomatix

Exposure blending can be convenient but if you are looking for the best quality HDR photography, you will have to go further.

When one picture is not enough to capture everything and two pictures are too limited to give a natural result, the solution is to take 3 or more pictures with different exposures. This is called bracketing. We are now talking about “real” HDR processing.

What is Bracketing?

Bracketing is an option you can find on most DSLR cameras. When enabled, your camera will automatically take several shots with different exposures. Most of the time, 3 pictures are shot, but depending on your camera’s abilities, you can push it to 5 or even 7 shots. In most cases, 3 exposures are enough to get a good result.

I recommend shooting a -2EV (=Exposure Value) picture, a 0EV picture, and a +2EV picture. If you were to shoot 5 brackets, it could be -3EV, -2EV, 0EV, +2EV, +3EV, for example.

Let’s keep the 3 pictures as an example:

  • Your -2EV image will be underexposed. The brighter areas will be captured with good detail.
  • Your 0EV image will be normally exposed. Perfect to capture the mid-tones.
  • Your +2EV image will be overexposed. This will reveal more details in the dark areas without decreasing image quality (without generating noise).

You are shooting the same image 3 times with 3 different exposures in order to blend them together and keep only the best of each picture. Therefore, you should use a tripod to get 3 identical images.

Processing The Bracketed Pictures

Now that we have captured a high dynamic range through 3 pictures, it is time to put them together to get our final image. My favorite HDR software is called Photomatix.

  • Load your images into Photomatix. Select if your pictures were shot with a tripod or not (it can realign handheld pictures, to a certain extent) and click to generate the HDR image.
  • You see that the software took the best of each exposure, nothing is too dark or too bright anymore.
  • On the right, you have a whole list of presets that you can use, and on the left, you have various sliders to play with a little like in Lightroom.
  • What I recommend doing is to first select a preset that is close to the result you want, and then adjust the parameters on the left to get the perfect picture.

The process of blending exposures together and keeping only the best of each is called tone mapping. I will show below 3 examples of HDR images from the bracketed shots above, using 3 different presets in the Photomatix software.

You can see now that from the stone wall inside the dark temple to the bright outside view, everything is properly exposed. This result would have been impossible to obtain with the first method. The second method might have worked but the result would probably have been inferior. This last method reveals a wider range of exposures.

Final Thoughts

This is of course just an introduction to HDR photography, but you can see how it works and how to drastically improve your photography without getting into super-advanced techniques.

The first method is what I personally use for most of my images and I think that the result is already pleasant to the eye, without having to deal with different exposures.

To be honest, I am not a huge fan of the Exposure Blending method. It can be easy and convenient for simple images with just a horizon line, but when you have complex things like the foliage of a tree, it can become a nightmare to have a seamless result with the Photoshop paintbrush.

I just think that since I am there taking several exposure pictures, with a tripod… why not just go all the way and go into real bracketing and tone mapping, and get superior results?

In any case, I am confident that with these tips you will definitely be able to shoot pictures you can be proud of!

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