What is HDR Photography and How Does it Make Better Photos?

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hdr photography tutorial.

HDR photography has become more and more popular among various groups of people. Everywhere we look, we see photographers posting the result of their experiments with HDR photos. It encourages us to create a few of our own HDR photos. But how do we go about creating really interesting high dynamic range photography?

HDR photography is surprisingly easy to create. It simply involves capturing multiple images at different exposures using the right camera settings. Your shutter speed choices are important when you are doing HDR photography because you need to capture many images at different exposure settings. You can use auto exposure bracketing for this most effectively when making HDR photos. After capturing multiple images you need to do some HDR processing to produce a final HDR image. This can be done with dedicated HDR software.

The HDR photography technique involves taking at least three photos of the same high contrast scene in order to create one HDR image. Creating HDR pictures in this way requires the use of a good tripod for making the bracketed exposures. Creating HDR images at different exposures while hand holding your camera will not provide good enough results for HDR photography. Each photo for the HDR image must be precisely the same composition, otherwise you will see a ghosting effect once the HDR processing is completed.

But first, before we get into how to do HDR photography, lets take a look at what HDR photography is and what HDR photos actually are.

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What is HDR Photography?

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. HDR Photography is a composite of two or more images of the same scene that are taken at different exposures. They are then combined together in order to create one perfectly exposed HDR image.

HDR photography is primarily dependent on post-processing tools. This is because HDR photography is very difficult to get everything perfectly exposed in one single image. Just like anything else in photography, there is more than one way to create HDR images. You could simply shoot RAW images and then adjust them to create an HDR images. This would be an alternative to making several images of the same scene and then combine everything together. This is what multiple image HDR photography is all about.

So when you are setting up to create HDR photos, you must concentrate on the final HDR image. You can do this by manually setting your camera or by using the HDR mode, if you camera has this. Then, once you have your set of images for your HDR photograph, you must combine them using software or an app like Aurora HDR.

HDR photo of a car.

The main reason HDR photography is popular is because a digital camera is not capable of recording such a wide dynamic range of tone in a single frame as the human eye can see. Dynamic range is about how the camera can record the darkest and brightest areas in a composition. Currently, even the most advanced digital cameras do not record a full dynamic range in high contrast scenes.

By making multiple exposures, with either manual or automatic exposure bracketing, the HDR process is possible. Because the images taken at varying exposure values are them combined into a single final image, the tone mapping features in software allow for a more complete dynamic range to be visible in the final image.

Landscape photography using the HDR photography technique has become very popular. High dynamic range images have become so popular with almost all landscape photographers because using HDR mode allows them to capture a bright sky and dark shadows in an HDR photo and retain detail in both extremes of the dynamic range. In a single image taken with a digital camera this may not be possible.

Modern digital cameras have a wider dynamic range. As sensor technology continues to improve, the need to make an HDR photo will not be so tempting. Especially for a landscape photographer who likes to produce images as RAW files with their camera gear. The depth of tone range in single RAW image fiiles can contain a wider tonal range than three images taken with different exposure values. This is easier if there are no bright highlights in the composition. The brightest highlights are always more difficult to post-process and this is why HDR photography remains popular.

tools needed for hdr images.

Basic Tools you Need to Create an HDR Image:

  • Camera
  • Lens
  • Tripod
  • Photo editing programs like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom
  • A dedicated HDR program like Photomatrix Pro

Shooting one single image and then creating different components out of it allows you to counter a lot of issues like image blur and compositional differences. In this tutorial, we are going to learn how to create an HDR image with only one RAW frame.

Making the image is very easy. Just follow the normal approach and capture the frame(s) that you wish to convert to RAW. Take care to shoot them all in RAW because this is a lossless compression allowing you to tweak everything in Photoshop. Essentially, when you take RAW images, your camera records and saves all the data the image sensor captures.  This makes it an ideal format for HDR imaging with a single photo.

HDR Image of a car.

Post-processing: Basic Corrections

The first thing that you need (after the image is shot) is to open them in Camera RAW or your preferred imaging software that manages RAW files. When you open an image in Adobe Photoshop Camera Raw automatically takes over. This neat little program allows you to tweak some basic issues such as white balance adjustment, lens profile correction, clarity, and exposure.

Adobe Lightroom is another favorite RAW editing software program that allows you to make these same adjustments. However, if you are not happy with paying a monthly subscription to use Adobe Lightroom, Affinity Photo is a great alternative. With it you can make all the same kinds of adjustments to RAW photos that you can with Camera RAW or Lightroom, and it’s only a one off price.

landscape photography in HDR.

