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What Is HDR Photography?

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If you're reading this, scratching your head thinking, "What is HDR photography?" then this article is for you. HDR, or High Dynamic range, photography is a technique used to widen the dynamic range of a photograph. That is, to capture detail in both dark shadows and bright highlights. Since cameras have a limited dynamic range it’s not always possible to record detail in the scene if there are areas of extreme brightness and darkness together, in a single exposure. Therefore it’s necessary to take a series of images where the photographs are underexposed (too dark), exposed correctly, and overexposed (too bright) so that detail is captured in all regions of the frame. The underexposed photos will provide detail in brighter sections such as the sky and clouds, overexposed photos will give definition in darker sections and an average middle exposure gives a realistic view of midtone values.

After taking a series of bracketed images the next step is to blend together the regions of the frame that contain useful image detail. For example, taking the detail from the highlights in the underexposed photo, midtones from the middle exposure and definition from the shadows and laying one atop another until a wide dynamic range is achieved in one photograph. Many modern digital cameras now have an HDR mode built-in negating the need to bracket. However, bracketing shots and editing them together in software can provide a more powerful result, especially if shooting in RAW format. Creating HDR photos in this way gives greater control over the final look with the ability to adjust sliders including radius, strength, exposure and detail to name but a few.

Without getting bogged down with the technicalities that come with processing HDR photos the concept of HDR is quite simple. The idea is to overexpose the shadows and underexpose the highlights to record definition in all areas of the image. This is particularly helpful if you’ve forgotten your filters and can’t darken bright skies or lift deep shadows. So with this in mind, let’s take a look at how you can start taking better HDR photographs.

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HDR photography tips

Dial in your exposure

Use a tripod and a remote release to stop your camera from moving during or between shots. The series of images will be stacked atop one another so they have to line up perfectly. Use aperture priority and evaluative metering mode first to get a good average exposure of the scene. Note the settings then turn to manual mode and dial in those same settings.

Engage HDR mode/bracket

If your camera has HDR mode then turn it on. If it doesn’t, it should have a bracketing mode - head there instead. In these modes you can choose how many pictures the camera takes above and/or below the average exposure you’ve dialled in. If you want to cover all bases, choose a bracketing mode that both under and overexposes the shots like this: -2, -1, 0, +1, +2 - where 0 is your average exposure.

Change your increments

The gap size between your bracketed images can also be customised in most cameras. Smaller stop increments such as 0.3 and 0.7 are better to use on cloudy days when there isn’t much difference between the darkest and brightest areas of the scene. Larger increments such as one stop or more are better for sunny days, or with scenes that require a wider dynamic range.

Use manual focus

Once you’ve got all your settings dialled in and you’re focused up, switch off autofocus. If your focusing changes during your series of shots you’ll lose out on a sharp HDR image. AF-Lock mode could also be used but not all cameras have this feature.

Process lightly

If your camera’s HDR mode gives you the option, or if you’re processing the images yourself in software, go easy with the sliders. Beginners often overdo the ‘HDR effect’ with incredibly high contrast and tone-mapping settings. A good rule of thumb is to avoid darkened white clouds or exceptionally bright shadowy areas.

Software to use

Although Adobe® Photoshop® CC and Adobe® Lightroom® CC do a good job at creating HDR images, there are plenty of equally good alternatives that you can use to blend your own bracketed exposures. Affinity Photo offers a good and powerful alternative to Photoshop® without the subscription fee, whereas HDR-specific standalone software such as Aurora HDR and Luminance HDR are also a good choice. It’s best to try a few different types out first and see which matches your HDR needs best.

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