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5 HDR Photos Done Right, and How to Make Your Own

High Dynamic Range
photography, or HDR as it’s more commonly known, is a popular and often
misunderstood method of photography. Here, we’ll look at what HDR is, how to
use it to good effect and throw in some inspiration to boot.

Maximum Dynamic Range

Dynamic range is a measure of your camera’s signal-to-noise ratio.

In any given photograph, there are a variety of tones: some parts of the
scene that are bright, then a range of colours and greys, and then parts
that are shrouded in shadow. Sometimes the difference between light and dark can be extreme; we call this “high contrast.”

Your camera is optimised to work with a limited dynamic range. Above and below that range, detail will be “blown out” to bright white or “crushed” with noise in the blacks. Just how much difference between white and black the camera is able to record determines a whole bunch of photographic decisions you have to make to successfully take a picture.

It’s difficult to
expose everything perfectly every time: some scenes have black levels and white levels that exceed the abilities of your camera. In these high-contrast scenes, often the right thing to do is make a compromise and choose an exposure that will “protect” the shadows
or the highlights, depending on what matters most to you.

In some situations, however, it’s possible to use clever post-processing techniques to produce images that exceed the innate abilities of your cameras: enter HDR.

Poor, Misunderstood, Maligned
HDR

When compensating
and trying to achieve a high dynamic range, you can end up with an unnatural,
over-saturated look to your images and, unfortunately, that’s where most of the
bad press surrounding HDR comes from. Typically, this ‘over-use’ of the method
has been applied to architecture and particularly, urbex photography; where it’s
become somewhat of a running joke and the subject of many a meme.

Tone Mapping

I’ve heard tone
mapping and HDR used interchangeably but they’re not really the same. You can
apply tone mapping to an HDR image for starters.

Tone mapping bumps
up the contrast whilst (in theory) preserving details and colour. This can be
done in two ways, either globally, where every pixel is mapped the same way, or
locally, where the algorithm is adjusted for each pixel depending on the
surrounding ones and what’s going on in the image.

Used subtly and
sparingly, tone mapping can add extra punch to your image. Used incorrectly and
you’ll highlight problems such as noise and sensor spots, cause contrast rings
and haloing. It’s a delicate balance.

What You Need

HDR is achievable
with any hardware as it’s all about the processing afterwards. Ideally, you’ll
have a camera that will allow you to shoot in RAW, so that you can get the most
out of your images.

Exposure Bracketing

AEB is a useful
feature to have on your camera too. It stands for Auto Exposure Bracketing and
allows you to set the camera to take a picture at a predetermined number of
stops apart. For example, you might set it to EV: -2, 0, +2 which would take an
image at your settings, two stops lighter and two stops darker.

The idea behind
this is that it gives you the best possible chance of having one image that
exposes for the shadows, one for the midtones and one for the highlights. When
they’re blended together, in theory you’d have a perfectly exposed photograph
with a high dynamic range.

You can achieve
this without an AEB function, but you’d have to set it manually and it
increases the chances of you moving the camera or something in your shot
changing or moving.

A Tripod

Again, this isn’t
essential but it is very useful. It means you can keep your shot lined up and completely
still while the camera takes its multiple exposures. Even the steadiest of us
would find it tricky to keep the camera in the exact same position for several
shots.

HDR Post-Processing
Software

Software that can
properly blend HDR images varies greatly in price. The popular Photomatix has a two-tiered pricing package
starting at £39. If you already have Photoshop or Lightroom then both are
capable of this, so you can use them to blend your images. If you don’t have
any of these and prefer a free option, then there’s open source software, Luminance HDR which has several
blending options and is a great place to start or the highly popular (and
recently made free) Nik Collection
which includes an option to blend multiple exposures or tone map from a single
exposure but the latter isn’t true HDR and you can probably bring in as much
detail by making your adjustments in RAW.

Inspiration

Downtown Chicago

Downtown Chicago overlooking the river
Image via Photodune

I wouldn’t say this was a natural-looking HDR, exactly, but nor is it cartoony and oversaturated. I really like the
limited colour palette and the warmth of the buildings.  To me, this almost feels like a graphic
designer’s interpretation of a city and definitely benefits from the lack of
people in the shot.

Red Rocks at Sunset

red rocks landscape photograph
Image via Photodune

 You can bet that the original image(s) had some very dark shadows in the
tree and cliff lines and some very bright highlights in the sky. This balances
them well and the detail brought back to the sky is beautiful. To my eye, the
green and red could be a touch more subtle—less saturated and slightly darker—but other than that it’s a great
blend.

Irish Cliffs

cliffs in Ireland
Image via Photodune

Although ‘avoid movement’ is great advice when it comes to HDR, I think
the grass blowing actually works here. It looks slightly soft, giving the
illusion that it’s still swaying in the wind—I bet you can nearly feel the
bracing wind on that cliff top!

Lights at Dusk

lights
Image via Photodune

Including lights in a composition is absolutely my favourite thing when it comes to bringing out
the best in the dynamic range. The warm glow on the water here is lovely and
the town is just sharp enough to stand out and draw your eye without looking
overdone.

Sunset in St. Louis

sunset
Image via Photodune

Sunsets
and sunrises are lovely times to bring out the various colours and tones. Using
many exposures will give you a great range, particularly as the light is
changing all the while.

