HDR photography is a new and fun way to capture and edit stunning photos. This article will answer the basics of HDR photography. Before we start I want to emphasize the 2 different types that we see on the web. The first and the most common is the overcooked HDR effect or the “dirty” as I like to call it. Unfortunately, the web is overloaded with overcooked and fake HDR images.
In contrast, we’ll learn how to properly capture and edit our images. This is the only way to separate from the crowd and create stunning HDR images.
What is HDR photography?
First, let’s see what HDR photography is. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. In simple words is a post-processing task to merge images with different light levels.
The main idea is to display a far greater tonal range than the camera can display in a single shot. Usually, with a single shot image, we have a balanced image. A balanced image is an image we get straight from the camera in automatic mode.
However, even the most expensive DSLR cameras, can only capture a limited range in a single shot. To understand this better, all you have to do is to capture dark objects against very bright backgrounds. A perfect example is by capturing a person against the sun. You will either have a beautiful sky and a silhouette of your person or an over-exposed bright sky and a visible person standing.
At this point is where HDR photography makes a difference. All we have to do is to capture different exposures of the same scene and merge them together. An HDR image is commonly made by a bright, medium, and dark photo. A combination of 3 or more images is always required.
Cameras for HDR photography
To capture different exposures of your scene, all you need is a digital camera with auto bracketing and a tripod. Even the cheapest DSLR camera will possibly support auto-bracketing. You can also find compact cameras with auto bracketing support.
Sometimes when you use a DSLR camera the tripod is not required, especially if you have steady hands. However, a simple tripod is always recommended.
Software for HDR photography
To create beautiful HDR images we need tools like Adobe Photoshop CS6 and Photomatrix. For great results, a combination of Photoshop and HDR stitching software is recommended.
Real HDR vs Fake
Another bad example of low-quality HDR images is the pseudo-HDR technique. Usually, third-party plugins or presets manage to create a fake effect. For real HDR images, you always need 3 or more exposures of the same scene. A real HDR image has a far greater range of tones.
Capturing HDR images
Landscapes and standing objects offer the opportunity for great results. You can’t create HDR photos of moving objects. If you had seen HDR images of humans, animals and other moving objects perhaps it’s not a true HDR. They’re just adjusting the brightness in post-processing. You can take real HDR moving subjects only if you are in good lighting. You need a fast burst though.
The first step is to mount the camera on a tripod. Activate AEB (Automatic Exposure Bracketing) on your camera and start shooting. You can quickly take 3 or more shots at different exposures without having to manually change any settings. Most digital cameras will allow you to change the variation between the shots.
A good variation between your three shots is to select a 2 stop-gap. Using +/- 2 stops will give you less noise in the shadows and will produce a higher range.
HDR post-processing workflow
Before we start the HDR stitching we need to make a few adjustments. Start by reducing the image noise. Usually, the dark shots (under-exposed) produce more noise. By doing this the final HDR image will have less noise. Don’t crop or change the perspective of your images.
Next, use your HDR software to merge the shots. HDR tone mapping will let you have control over the final result. During tone mapping, you can also correct white balance and other imperfections. Don’t overcook the final result. Keep the settings low and try to have a balanced image. Avoid dramatic results before we proceed to the next step.
If you are wondering why the HDR images around the web have exactly the same look, it is because they will not edit the images after the tone-mapping.
This part is where Photoshop can make a difference. Import the HDR image in Photoshop and reduce once again the noise. Crop the image for better perspective and play with Curves adjustment layers. Another tip is to reduce the highlights and shadows by blending the HDR image with the original shots.
Is there an easier way?
Creating real HDR images involves effort at the time of shooting and post-processing. There is no easy way unless you want to create fake HDR photos. A number of DSLRs and compacts now have a built-in automatic HDR mode. Automation is always good but there is no trophy.
Samples of HDR photography