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.
II. WHAT IS HDR?
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”.
III. WHAT MAKES A GOOD HDR?
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:
- Blue Hour (early AM about 15-30 minutes before sunrise)
- Early AM before the sun gets bright
- Golden Hour (late afternoon when the sun is setting)
- Night time
- Cloudy days
- 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:
- 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:
- People – it can be done, but to me they look like zombies!
- 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.
- 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
- Moon – same reason as the sun
- Snow – an HDR with snow can look gray. It can work, but try and see if you like the outcome.
IV. CAMERA SETTINGS
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
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.
V. HDR SOFTWARE
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):
- HDR Soft’s Photomatix
- Adobe Photoshop CS3 or CS4
- Unified Color’s HDR Photostudio
- Areia’s HDR Max
- Media Chance’s Dynamic Photo HDR
- Artizen HDR
- 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.
VI. PHOTOMATIX SETTINGS
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!
- Open Photomatix
- Click Generate HDR button
- 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:
- 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
- Strength – 100 % (if you want the HDR to look a little more realistic – I put the strength at 50%)
- Color Saturation – 49% (keep it mid level)
- Luminosity – 6
- Light Smoothing – second button from the right
- Microcontrast – 0
- White Point – pump it up…I like it near the top is use 4.383%
- Black point – around 35% I like 0.995%
- Gamma – I keep it at 1.10
- Temperature – 0
- Saturation Highlights – 0
- Saturation Shadows – 0
- Micro Smoothing – 9.0
- Highlights Smoothing – 0
- Shadows Smoothing – 0
- 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!