HDR Tutorial


HDR is a fast growing photographic style that is becoming a favorite of mine.  This is a tutorial on how I produce my HDR photographs.   As in all photography there are an infinite amount of methods on how to process and post process pictures. So I will keep this tutorial simple and easy.

If you would like to read more about details and further your HDR experience, please read an acquaintance of mine, Mr. Ferrell McCollough’s wonderful book called “Complete Guide to High Dynamic Range Digital Photography”.   This book started my HDR career!  As soon as I read it, I wanted to master HDR.

Why do I love HDR?  It is very exciting!   Not only do the pictures to me look incredible, the excitement builds with every 5 exposure process.    I am always eager to see what the final photo looks like!  Kind of like a kid in a candy store.  I will usually take10-30 HDR’s on a trip and do not get to process them until I return home.   So it’s a nice added bonus for me after I have seen my standard shots already during my trip.   With each HDR I process, I study how it looks and learn.   Did it come out ok?  What can I do to improve?  HDR’s are about experimentation – you just have to decide what style is best for you.


HDR stands for “High Dynamic Range”.  The normal eye can see an estimated 14 EV’s.   (EV = Exposure Values)  Current digital cameras can see about 8 EV’s.    A standard single photo will contain one exposure value, therefore, sacrificing EV one way or another.

Digital camera’s today have a “bracketing” feature.   This holds true for most DSLR’s.  For point and shoot camera’s please consult your manual.   Some P&S cameras can bracket and some cannot.

When you set your camera to the bracketing option, this tells your camera to take photographs of the same scene at different exposure values.   You can manually tell your camera how many exposures to take, the higher the number, the higher the detail.  Please consult your manual on how to use the “bracketing” option on your camera.

Typical HDR’s consist of 3 or 5 exposures.  I prefer 5.  You can also go higher if you would like to.  For 5 exposures your EV will range as follows:   -2EV, -1EV, 0EV, +1EV, +2EV.   This will produce five photos ranging from dark to normal to light.  This range allows the photographs to pick up detail in the shadows and keep the highlights.  This is the “Dynamic Range”.


I have taken many HDR’s to date and basically you can take an HDR of any subject you like.   But what makes an HDR is the dynamic range of the photo.  So what this means is to take an HDR of something that contains shadows and highlights.   Midday afternoon on a sunny day is not a great time for HDR.  It can work but try to wait it out if possible.

Two key factors in having a solid HDR:

1. HDR Processing – your settings make the picture

2.HDR Post Processing – how you post process the HDR is very important.  Most HDR’s need touch up to make them look better.  A small percent of HDR’s are great as is – but I prefer to post process.

Great times for HDR are:

  1. Blue Hour (early AM about 15-30 minutes before sunrise)
  2. Sunrise
  3. Early AM before the sun gets bright
  4. Golden Hour (late afternoon when the sun is setting)
  5. Sunset
  6. Night time
  7. Cloudy days
  8. Indoor at anytime!

Remember an important factor in many great outdoor HDR’s – clouds!   Clouds create a wonderful backdrop and with multiple exposures spread over a few seconds can add a “silky” effect in the sky.

Cloudless skies in HDR are still ok, but try to minimize the amount of sky as the tone after post processing can be a bit boring (grayish/blue).  It all depends on how good your subject is and its location to the empty sky.

Don’t be afraid to take HDR’s at night!

As for good HDR subjects:

  1. Landscapes
  2. Architecture
  3. Automobiles
  4. Lakes/Ponds/Rivers (reflections or flowing water adds a great effect)

If you can add the proper subject with clouds, reflective water with the solid shadow and highlights – that can be one great HDR!!