A Compromise

As
well as blending or tone mapping, some presets or actions claim to give an HDR
effect to your images. Below is one of my images. The unprocessed RAW
file is quite flat:

Thun
Image: Marie Gardiner

I
used Sodasong’s Dramatic
Landscape Action
pack for Photoshop, which includes an HDR effect. Now
obviously this can’t be true HDR as there’s no blending or tone mapping
involved, but it claims to replicate the HDR look.

When
I ran the action, it created a mask to cover the dynamic range and then broke
down into layers like sharpening, brightness, contrast and colour. These are
all non-destructive, so you can compare to your original image at any time. It
also means you can adjust each layer until you get the desired result.

I
decided to leave the settings as they were so you could see the result from
literally just pressing play on the action:

after action
After running the HDR action

You
can see that there’s a strong colour, contrast and sharpness increase and the
shadows and highlights haven’t been crushed or blown out.

Here’s
the image with before to the left, and after to the right:

before and after
Before (left) and after the action (right) 

For
a one click solution, it’s not bad at all. The difference is subtle, but subtle is best when it comes to HDR. You know you’ve hit HDR success when the results just feel normal, integrated, and natural.

If you’re pushed for time and you
just want to give your images a boost, then the action is a great solution: it
doesn’t take long to run, it’s subtle, and doesn’t go overboard. This is exactly what you want in an action, to leave you free to make your own adjustments.

 

Technique

Make Your Exposures

At the very least
you need to shoot two images, but ideally it will be at least three: one of
normal exposure, one exposed for the shadows, and one exposed for the highlights. Setting the bracketing
mode (AEB) on your camera and using the burst mode will allow you to capture
three shots in quick succession

Remember not to
make changes to your settings between taking the images. This means that
ideally, you should be shooting manually so that the camera doesn’t change the
ISO or aperture between shots.

Watch out for
things like movement which will add ghosting to your images when they’re
merged. Even the wind in the trees will cause you problems so be aware of your
subject and what’s going on within the frame.

If you’re going to
be attempting the same or similar images, one after another, I find it useful
to break them up with a photograph of something blank, so that it’s easy to
distinguish which shots should be grouped together. I usually take a picture of
my hand so that I can spot the breaks easily from thumbnail images.

Keep Your Exposures Close

When you use AEB,
don’t use really extreme differences unless you’re taking lots of
exposures.
For most things, three photos is enough to make a great HDR image. Avoid
extreme combinations like [-5, 0, +5]; instead keep to one, two or
three stops apart. If you’re taking more shots, five instead of three,
for
example, then it’s okay to push it further.

Again, bracketing one or two stops above and below your base exposure is usually enough though, especially with RAW. For pictures of
people, you’ll probably want to try taking your images a stop or less apart.
For high drama images such as cityscapes and landscapes, you can increase the
range to two or three.

Blending Your Photos

Each piece of
software capable of processing HDR photographs, like the ones I mentioned earlier,
will have different features and options but mostly approach it in a similar
way.

The software will
get you to manually put in the exposure value for each image if it can’t automatically
recognise it. It will usually also have options such as Correct Chromatic
Abberation
, Reduce Noise and Reduce Ghosting. These can all be very useful
as they’re common problems with HDR, so don’t be afraid to play about with the
sliders to see what improves your image.

Once you’ve got
things how you want them, your software will blend the exposures into one
32-bit image and will probably look pretty darn awful. That’s normal, so don’t
worry, it’s where tone mapping comes in. Here you’ll make adjustments to fine
tune your image—choosing whether to enhance the details, further compress
tones, and where to reduce or increase saturation.

Potential Problems

Movement

As you’ll be taking at least three images to get an HDR image, it makes
sense to avoid movement. If something is moving, even a tree in the breeze,
then it makes sense it won’t be in the same position for all photos and so will
look blurred or odd in the final blend.

Over-Saturation

If a scene is full of colour or high contrast, using HDR will intensify
that, often to the picture’s detriment. It might be necessary to desaturate
your image after you’ve processed it, to take the edge off. Likewise, in areas
of low contrast or colour, you may end up with a flat, milky look to your
images,

Computer Issues

If you’re
processing many, large RAW images your computer may well struggle. Make
sure any updates that are scheduled don’t start during processing and that you
have the available memory to be able to cope with what you’re doing. Computers
today are great at dealing with high volumes of large images but you still
might find your editing software grinds to a halt if you ask too much of it.

Top Tips to Getting HDR Shots

  1. Use
    a tripod to keep your camera still.
  2. Set
    your camera to AEB to capture your images.
  3. Keep
    your exposures close together, no more than two or three stops apart.
  4. Take
    more images to get a wider dynamic range.
  5. Make
    use of the tools in your HDR blending software and work conservatively to avoid that ‘cartoon’
    look often associated with HDR.

Further Resources

Final Thoughts

HDR is often misjudged
and photographers can be a little snobby about it. Don’t let that put you off
though, using HDR blending in the right way can produce some really amazing
images. The best ones aren’t instantly recognisable as an HDR blend.

The key to a great
looking HDR is to first do the best possible job you can when taking shots.
That means avoiding movement so that you don’t get ghosting and taking more
pictures with the exposures closer together in order to take advantage of the
greatest dynamic range you can.

When you’re
blending, don’t just go for the standard settings. They’re a great start, but
only a start: you should play with the sliders until you feel comfortable
about what they do and the effects they achieve. Remember that less is more, and
although you’re trying to bring the best out of the tonal ranges you should
keep the saturation, structure and sharpening effects to a minimum in order to
maintain a realistic look.