London HDR photo

A Not-So-Brief Introduction to HDR Photography

By Laurence Norah Take Better Photos7 Comments

Today I’m here to give an overview of a photography technique known as High Dynamic Range photography, or HDR. It’s a style of photography which, similar to the novelty of sound being introduced in the movies way back when, has the ability to hugely polarise opinion as to whether or not it should be used.

I say, do what makes you happy as a photographer, and what resonates with your followers. There’s no such thing as pure photography, just people who like to air their opinions.

That said, HDR is just another tool, and can’t turn a poorly composed image into a masterpiece. No matter how much lipstick you stick on a pig… well… you get the idea.

For more thoughts on composition and taking photographs that suck less, check out this post from earlier in the month by Kirsten Alana. In the meantime, let’s get on with this.

What Is Dynamic Range Anyway?

Church on top of the world Germany HDR 1

The dynamic range of something is the bit between the maximum and minimum of a changeable quantity. Sounds complicated? Well, let’s think of the human eye. We can see things that are very bright, on a sunny day for example, and we can see things that are very dark, say on a starry night.

We can’t do both at the same time, as the eyes take time to adjust, but the difference between the brightest and darkest objects we can identify in any particular scene is significant. This is referred to as our dynamic range.

The human eye has a much greater dynamic range than a camera. You’ve probably observed this phenomenon for yourself when taking pictures, perhaps from a shady spot with a bright sunny sky in the background.

Either all the shade disappears into blackness, and the sky is perfectly exposed, or the sky is just white, whilst the shade looks good. Yet your eye reveals a perfectly balanced image.

Here’s an under- and overexposed version of the same image to give you an idea.

TMA HDR example 3

This can be frustrating when you just want to capture the scene in front of you. And this is where HDR can help out.

How Can HDR Help?

High Dynamic Range, as the name implies, is a technique that allows you to capture an image with a higher dynamic range than your camera could otherwise manage.

It works by taking multiple photographs of the same scene at different exposures, then combining them into a final image that takes the best exposed parts from each image. The end result? An image with a high dynamic range.

TMA HDR example 1
TMA HDR example 2

Let’s talk examples. Take a look at the shots above of the church. This image was shot directly into the sun, which is obviously a fairly powerful light source. Each image shows the three different exposures this was taken with, just arranged differently.

The difference between the far-right images featuring the sun are most pronounced. In the underexposed shot (bottom,) we can see clouds on the horizon and around the sun, while the valley is just a black abyss.

In the overexposed version of the shot (top), the situation reverses. The sky turns into a white washout, while the valley and contents are clearly discernible.

Using HDR, we can take the useful parts of both of these images, and turn them into something closer to the reality of the actual scene.

Gear You’re Likely to Need

So that is what HDR is for. Now let’s talk practicalities.

The Camera

The easiest way to take images for use in an HDR environment is to use a camera that lets you “exposure bracket” your images. This means the camera will take a number of images automatically when you depress the shutter.

These will consist of a normally-exposed image, an underexposed image, and an overexposed image. This setting is often referred to as AEB, or auto exposure bracketing, and is included on many models of camera. Check your manual to figure out where to find it.

You will usually have the option as to how many stops of under- or overexposure you want to shoot. This will depend on the nature of the scene, and the difference between the bright and dark areas, but in most cases a setting of +/- 1 or 2 will suffice.

Some more advanced cameras will also let you decide how many images you want to take. For example, you could take just three images, exposed at –2ev, 0ev and +2ev, or you could take five images, at –4ev, –2ev, 0ev, +2ev and +4ev.

The greater the dynamic range of the scene, the more images you will probably want to take in order to get all the details.

A Tripod

When shooting multiple exposures of the same scene, you need to ensure your camera doesn’t move between exposures. The easiest way to do this is with a tripod.

To eliminate shutter shake (the movement of the camera as you press the button), you’ll ideally want to also use a remote release switch, but it isn’t critical.

If a tripod isn’t available, then finding some nearby scenery to rest on will work most of the time, although you can’t always frame the scene how you’d like.

Software Options

The key part of creating an HDR image is the software processing. Merging images of varying exposure into each other requires some effort on a computer, and the use of a dedicated software package.

There are a number of options on the market. Here’s a quick run-through of three of them.


Luminance HDR was the first HDR program I used, and has the huge advantage over other software of being free. It’s also open-source, if that sort of thing floats your boat.

It’s certainly capable of producing great results with the right input, but the interface isn’t very intuitive, and control over your final image is fairly limited.

Free, available for Windows and MacOS

Nik Software HDR Efex Pro

Part of the Nik Software product suite, now owned by Google, HDR Efex is an interesting tool for creating HDR images that’s both power and easy to use.

It has a host of editing options and the interface is very user-friendly, but it doesn’t have quite the fine-grained control compared to the next product on this list.

Its main advantage though is that it is available as a software bundle from Google. For around $150, you get a whole host of photography tools including the excellent Silver Efex, Viveza, Dfine noise reduction, and more.

These are fantastic additions to any photography editing toolkit, so I can still recommend this product as an alternative option to my preferred tool below.

Available for MacOS and Windows, either standalone or as a plugin for Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.

Photomatix Pro & Photomatix Essentials

Photomatix by HDRsoft is the benchmark when it comes to HDR software. It’s also the tool responsible for the type of images that HDR photography haters get most upset about, the ones that look like someone poured psychedelic paint all over an otherwise lovely shot.

it is a very powerful tool though, that lets you tweak an image to your heart’s content. If you’re looking for just one bit of software to use for your HDR workflow, make it this one.