Difficult subjects in HDR:

  1. People – it can be done, but to me they look like zombies!
  2. Moving subjects – as an HDR is multiple exposures – anything moving creates a ghosting effect and will not be in focus.  But sometimes people walking across a street can add a nice effect to the shot!  As long the people are not the focus of the shot.
  3. Sun – it can be done, but multiple exposures can create a glowing effect as the sun moves across the sky.  Most shots with Sun do not look so great
  4. Moon – same reason as the sun
  5. Snow – an HDR with snow can look gray.  It can work, but try and see if you like the outcome.


  1. Bracketing

a.  Turn on (3, 5, 7 exposures – your call!)

b. Set the EV values you prefer.

c. For 5 exposures I like:   -2EV, -1EV, 0EV, +1EV, +2EV

2. fps

a. make sure your are taking shots in repetition – frames per second – make sure your photos match each other as close as possible.

3. RAW format

a.  you can take HDR’s in RAW or Jpeg.  Use what you prefer.  But taking in RAW preserves all the proper data.  Jpegs are compressed files and you lose color, etc.. to the files.  I never shoot in Jpeg.

4. ISO – try to keep you ISO in the range of 100-400.  If you stray above this mark, noise becomes an issue.

5.  Aperture / Manual Priority

a.  all HDR’s must only differ in shutter speed not by f/stop.  These are the only 2 settings that will allow your photographs to meet with requirements for an HDR picture.

6. Tripod / Hand Held

a. I try to use a tripod for most of my HDR shots.  Any shake of the camera can create a ghosting effect on your subject.

b. Hand held can work!  Sometimes it’s difficult to bring a tripod everywhere. If you go hand held – brace your arms well and be as steady as possible!  Windy days are tough!!

7.  Cable Release

a. If you can on your tripod use a cable release – pressing the shutter release with your finger can create movement on the camera.  A cable release takes away that possibility.


It is up to you to choose what best fits your budget and style.  The only software I use is HDRSoft’s Photomatix.   It’s easy use and does a great job.  I can’t give you a review on the other manufacturers as I have not tried them – so here are options (in no particular order):

  1. HDR Soft’s Photomatix
  2. Adobe Photoshop CS3 or CS4
  3. Unified Color’s HDR Photostudio
  4. Areia’s HDR Max
  5. Media Chance’s Dynamic Photo HDR
  6. Artizen HDR
  7. FDR Tools

From all the reviews I have read and seen.  Photomatix is the most popular.  The settings I use below will be for Photomatix.


In post processing HDR’s there are many ways to post process.  I save two settings and try each processed HDR to see which version looks better.  One style is realistic, the other adds a little more kick to it.  Thoughts on HDR’s are very subjective.   Many people love them or hate them.  Hopefully by you reading this tutorial – you are looking to learn more about how to excel in HDR processing!

This is my main method for producing HDR’s, you may prefer something a little more different.  Give it a try and see what you think!

  1. Open Photomatix
  2. Click Generate HDR button
  3. Click the files you wish to convert – I typically have 5 and this is how they look

4..  Click OK!

5. This will bring up the option dialog box

My options in Photomatix are:

  1. Align Source Images (check box)

2.      By correcting horizontal and vertical shifts (check box)

2. WB (as shot)

3. Color Primaries (Adobe RGB)

4.  Then click “Generate HDR” …and your off!   (should take a few minutes to produce an image).

7. Your image pops up looking dark and uninviting (it’s because your computer cannot properly view this file).

7. Click the Tone Mapping Button.   (It’s now time to get the file converted by using Tone Mapping)  This process takes a couple


8.  Settings for processing

  1. Strength – 100 %  (if you want the HDR to look a little more realistic – I put the strength at 50%)
  2. Color Saturation – 49% (keep it mid level)
  3. Luminosity – 6
  4. Light Smoothing – second button from the right
  5. Microcontrast – 0
  6. White Point – pump it up…I like it near the top is use 4.383%
  7. Black point – around 35% I like 0.995%
  8. Gamma – I keep it at 1.10
  9. Temperature – 0
  10. Saturation Highlights – 0
  11. Saturation Shadows – 0
  12. Micro Smoothing – 9.0
  13. Highlights Smoothing – 0
  14. Shadows Smoothing – 0
  15. Shadows Clipping – 0

Click on PROCESS button!  (this takes a few minutes)

9.  Now you have your processed HDR you are almost done!  Every HDR must go into more post processing.   I  use  CS4/5, but you may have another version of photoshop…so I will tell you what I do next.  You can use the same ideals in your software.

