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A Comprehensive Guide to HDR Photography

INTRODUCTION

Even if you started taking photos a few days ago, the chances that you already encountered or heard the words “HDR photography” at least a couple of times are very high; this particular technique became incredibly popular in the last decade, specially in those years when there weren’t yet digital cameras with a super wide dynamic range.
When the HDR technique came out at first, it was looked by many as an “over-kill” for the photo (you’ll discover why later) since it meant that the shot had been postproduced with a very peculiar workflow, and for this reason it immediately got a negative meaning in the photography world. Later in the years though, photographers started to use the HDR technique for its true purpose, capturing the entire dynamic range of the photo, to keep the highlights under control and still see all the details even in the darkest of the shadows at the same time: results became more and more natural during the years, and right now its original bad reputation almost disappeared. Now “HDR photography” means not anymore a particular post-production workflow, but just a technique to get the perfect exposure in each part of the frame.

Tellaro with waves at golden hour

1. What is HDR in Photography

HDR literally stands for “High Dynamic Range”, and, as I already hinted in the introduction, when it’s used in a photography-related context it refers to the technique of capture the full dynamic range of the view you are trying to shoot.
The technique consists in taking multiple exposures with different settings and then merge them together in post-production.
On the field, your goal should be to snap a serie of different exposures to have all the details of the scene, from the whitest of the highlights to the darkest of the shadows; a small tip is to start from the brightest and go all the way to the darkest (or viceversa) so that you’ll recognize them easily later. Some photographers even take a dark frame or a shot with their hand in it so that they know where the HDR sequence is starting.
The logical question you may wonder now is: what settings should I change? Well, you should know that there is not a general rule as every situation is different: my personal recommendation though is to play with the parameter it’s not changing the scene you want to capture. As an example, let’s say that you are shooting a landscape with some flowing water in it: if your goal is to shoot that flow at 1”, you should rather work with the ISOs and/or aperture to get the other exposures.
Another example: you are shooting a scene that requires a great depth of field, and you are currently shooting at f/13; to get the full dynamic range of the frame you probably want to change the shutter speeds/ISOs before your aperture.
Why? Because later in post-production it will be easier for you (or for the software, if you are doing it automatically) to merge all the exposures together; the less differences there are between one shot and the next one, the less complicated will be to get the final HDR photo.

dolomites photo tour in summer

2. Is HDR Good for Photos?

The HDR technique was born before all the “big-megapixels camera” with great sensors, capable of capturing an impressive amount of details even in the most difficult light conditions. That’s the main reason why nowadays many photographers are thinking that taking multiple exposures to get HDR shots is not necessary anymore, but it’s easier and quicker to expose for the highlights (following the famous rule of exposing to the right of the histogram), and the results are pretty much the same.
While that could be true in some situations, since the most recent camera sensors have improved a lot to capture a wide dynamic range, HDR might still hold its value in certain cases. For example, when you have a strong source of light in the frame (the sun, some kind of artificial light, etc.) it’s still recommended to take more exposures, because with a single shot you’ll barely be able to recover all the details in the shadows, and even if you manage to do so, they won’t be comparable in quality to an HDR shot. The darkest shadows will be much more noisy and grainy.
My tip here is to always shoot multiple exposures on the field, and then in post-production you’ll see if you can manage to bring out all the details from the darkest shot and still keep a decent quality or if you need to merge more shots to obtain an HDR photo.
The conclusion is that even if camera sensors became incredibly good at capturing a wide dynamic range, they still can’t completely replace the good old HDR technique in many cases.

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3. When Should You Use HDR Photography?

As a general rule, you should remember to use the HDR every time you see that you can’t capture the whole dynamic range of the scene in a single shot. In other words, if you don’t manage to keep under control the highlights while at the same time still mantain all the details in the shadows, you should opt for an HDR photo.
In this chapter we’ll see when it’s recommended to use the HDR technique in a few different photographic genres, with a few practical examples.

