This is a brief description of what High Dynamic Range photography or, HDR is. Have you ever looked at a scene and took a picture and said, Wow! This is going to be an incredible photograph!” only to realize once you get it home and loaded on your computer to realize that something is missing. There’s no detail in the highlights like the clouds that are just a white mass, not what you remember when you photographed them. Or, the beautiful detail in the shadows that are now nothing but black. So what happened? Your eyes and brain are incredible image processing computer mechanisms. They can see things that a camera can’t. You can see the detail in the shadows and highlights. Why is that? I think what you’re really seeing is when you record that image through your eyes is actually a short video recording that is processed in your brain. When you look at a scene, your eye wanders around and records the image and adjusts its sensitivity to also record the information in the highlights and the shadows. Then the brain processes the image and your perception is that beautiful scene with all the highlights and shadows intact. Your eye has a dynamic range as high as a 24 f-stop swing. The camera, on the other hand, only has one chance to record the RAW image. A camera can only record a dynamic range swing of about 5 to 11 f-stops depending on the camera. But we can fix this by using a process called HDR. This process involves taking 3 or more photos at different exposures and then combine them in post processing with the program like Adobe Photoshop CS5 or HDRsoft Photomatix Pro to increase the dynamic range in the photograph. This process allows us to produce a photograph that can closely represent what our eyes can see. The process can also produce some pretty cool special effects, as well.
Basic camera setup for high dynamic range photography or HDR.
- READ YOUR CAMERA MANUAL
- Set your ISO to 100 or as low as possible. Do not use AUTO ISO
- Set meter pattern to matrix.
- Turn off LCD automatically rotate. You don’t need it anyway.
- Use a sturdy tripod and shutter release cable or remote. I don’t recommend handholding your camera.
- For best results set your cameras to the raw file format.
- Set your camera to aperture priority exposure mode. Do not use shutter priority mode.
- Set your cameras EV steps to it’s highest setting – 1 or 2 (2 is better if available).
- Set the camera to auto exposure bracketing.
- Set the number of exposures to at least 3 (some cameras have 5, 7 or 9 exposures).
- You will need at least a 4 EV swing. If you’re highest EV setting is 1, you will need at least a 5 exposure setting.
- Set the camera burst rate to high if available.
- Turn off your image stabilizer.
- Switch to manual focus and don’t forget focus the lens.
- Use and understand your camera depth of field preview button.
Expanded explanation for these settings.
Tripod and Remote
Use a tripod with ashutter release cable or remote. Using a tripod will ensure all of your bracketed images are all in the same position and minimizes camera shake. The cable release or remote will ensure you don’t move the camera during the shooting sequence. However, you can shoot with out a tripod but, you better have a steady hand.
Set your ISO to 100 or as low as possible. Do not use auto ISO. ISO refers to the sensitivity of your cameras image sensor. Using a high ISO setting will inject noise into your final photograph.
RAW or JPG
For best results set the camera to the RAW file format, if available. RAW files have all the information and will even have more detail in the shadows and highlights that are lost in the JPG file format. JPG files from your camera discards a lot of useful information that can help in HDR post processing.
Set the exposure compensation EV steps to 1 or 2. (2 is better, if available). Common values in cameras are 1/3, ½, 2/3, .7, 1, 2, 3.
Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB)
Set the camera to auto exposure bracketing. Set the number of exposures (most cameras have at least 3 but some have 5, 7 or 9). Just remember, cameras with a maximum 1EV or less may require 5, 7, or even 9 exposures to achieve a 4EV range or more. Auto exposure bracketing is probably the most important camera setting for HDR photography. In the most basic setting, 3 exposure bracketing the camera will shoot one exposure over exposed, one photo under exposed and one photo properly exposed. In post processing all three of these photographs will be blended or combined together using a program like Photomatix Pro or Adobe Photoshop. EV stands for exposure value so one EV equals one f-stop.
High Speed Burst Rate
Set camera’s burst rate to high, if available. This will minimize ghosting of moving objects. Burst rate refers to how many photographs can be taken in one second.
Set the camera to aperture priority. This will produce multiple images at different exposures and all with the same depth of field. Do not use shutter priority. If you set your camera to shutter priority instead of adjusting the shutter speed, it will adjust the aperture which will affect depth of field. This will cause problems in post processing as each photograph will have different depth of field characteristics which will not provide a satisfactory image.
Turn off your image stabilizer. The image stabilizer works great when you’re handholding your camera but, in most cases, it is not necessary on a tripod. Plus, the image stabilizer may ever so slightly shift your images and cause a slight blur or make it hard for the HDR software to align the images properly.
Switch to manual focus and don’t forget focus the lens. When shooting for HDR you are shooting between 3 to 9 frames. By using manual focus you eliminate the chances your camera will refocus partway through the bracketing sequence. This is very important because you want every photograph in the sequence to be at the same focus on every shot.
Time to Shoot
HDR Video Tutorials
Photomatix Pro 4 by HDRsoft is perhaps the most widely used HDR software on the market and is the one that I use.
HDR Efex Pro by NIK software
Topaz Labs Adjust plugin for Lightroom, Photoshop editing photo software. Topaz labs adjust will create in HDR effect from a single image and is also a tool to further enhance your HDR photographs after they have been processed through a program like automatic’s Pro 4.
A World in HDR [Paperback] Trey Ratcliff
Complete Guide to High Dynamic Range Digital Photography [Paperback] Ferrell McCollough
Fine Art Photography High Dynamic Range [Paperback] Tony Sweet