10.  Save your  file and open up the tone mapped HDR in Photoshop

11. Levels – I then open up levels and play with the settings

I like to make sure both left and right side arrows under the histogram are moved into the beginning of each side of the curve.  The black is ok!   I moved white in just a bit to make the photo brighter.

12. Hue/Saturation – I then open up hue/saturation. I open up each color and play with slider (saturation) and see what looks best.  Any greenery in an HDR can be crazy saturated, so I always tone it down a bit to make it look more realistic.

When I have any water in my shot..I check the blues/cyans closely.  In waterfalls, I like my water to look like ice…so I tune the blue/cyan down a bit. (of course it is your preference)

13. My favorite plug in software is NIK Software.  I use this wonderful software to post process every HDR photo I take!   I really enjoy…

a. Color Efex Pro 3.0 – Great filters to enhance a photo

b. Silver Efex Pro – can make a switch from a color to a black & white photo easy and beautiful!

c. Viveza – My fav plug in!!!  It can select an area on your photo and brighten it…add structure/saturation/contrast as well to that desired spot!  Perfect for HDR’s as sometimes you loose a little light in certain locations after tone mapping..now you can boost it up easily!

d. Sharpener Pro 3.0 – most HDR’s need a bit of sharpening!

e. DFine 2.0 – almost all HDR’s can use a bit of noise reduction…this plug in helps out bunches!

14. Viveza – So here I bring in the photo to Viveza first….I want to bump up the brightness on the rock a tad…

15. DFine/Sharpener – I next bring the photo into each of these programs and sharpen the photo, then take out any unwanted noise.

16. Photoshop – then back into photoshop – I check the exposure. Is the photo bright enough?  I open the Exposure dialog box and give a little nudge to the “exposure” and down on the “offset”

That is it!  I basically do the same process for every HDR!   Hope you enjoyed my rundown!  Here is the completed HDR!  Please feel free to ask me questions anytime!  I am here to help!

51 comments on “HDR Tutorial

  1. sstarlightss says:

    Hello Pete,
    first, sorry for my poor english.
    Thank you very much for this tutorial so clear to understand. I’m an mateur shots taker and still now, I post process my shots only with Picasa3, to enhance the lights or shadows, no more. My fav cameras are compact Olympus SP700 and just new compact Olympus Mju 9000 but I have also a Canon EOS 400D (a bit difficult for the nights’ shots!…). I’d like to try this tutorial from you, because I see a lot of superb shots with HDR processing. I hope that the “Phtomatix” software isn’t too expensive (like PhotoShop, i.e.) because I’m a simple amateur and wont become a pro.
    Anyway, many thanks for this easy (apparently) tutorial. I hope I’ll not get lost among all these “sharpen, levels, hue, filters” and so on.
    Warmest regards and thanks again.
    Claudia, Italy

    • Claudia, thanks so much for visitng my site! HDR’ing is very easy! With Photomatix and a little skill in Photoshop….you can create magic! Photomatix is about $99…but use the Places2Explore code to get 15% off! Every little bit helps these days! Just play around with hues and tones in Photoshop….usually trial and error is the best.

      I have only been processign HDR’s for 10 months (self taught)…so it is easy to learn the skills! My best advice…is keep trying different shots…you will learn what works and what does not. And keep shooting…my backlog of HDR’s is so large…I could do it for a week sraight and maybe catch up? =))

      For you Canon at nite…remember any movement going hand held at nite is magnified…so pictures come out blurry. Invest in a tripod and a cabel release. Once you have those…nite shots are easy!!!