3.1 Landscapes

Landscape photography is probably the genre where it’s more likely that you will end up taking HDR photos; why? Because you’ll have to deal with the sunlight: specially during the golden hours (which are the best times of the day for shooting) the sun will be low on the horizon and will create a very strong contrast between the parts still hit by the light and the ones in the shadows; in cases like these ones, you’ll be forced to shoot multiple exposures to get an HDR photo as a final result.
The only thing that matters, if you aim to shoot multiple exposures for an HDR photo, is to always have your tripod with you. Yes, because without your tripod you won’t be able to take a serie of completely identical shots without moving the composition; in order to merge the shots later in post-production, whether you’ll do it manually or let the software do its magic, they must be perfectly aligned, otherwise the edges of each shot won’t match together when you’ll try to merge them. A tripod is fundamental; if it happened that you went out without your tripod, you can try to take an handheld sequence while being as steady as you possibly can stand, but be ready to get some headaches later in post-production.
When starting to take the sequence, as I already explained in the chapter before, it’s easier if you start from the lightest frame and go all the way to the darkest one (or viceversa), so that you’ll recognize them faster later; there’s not a minimum or a limit of the shots you can take, you’ll learn with practice and experience how many you need for each different situation.

3.2 Nightscapes

In night photography the HDR technique might be even more important than in “normal” landscape photography: let’s see how the HDR could come in handy with two different situations that you may find yourself in while shooting at night.
It’s a warm summer night, and you went out in the night to shoot the milky way: you should also probably know then, that even with a super wide angle lens (es. 14mm on FF) you can’t take really long exposures, otherwise it won’t be a still shot of the starry sky anymore but a star trail shot (and generally an unwanted result). For a 14mm, with an aperture of f/2.8 and using some really high ISO (around 3200/6400), I’d recommend to not go over 20/22 seconds of exposure, if you want to get the stars as dots and not as trails. With this kind of shutter speed, you’ll barely see any of the details of the foreground you have in your photo, specially the darkest ones; let alone the quality/sharpness of those details.. So, what’s the solution? Of course, the HDR! By taking multiple exposures, at least one for the sky and one for the foreground, you’ll be able to get a super sharp starry sky and see all the details in the foreground at the same time in the final HDR photo.
You went downtown with your camera, with the aim to capture some beautiful cityscapes at night with all the glowing city lights on; as soon as you put the camera on the tripod and try the first shots though, you immediately notice that something’s wrong; if you expose for the shadows you’ll get the city lights completely clipped, while if you expose for the highlights you’ll end up with a completely underexposed shot.
Mmh, any ideas about how to solve the problem? Yep, you got it right, with the help of the HDR! Again, you should take multiple exposures with different settings to be sure you get the full dynamic range of the scene, so that you can merge them together later in post-production.
I think that I personally never shoot a nightscape without creating an HDR photo of at least two different shots. It doesn’t matter how good is your camera at high ISOs, you’ll still need more than one shot to achieve a clean final result.

3.3 Portraits in Sunlight

Have you ever tried to take a portrait shot with the sun in the back? Or with harsh daylight conditions? If you have, if you should know that it’s kind of hard to handle both the highlights and the shadows at the same time, in one single shot at least.
Sure, you can settle down with compromises, maybe by clipping out a small part of the highlights or leave some not-interesting parts of the frame very dark, but would you be satisfied with the final result?
Even if it’s more difficult than still landscapes of course, you can work with the HDR technique also in portrait photography sometimes: you just need to be really quick at taking the sequence, and your subject must stand as still as possible so that your shots are almost identical, just taken with different settings.

Tired of HDR?

If HDR is not your thing, you might want to try focus stacking instead!

3.3 Lowlight and Backlit Scenes

As I already mentioned before, the sunlight won’t be the only source of light that will force you to use the HDR technique, but any strong source of light in the frame (such as flashes, artificial lights, etc) will be enough to extend a lot the dynamic range of the shot and so it will require you to take multiple exposures. Even a controlled environment such a photo studio or any indoor shooting may have a wide dynamic range that your camera sensor won’t be able to include in a single shot; so, as you probably learned now, you should take a sequence of different exposures to keep all the highlights and shadows of the frame in check.

vitaleta chapel at sunrise

4. Why HDR Photography has a Bad Reputation

To make you understand quickly and easily why the HDR is considered by many photographers such an abominable technique for post-producing pictures, I edited one of mine shots following the classic HDR workflow. Not great, right?
The HDR got its bad reputation back in the days when a lot of people were referring to this technique when, while editing a photo, they were adding a lot of contrast/clarity, brightening the shadows and darkening the highlights. This kind of workflow is obviously giving some unreal and “pumped up” results such as the image above, often creating a lot of artifacts too and loosing a lot of sharpness/details.
For a short window of time this so-called HDR editing technique was quite trending and many people were using and abusing it; right now almost no one is using this terrible workflow anymore, in favor of more natural ways of using the HDR such as the ones I described in the last chapters. The second shot in the gallery is edited following a more balanced and delicate workflow, with the aim to keep the scene as real as possible: compared to the upper version it may look less “spectacular” and for sure less eye-catching, but the details are well preserved, no artifacts were created and the whole scene is looking far more natural.

