Let’s start by defining the acronym “HDR.” HDR stands for high dynamic range and is the process of using software to combine multiple photographic exposures into a single image. These different exposures consist of the same exact photo, but each is taken at a different shutter speed with the intent of over- and under-exposing the image. By combining multiple exposures that have tone in all highlight, mid-tone and shadow areas, the photographer is able to create an image that has a greater contrast range, or dynamic range, than the camera is capable of capturing in a single photograph.

Check out this example of HDR. See how bright and dynamic the colors are? Notice how much detail exists in all areas of the image. That’s because it consists of multiple photographs combined to create one stunning composite.

The HDR Process

Every HDR I do is completed using HDR Soft’s Photomatix Pro, Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. I have found Photomatix to be the best software on the market for combining multiple bracketed exposures into a single high dynamic range image.  

HDR photography has multiple uses in creating very different artistic achievements. I approach HDR shooting from multiple angles, depending on how I plan to use the image. If I am creating architectural photographs for a client, I will usually approach the HDR from a very straightforward and naturally processed technique. HDR is a great solution for these commercial images; with HDR, details are accentuated and different tonal ranges (while still maintaining believability with regard to contrast and color) can be achieved. Creating a natural looking HDR image is akin to taking a photograph that more closely matches the dynamic range that a human eye sees, as opposed to the limited range that a camera is able to capture.

The HDR Methodology

Creating a natural-looking HDR image in which the end goal is merely compressing tonal ranges for a perfect exposure is more easily achieved than the over-the-top “painterly” approach. The difference between the two is as simple as a single slider adjustment in the HDR software. This adjustment slider is called “light smoothing.” The more increased the smoothing, the more surreal the final HDR image will appear. Along with creating a more stylized image, more problems in the process might appear, like increased noise, halos in sky tones and edges, or unnatural color shifts. Which, if a proper professional quality image is to be achieved, will take much more post retouching to fix. 

Photographing with the intention of producing an HDR image greatly changes the way a photographer works. First, HDR should be done on a tripod, or by shooting with a fast enough shutter speed that the camera can be handheld without moving between exposures (I do not recommend this unless shooting on a tripod is absolutely not an option). 

Most high-end cameras have an auto bracket feature that can be set to take multiple exposures at set increments. I shoot 7 exposures at 1-stop increments. This is usually overkill for most situations. Unless photographing in direct sunlight and an interior setting where the exposure levels are above a 4-stop difference, I will still shoot the full 7 exposures for safety and choose the best 3-5 to use when doing the final HDR processing. 

Common HDR Issues

The most common problems occurring from the HDR process are noise, color shifting, halos, ghosting, and the tendency to create an image that’s totally over-processed and completely unrealistic. The majority of these problems can be solved by a series of post retouching techniques that are absolutely necessary for creating a perfect professional quality image. Keeping an HDR image from being overdone is a skill that comes with experience, experimentation, and an intricate knowledge and technical understanding of digital photography. 

HDR: A Fun Learning Experience for Photographers

HDR photography can be a fun technique, not only in the post processing phase but also in the way it affects the photography process itself. When shooting HDR, you have to force yourself to slow down the way you shoot, take extra time to compose on a tripod and shoot the full bracket of images. It has helped me understand the photographic process on a much deeper level, both technically and artistically. The best advice I can give a photographer just starting out with HDR imagery is this: shoot every day. Take your camera with you everywhere. Experiment constantly, and push your own personal boundaries of comfort. 

HDR has opened a whole new world of possibilities in photographing technically difficult situations. It not only has the ability to tackle large contrasting exposure values, but HDR is also a means to an end in reaching an artistic goal. HDR, however, is not a new concept. Gustave Le Gray was combining multiple exposures to tackle high-contrast scenes a mere 10 years after the introduction of the photographic medium (1850s). 

What are your thoughts on HDR imagery? Do you struggle to keep your images from looking over-processed and unrealistic? Let us know below! We’d love to hear how you tackle HDR photography.