      Have fun in Italy!! I love your country!!! Pete

  2. christianyorke says:

    I really enjoyed this post. You have inspired me to give this technique a go-the results (as you show) can be stunning.

    Best wishes,


  3. […] great photos!   The photos I see from such a book should inspire….no luck here!   In my HDR Tutorial I mention my favorite book that got me started with HDR.   […]

  4. […] I think I see a trend of HDR enjoyment.  I agree!  It is my favorite style to shoot.   My HDR Tutorial has become my top viewed link!   Thanks for viewing…hope it has been […]

  5. Mark White says:

    Thanks for a great tutorial – I have been trying to get my head around Photomatix for a while now with poor results.

    Now the images are piling up on my hard drive! Time to start another HDR gallery on my website 🙂

    Thank you once again!

  6. […] I like Talke Photography’s work and the hdr tutorial: https://places2explore.wordpress.com/hdr-tutorial/ […]

  7. Nice post..thanks for sharing

  8. Rudolf Them says:

    Hey mate. I don’t follow many blogs, but yours is of the

  9. Sorry, aber das bezweifel ich ganz stark…Baer

  10. muhammad says:

    thanks pete! very clear but hopefully i can make it…. iA

  11. Jewel Lucy says:

    Heya…my very first comment on your site. ,I have been reading your blog for a while and thought I would completely pop in and drop a friendly note. . It is great stuff indeed. I also wanted to ask..is there a way to subscribe to your site via email?

  12. Dane Mihok says:

    It is my personal judgment HDR Tutorial Places 2 Explore is almost certainly a amazingly well composed narrative. Certainly worthy of talking about and worthwhile bringing up https://places2explore.wordpress.com/hdr-tutorial as well. Really, Dane Mihok

  13. Bracketing is not avaible on d3000

    • Sorry Antonio, but the D3000 is not set for bracketing. The only way to produce and HDR is using one single raw file. And with hat be carful with noise. So watch your light levels. Hope this helps! Pete

  14. Ommm!!!! Very exceptional tutorial….

  15. Mike says:

    Hi Pete – wonderful images!! Could you tell me your basic post-processing workflow for the single-exposure HDR images (like the motocross shots)? Thanks so much!


  16. […] can also see some plug ins I use from NIK Software.  You can access  the tutorial here…HDR Tutorial and a link is always located on the right side of my blog.  Feel free to contact me with any […]

  17. Cool, Pete. I too love Nik and couldn’t live without it. You’re correct, Viveza 2.0 is absolutely amazing.

    • Marianne, thanks!!! Viveza is awesome indeed!! After I picked up a copy…I was just blown away!! Did u upgrade to CS5? Another amazing deal with content aware and the refined edges….wonderful!!

  18. Paul Bilodeau says:

    Great site! I like that you provide all the camera settings you used to make all your photos, along with some explanation. Have you used the HDR in Photoshop CS 5 yet? If so, what do you think? If you like it, could you do a tutorial on using it?

    I also notice that you use Viveza on most of your photos. Do you have any usage recommendations relating specifically to HDR?

    • Paul, thanks! I have used the CS5 HDR process…still not there compared to Photomatix. So no need for a review. Photomatix had a new version 4.0 coming out soon…now that is worth a review! =)) But CS5 is amazing for “Content Aware” and “Refined Edges”….I love it!! Viveza is key for HDR’s! When you process an HDR…sometimes you lose brightness in a certain area…Viveza allows you to throw a control point on the location (variable size allowed) and pick up any lost brightness there! Also you can add structure/saturation/contrast in the location as well! Perfect for post processing!! So I use it on every photo!! A must have!! You can download a trial and see how it works!! Have fun! Pete

  19. I do indeed have CS5. Did you see that Nik is coming out with an HDR program sometime in the near future? They had a preview on Friday. A lot of presets. I’m not sure we can’t get the same effects using Nik’s present software.