5. How to Create an HDR Image

There are multiple ways to obtain an HDR photo; the technique is the same I already explained all along the article, but the methods to achieve the final result may vary depending on your preferences; nowadays many cameras have a dedicated auto-HDR feature which basically let the camera software take the photos and than edit them to get the HDR photo, so if you have a fairly new camera you can probably choose to do it by yourself or let the camera do the job. Oh, and I still haven’t mentioned smartphones (or tablets); many of them have integrated HDR features too.

5.1 Auto HDR Mode

So, as I anticipated in the introduction of the chapter, many of the cameras made in the last few years have this auto HDR feature; on compact cameras you won’t have much control on the outcome though, while on DSLR/mirrorless cameras you should have at least some options to get the result you want, like how many shots should the camera take or how the software should measure the exposure. In all these cases, you should end up with a final shot with a huge dynamic range and all the details in the shadows and the highlights.

5.2 Manual HDR

So, as I anticipated in the introduction of the chapter, many of the cameras made in the last few years have this auto HDR feature; on compact cameras you won’t have much control on the outcome though, while on DSLR/mirrorless cameras you should have at least some options to get the result you want, like how many shots should the camera take or how the software should measure the exposure. In all these cases, you should end up with a final shot with a huge dynamic range and all the details in the shadows and the highlights.

5.3 On Your Smartphone

It’s not a surprise that nowadays phone cameras became incredibly good in most of the light conditions; even if they still can’t replace DSLR/mirrorless cameras yet, you can get away with some really nice phone shots sometimes. To help you even more in capturing great pictures with your smartphone, most of the softwares (iOS, Android, etc) are currently offering HDR features in their built-in camera apps, which are basically doing the same thing the auto-HDR mode of your camera does, just in an even easier and quickest way. The final results of course are still limited by the camera quality, but most of the times are decent to say the least, if not even good sometimes!

Struggling with wide angle lenses?

Check out this article about wide angle lens, as they generally come in handy when learning HDR photography.

6. Common HDR Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

There are a few mistakes that it’s easy to stumble upon along the process of creating a good HDR image; let’s see which ones are the most common and how to avoid them!
Let’s start with the mistakes to avoid in the field:
- Not taking enough shots to cover the entire dynamic range: if you don’t take the sequence properly, maybe by forgetting to capture some of the darkest shots or some of the brightest, you may end up missing some parts of the dynamic range of the scene, and when you try to merge all the shots together some parts of the final photo could not have the amount of details that you desided.
- Moving the composition during the sequence: if you move too much the composition during the serie of shots, the editing software may not be able to align all the photos together and consequently not giving you the final HDR image. Even by merging them manually, it’s going to be really hard since they are still won’t be aligned.

And then of course there are some mistakes to avoid during the post processing part too:
- Selecting shots from different sequences: the chances that something has moved from one sequence to the other are quite high, so you may end up with some artifacts in your final HDR image if you select shots from different sequences.
- Pushing too much on colors and contrasts: well, this is more of a general mistake and not just referred to HDR images, but in this case for some reason is more common to see. Try to keep the scene as natural as you can, by not pushing hard on contrasts and colors, otherwise you’ll obtain a very weird-looking result.

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SUMMARY

The HDR technique, if wisely used, is one of the best helps you can get in capturing the whole dynamic range of the scene and recreate the atmosphere of the original scene; due to its bad reputation it’s still not considered as important as it is by many photographers, but the truth is that HDR can be fundamental sometimes, it’s all about editing nicely the final result in post-production.
Hopefully the HDR will “redeem” completely from its bad reputation in the coming years and will finally receive the appreciation for the importance it has in the world of photography.

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