HDR Photography: Shooting Tips, Software Plugins, and Training Resources

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High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography refers to creating an image, from two or more exposures of a scene/subject, in which the appearance of colors is broader and richer than what is captured in a single photograph. The objective of HDR photography is to create an image that is closer to what you see than what your camera sensor can capture. HDR is used to bring out more details and tones versus a single photograph. HDR processing produces rich natural images. Additionally, HDR is also used by photographers to apply an artistic, surreal and even ethereal, creative flair.

Flaming horizon
Photo by Tom Roeleveld

We'll explore 1) Bracketing – how to set up your subject combining images for HDR processing 2) The Right Tools for You – Photoshop and/or Lightroom with HDR plugins, stand alone HDR apps and 3)Training & Resources – free & fee.

There one more: Trial and Error! HDR requires learning how to use and adapt the tools to your personal style. A side benefit for those exploring HDR is that it encourages learning and processing techniques that may be out of your comfort zone.

Sunset Pond
Photo by Don Miller

1. Bracketing for Multiple Exposures

Bracketing is the simple process of taking multiple shots of the same subject using different camera settings. In addition to using this for HDR processing, bracketing is suggested when it may be a challenge to get a clean image with one capture. For example, let's take a sunset on the beach. The sky is light, the foreground is dark. Exposing for the sky or the beach will bring a beautiful sky but a too-dark foreground or a nice foreground with a too-bright sky. Taking multiple images at different settings will enable the photographer to take advantage of a better lit foreground and the beautiful sky.

Most DSLR's today have an automatic bracketing feature. This feature allows the photographer to take 3 consecutive images using the same settings while automatically adjusting the exposure settings with each press of the shutter. This is also referred to as “Exposure Bracketing” Since we are working with multiple shots and that spans several seconds, a stationary subject typically works best (and a tripod is definitely needed). An example of an exception is moving, flowing water. The multi-second time span can accentuate a soft,flowing movement with water.

Each camera has their on way of turning bracketing on and off. Nikon as an example has a ‘bkt' button that is pressed and then the command dial is rotated to turn on and off. Refer to the buttons on your camera, the manual or the camera's menu system.

'60 Chevy at GoodGuys Car Show
Photo by Gabe Taviano

2. Using the Right Tools to Create the HDR Image

Note: both Lightroom (LR) and Photoshop (PS) are available as part of the Creative Cloud Suite for a monthly fee. Both work independently and are also compatible with each other. Users can go back and forth to leverage the additional power of PS and the easy interface of LR as it supports the individual photographer's preferences.

Photoshop

Photoshop (PS) has multiple ways of creating an HDR image. One is to open the three bracketed images you want to merge into one HDR image and select File, Automate, Merge to HDR and follow a series of easy steps. While the steps sound straightforward and good quality images are required, it takes practice, patience and the willingness to play with trial and error.

Another method of creating an HDR image in photoshop is to bring in the bracketed images as layers. creating masks and then applying adjustments as you move through your workflow. A good working knowledge of how to work in Photoshop is recommended.

Lightroom with Plug-ins

Lightroom with an HDR Plug-in was an easy way for me to get accustomed to working with HDR (see listing below of multiple plug-ins. On a recent trip to Tennessee in the fall, I bracketed images of a fall sunrise in the mountains. After bringing them into Lightroom, I used the Nik Google Collection HDR Efex Pro 2 (File, Export as a Preset into HDR Efex).

The software magically merges the images into one and then I began processing by looking at the image in HDR Efex's presets (there's 28). I also could have just the used the processing tools with HDR Efex. Either case, I had the ability to make adjustments and save as a .TIF file. The .TIF file was further edited in Lightroom. This was my first HDR image (yes, I know I need more practice, it's a journey!).

The three images that were combined are included below followed by the final image. The settings were ISO 100, f/16, the exposure times were 2, 8 then 30 seconds. I could have raised my ISO to increase the shutter speed to get a more crisp image, but the morning had a soft, dreamy cast filled with fall color.

hdr pics

Tennessee Charm
Photo by Sheen's Nature Photography. Processed with HDR EFEX Pro

3 HDR Plug-In Examples

It is common to use bracketed images in sets of 3 because that is how our camera typically takes bracketed images. However, you can take as many as you need. It is also possible to process just one image that you load in to an HDR plug to take advantage of the presets and features (while that's not pure HDR, it can pop your image a bit more and that may be enough too).

Google Nik Collection – this is a collection of 6 separate plug-ins. The high quality presets in each module simplify and speed post processing.
Photomatix – continues to get rave reviews based on it's creative range from natural to a bit more extreme in addition to being simple to use.
LR/Infuse – blends images of different exposures together for a natural looking image with a greater dynamic range. Blends a series of images where the focus point is different for a greater depth of field.

Night Via Brooklyn
Photo by Jason Jenkins

3. Training & Resources

This list includes training offerings with free trials, free offers and where to go for additional resources.

Lightroom Killer Tips Video from Matt Kloskowski: A New HDR Feature in Lightroom 4.1 that is still in Lightroom today. In summary, it allows you to take a massive 32-bit image (this provide a significant amount of tonal range) from Photoshop back in to Lightroom. Tone mapping can be done using Lightroom's controls.

HDR Tutorial Masterclass: 18 Free Lessons from the Pros includes a comprehensive listing of their tested and tried HDR free tutorials.

Real World HDR By Matt Kloskowski is a 2-hour course for KelbyOne members. In depth training that 19 modules ranging from the basics, workflow, using a plug-in (Photomatix), and much more.

Photoshop Cafe – includes a video combined with well written workflow steps.

Learn HDR Basics free edition by Serge Ramelli – Yes, there's an iOS app for HDR. This one covers the entry level basics for free. Anything more advanced is a fee. Good for those who prefer to use their smartphone or iPad when going through tutorials.

HDR Soft Video Series provides instructional videos covering capabilities, shooting and Photomatix settings adjustments.

You Tube – just type in HDR and your software of choice and watch for the list to appear of quick and long videos.



HDR is a fun and creative way to explore the possibilities. We are not limited by the size of our sensor as our imagination and creativity can take over. Or, we can can add a natural richness to the work we brought back from the field.

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Profile photo of Sheen Watkins
Sheen Watkins is a bird, nature, wildlife photographer and photography writer. You can follow her photography on Facebook, Instagram and her website. A long term birder and nature enthusiast she is Vice President of Saving Birds Thru Habitat, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating others about the importance of protecting our natural habitat for migrating birds. She also has a travel and photography blog.

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