A Simple Guide to HDR Photography

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and in this context refers to photographs (usually digital) that have undergone a software process that basically brings out detail in dark shadowy areas and/or bright over exposed areas, that would normally be lost. The overall effect is not to everyones taste and the results can vary from awful to mind blowing. Or "It looks so realistic it must be fake!"

A typical (overdone) HDR image

Basic principle:

It works like this. You set your camera to take 3 separate pictures of the same scene. One normal, one underexposed and one overexposed (you will need a tripod or other means of keeping the camera still). Not all cameras have this facility which is called bracketing, but your camera's user manual should set you straight. The recommended setting for the under and over exposure is 2 EV (Exposure Value) stops, but this is open to experiment. Some cameras can take more than 3 bracketed shots and the more there are the better, but 3 seems to work fine. Each of the 3 photos will contain information that the others don't. For example, the underexposed picture will contain more detail in the bright areas and the over exposed picture will contain more detail in the dark areas, with the normally exposed picture having an overall average. Each picture on its own (except the normal one) will look wrong, but when blended together should, if done properly, produce a well balanced image with all areas having detail. Also, the camera should be set to aperture priority so that the depth of field doesn't change between frames

                              Under exposed                                  Correctly exposed                                   Over exposed


There are several HDR software options, but one of the best is called Photomatix and there is an 'Essentials' version (previously called 'Light') which, although having less features, is cheaper, works well and is a good introduction to this field of photography. A full trial version can be downloaded free from their website, with the only limitation that a watermark is added to the final image. The 3 frames (JPG or RAW, though JPGs process faster) are imported into Photomatix and the software does the rest. Well, there are some adjustments that can be made but they are down to personal taste and can be previewed before the final image is saved. Just as an aside, the software does take a bit of time to process the files and save them into a single image, but waiting for the finished photo to be ready for viewing is similar to the old feeling of excitement when outside the photolab opening the wallet containing your latest prints. Will they be good or bad? Links to Photomatix tutorials can be found at the bottom of the page

The Photomatix (light) interface

Peoples opinions:

From what I've read around the internet, it would seem that opinion is split down the middle with people either loving or loathing HDR photography, but I think this is more to do with poorly rendered photos where they look too false, than anything else. "It doesn't look real", "It looks like a cartoon", "Those clouds would never look like that", "There's far too much colour" and "I can't take them seriously, they're just a novelty" are some typical comments. I think the mistake people make when starting out is to over do it, simply because they can! Yes it's fun to make wacky looking pictures of familiar things, but after the novelty wears off, the skill is to get back to the objective of the exercise, which is to create interesting photographs

The correctly exposed photo from the set of 3 above

The HDR photo processed from the 3 individual images. Click here to enlarge

Here's my take on it. HDR images should not be thought of like normal photographs, but something new, different and hopefully interesting. What they can convey, if done well, is a more realistic portrayal of what we saw. What we remember. So often I see something that looks great and I take the shot, but when I look at it later it looks naff and nothing I do to it can make it look as interesting as when I was there, and it gets deleted. Some photos just don't turn out as good as how I remember the original scene (or I'm a rubbish photographer, one of the two!)

HDR, I think, fills in the missing details for us. It is the memory of all the things in the scene that the camera misses by taking just one frame. Our brain remembers so much more than a camera because our eyes have the time to capture, and send for processing, everything that we saw, highlights, lowlights and even subconsciously things that we were not aware of. It's kind of like "Yes... that's how it was when I was there!" I really enjoy that aspect of HDR, the detail, looking around a picture to find something new that I may have missed. I find them surreal, dreamlike. The equivalent in music might be to think of The Beatles sgt. Pepper's album, where it might be said that the distortion on the vocals isn't what people really sound like so it's not real. Well that's true, but to me it still sounds great!

Ultimately though, like anything, it's down to personal taste, but if done well, and if looked at with 'new eyes', perhaps HDR photographs will gain more acceptance. They are not, and should not be compared to, normal photos. What they are is another form of the art. To be liked or disliked accordingly as should any photo. And there's nothing wrong with that

See also my other guide called HDR from a Single Photo

Photomatix Video Tutorial
Photomatix User Gallery