The Pro version is $99, while the cut-down Essentials version costs $39. A demo version is available, which will watermark your final image but is otherwise fully-featured.

Available for MacOS and Windows. A Lightroom plugin is also available, for $49.

How to Do It: Taking the Shot

Shooting for HDR is easy, but there are a couple of things you need to remember.

Shoot in Aperture Priority Mode

Changing the aperture of a camera changes the depth of field of the shot: that is, what is in focus and what isn’t. If you shoot in aperture priority mode, the aperture will remain fixed, and the camera will vary the shutter speed in order to change the amount of light coming in.

If you don’t shoot in aperture priority mode, the camera might vary the aperture between shots, and you’ll end up with three images of different exposures that also have varying depths of field. When you try and combine these, you will end up with a blurry mess.

Shoot at as Low an ISO as Possible

When there’s less light available, we can adjust the ISO rating of our camera to let us continue to capture images at shutter speeds that won’t result in “shaky-cam” shots.

Unfortunately, increasing the ISO of the camera results in increased noise in the image. This comes across as weird pixels, grain, or artifacts in the photo.

This can be edited out in software if it’s just one image. When combining multiple images together in HDR, however, any image flaws will be multiplied together, making noise a serious problem.

The only way around this is to minimise the noise in the first place by shooting at as low an ISO rating as possible.

If you have a dusty sensor, you’ll also find that dust spots, particularly when shooting at higher apertures, can be very troublesome in HDR images. Shooting at lower apertures can help in these situations.

Consider the Motion

Because you’re shooting multiple exposures of the same image, if the scene you’re capturing includes a lot of motion, you might find that your end result features weird “ghosts.”

This can be partially solved by the use of anti-ghosting options in the HDR software, but still needs to be considered when taking the shots.

Take the Shot

That is essentially all you need to know to take your HDR image. Now you just need to put your camera in AEB mode, compose the shot, and press the shutter until all the exposures have been captured. Next comes the interesting part… the editing.

How to Do It: the Editing Process

This is probably the bit you’ve been waiting for: how to turn those captured images into a final product. I’m going to use Photomatix for this example.

First, you need to load up your images into Photomatix. Photomatix accepts both RAW and processed images. RAW files are preferable if possible, but JPG will work in a pinch, and cause your computer less strain.

From Photomatix, choose Load Bracketed Photos, select the images you want to use, and press “OK”.

Photomatix load screen
Photomatix loading bracketed photos

The Preprocessing screen appears and tries to boggle you. If you were shooting handheld or you think your camera may have moved between shots, then you can have Photomatix attempt to align the images.

Photomatix pre processing options

If there was a lot of movement in the scene, Photomatix can also attempt to remove the resulting ghosting artifacts with the “remove ghosts” option.

Finally, press ok, and let the magic happen. This will take a bit of time, depending on how many images you’re using and how powerful your computer is, before an excitingly-complicated screen like the following loads up:

Photomatix Pro Main screen

Fear not, it’s not as complicated as it looks. Down the right-hand side are a whole host of preset options, which you can choose from to get started. You can pick something that looks fairly natural or something that looks completely insane, just by picking a preset you like the look of.

Photomatix micro smoothing

Down the left-hand side of the screen are a whole bunch of sliders, checkboxes, and other options that give you incredibly fine-grained control over your final image.

My advice is to start off with a preset you like the look of, and then adjust it to suit with the sliders — of which there are many.

Hovering your mouse over a slider will make some helper text appear in the bottom corner. There are a lot of options, and I’d suggest playing with them all to see how they affect the outcome.

If you come up with a combination of sliders you like, you can save it as your own preset, for use next time.

Once you are done with the editing you can press process to finalise your image, and then save it from the final screen.

Here are some examples of how the image I’ve been demonstrating with could be made to look using the built-in Photomatix presets:

Church final example 1
Church final example 3
Church final example 4


And so that’s it for a quick (well, maybe not-so-quick) overview of HDR photography. Hopefully you found it useful! If you’ve got any questions, thoughts, or opinions, please fire away in the comments below!

This article is part of Travel Photography Month, with tips and tricks, gear reviews, and advice from several great travel photographers.

Main image via 12019

About the Author
Laurence Norah

Laurence Norah

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Laurence is a traveller, writer and photographer, who spends much of his time musing on his travel and photography blog: Finding the Universe. He does have a degree in computer science, which he largely ignores, other than when his inner geek bursts out of him in order to write posts like these. Mostly though, he’s happiest behind his camera viewfinder on top of a mountain, or enjoying a chilled beer somewhere. If you bump into him, say hi, and steer him away from the edge…


  1. Avatar

    Hey Laurence! Thanks for sharing and being so detailed. I’ve been wanting to give HDR a try for a while now but didn’t know where to begin. This should keep me entertained in my down time in the Galapagos next week 🙂

  2. Avatar

    Excellent. I never quite understood just what HDR was all about. Mystery solved. You covered all the details w/ a nice array of software recs. Thanks much!

  3. Avatar

    Also, if you upload your bracketed photos to Google , Google’s “Auto Awesome” will merge them together into the final HDR photo for you automatically. Granted, you don’t have all of the different options that you do using the desktop software, but it’s pretty slick.

  4. Avatar

    This has to be the most detailed guide to HDR photography I have read, thanks a lot! I have dabbled myself while I was staying at a place called Burgh Island in Devon!

  5. Avatar

    This has been very informative. I am new to travel photography and trying to learn as much as possible to be able to take better shots while on my travels. I always wondered what HDR was and this has taken my understanding of it to new heights. I thank you for this and all your other photography articles.

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