Creating the Component HDR Images

Once this is done you will need to create the separate images that will be used as component for the main HDR image. If you have shot separate images with exposure compensation dialed in you can skip this step.


Here we adjust the exposure compensation and create several images. You will need to save each of these images separately. Name them so that you can easily identify which is which. I prefer to use a naming convention like image_name_ev_XX. Here ‘XX’ is the amount of exposure compensation used for each component image in Adobe RAW. If you use advanced HDR software such as Photomatix Pro you will need the images to be named like this.

Blending the Images Together

Open Photomatix Pro, Aurora HDR, HDR Efex Pro, or your preferred HDR imaging software, and blend the images together. This is the easy bit. Load the images into the app. This is an advanced software and will automatically detect how much compensation has been used. But it still is beneficial to let it know exactly how much exposure compensation values have been dialed in. Once the images are blended together you will have what is a preliminary HDR file. This will be good enough for you to understand how vastly different the original and the new composite images are.

A pro would not stop here and this is where advanced editing skills need to be build up to obtain the look you want for your HDR photography. Like any automatic setting in photography, whether it’s aperture priority mode or anything software related, they are all programmed. For the most creative results you’ll need to be in control.

Learning to be fully in control of your HDR photography can take time and practice to get it all right. At first, you might be very happy with the way the software works to make HDR images. After some time, you will probably become more aware of how the HDR settings work and want to begin tweaking them so you get results that look more natural to the human eye.

Both these work as plugins for Adobe Photoshop and all you need to do is work your way around these to give the image the right effect. Please note that there are plenty of examples of HDR image attempts going bad with photographers going overboard with their editing. Whatever you do try and keep sanity to everything so that the final result looks natural. Happy clicking!

sky and mountains.

Photo Editing to Achieve a High Dynamic Range (HDR)

The way that photographers achieve photographs with a very high dynamic range such as the one above is by combining different exposures of a photograph where the detail can get captured at each exposure and then the best of each photograph is combined. Sound like a lot of work? Luckily we have computers to do most of the heavy lifting, and new gadgets such as the iPhone do all the merging within the device.

Or, if you can prefer you can use your favorite photo editing software like Photoshop. In Photoshop you just go to File > Automate > Merge to HDR. Here you can create a single exposure from multiple photos and retain all the highlight detail. This is possible even when the scene you have photographed contains extreme contrast.

It used to be when moving from film to digital your camera automatically loses a few stops of dynamic range. This is because the digital sensors are not as capable of capturing the details of the brightest and darkest parts of the photograph as film. Although digital had once lost the battle of dynamic range, it’s now only because of digital technologies we can achieve photographs like the one below. The dynamic range capabilities of modern digital cameras has become very advanced and will soon be able to capture more than we can see with the human eye.

hdr photo.

ISO and Dynamic Range

A lower sensitivity of ISO provides a higher dynamic range. In other words, an ISO 0f 50 provides more detail throughout the photograph than an ISO of 6400. Shadow detail and highlight detail will be better retained when taking photos using a lower ISO setting. You will also encounter fewer technical problems because of digital noise when using a high ISO.

Because taking multiple photos for HDR photography requires the use of a tripod, you can easily set a slow shutter speed. This means there really is no need to use a high ISO setting and that the final photograph will look better because of this choice.

high dynamic range.

HDR Mimics the Eye

The thing that makes HDR so wonderful is that it gets photographs closer than they’ve ever been before to being what the human eye can see. Our eyes instantaneously refocus as we look from a dark area to light, and we see an incredible amount of detail. HDR allows cameras to match that ability and even move beyond it.

The key creative catch is that you are best to manage the combining of many images yourself. The best HDR imaging software will automatically combine multiple images. Much of the time this will work to create an interesting final image with enough shadow detail and details in the highlights to make the photo look good.

Some photographers like to experiment with high dynamic range to create what they perceive as an artistic look. This brings HDR photos into a different realm. They move further away from looking like what the human eye sees and into something very weird at times.

Be careful to control the shutter speed setting when you are taking HDR photos. Capture a broad tone range that can be combined well. Then tweak your photos to produce a picture that you like. It really is up to you how you do this. You can push and pull the contrast levels so they blend beautifully and create a lovely natural photograph. Or you can manipulate the settings and exaggerate the tone range to make photos that look completely unrealistic and different to how we would see them naturally.

image for a temple.


High dynamic range photography can be a lot of fun. It is certainly remaining popular and there are even some professional photographers who have built very successful careers around this type of digital imaging.

Like any photography, the more you practice, the better you will become. Experiment a lot and manage the process well and I am sure you will create many wonderful images using this technique.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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