  20. […] Days: HDR Tutorial Guide Thing for Photomatix Talke Photography: HDR Tutorial Second Picture: Tone Mapping in Photomatix Stuck in Customs: HDR Tutorial Before the Coffee: […]

  21. Mike says:

    Amazing work! Thanks for the tutorial. I reall would love to have your day job that allows you to travel to somany cool place. Keep up the great work

  22. Linda says:

    I like your tutorial. I plan to try your techniques. I especially liked the technical details and settings. Your photos are beautiful. But, why is it that one has to use 3 different programs (photomatix, light room and CS4?) Isn’t there one software program that can do everything?

    • Linda, thanks so much!! I think one can do without Lightroom. Lightroom is great for portrait photographers. Photomatix and Photoshop are what I prefer. You can get away with Photoshop Elements instead of CS5…a bit cheaper. Photomatix is the best HDR software on the market. So tough to pass up on! Good luck! Let me know how you make out! Pete

  23. cory says:

    thanks a lot for sharing..

  24. […] Places 2 Explore HDR tutorial – another, different view on the subject […]

  25. Lissy says:


    I noticed that some people have HDR on action photos.. How s that work? Or did they fake it in with HDR tools?

  26. Wonderful tutorial. Thanks for share

  27. Hello! Would you mind if I share your blog? There’s a lot of post that I really enjoy your content. Please let me know. Thanks

  28. Charlie says:

    I wanted to thank you for this excellent read!! I definitely loved every little bit of it.Cheers for the info!!!! & This is the perfect blog for anyone who wants to know about this topic. You know so much its almost hard to argue with you ………

  29. karla says:

    I must appreciate you for the information you have shared.I find this information very useful and it has considerably saved my time.

  30. […] Places 2 Explore HDR tutorial – another, different view on the subject […]

  31. Anthony says:

    I just have one question. When you take your under exposed and over exposed images in the HDR sequence, should these both STILL remain within the boundaries of the histogram or is it acceptable to blow out highlights and lose detail in shadows?

  32. Jacob says:

    I have some questions regarding technique and methods, as well as softwae:
    1. Are you using RAW images as import to photomatix? I read in their site that they recomment JPG’s for import and that for HDR you have no advantage if you have RAW..
    2. Have you tried NIK software HDREfex instead of photomatix? I’m unsure of which way to go after playing with both pieces of software.
    3. I saw some HDR/IR pictures – can you elaborate on how you shot them? I have an IR 720 filter – if you use one, or a similar filter, can you post or recommend a tutorial for this kind of photography?
    4. have you tried using a monopod instead of a tripod? sometimes it’s easier to get around witha monopod and set it up, the question is it worth it?

    I know those are big issues, but I’d appraciate the help


    • Jacob,
      1. I used to use Photomatix, but have switched over to HDR Efex Pro about a year ago. But no matter what I would stick with RAW
      2. I like NIK. In my opinion it is sharper..takes a bit longer to process. You have to decide what you like.
      3. I have a Nikon D70S converted to IR. I wrote and ebook on my IR processing…I took it off my site as I had plans to add to it one day. Maybe by early 2013. If you want a copy let me know. It was 94 pages. It includes details on IR and my processing.
      4. Monopod is good for sports, but not for HDR. The key for HDR is to keep your images sharp…tripod = stability. I know tripod are bulky, but that is the best way. Gorilla Pod is the light easy way…but they are small.

      Glad to help anytime!! Pete

      • Jacob says:

        Hi Pete

        I went ahead and got me a 720nm filter. Went out to shoot some palms on a lake, all the image is red – no green leaves turning white :(. I shot this about 1 hour before sunset, so it wasn’t that bright. The problem is that all the channel is red – there is no white there at all. Using canon 6D with 24-105 lens.
        Any tips as to what might be wrong? is the time of day the culprit?
        I’d appreciate the offered book to help me with avoiding other mistakes…


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