One major problem with most digital cameras is that they cannot capture every tone in a bright, high contrast scene - which is why you often see pale washed-out skies instead of the deep blues we remember, or dark, moody landscapes instead of glorious detail.
HDR or high dynamic image making is a technique originally developed in the scientific community to record a wider range of tones in a photographic image than is normally possible from a single frame.Learn how to set up your camera to do this, how to choose the best software for post-processing, and how to troubleshoot your editing when the result is not exactly the way you wanted it to be ...
In this short video I look at why the HDR process can help photographers capture a wider range of tones in a scene than if you were to shoot just a single frame...
Not sure if your camera has a good dynamic range capture capability - in this short article I highlight some of the cameras with the best dynamic range and explain, in brief, what you need to do to get a good HDR result.
To demonstrate the potential HDR image making can offer any photographer, here's a selection of [processed] HDR images, all of which could not have been made in a single shot, because the scene brightness is too wide for a single shot.
Simply splitting the dynamic range across several exposure brackets might work in ideal lighting - but in tricky lighting you'll find that the bracket does not reveal enough detail in the shadow areas or hold enough detail in the highlights. Learn to use the camera's inbuilt exposure compensation function to shift all the exposure brackets lighter or darker to fully cover the exposure latitude.
When shooting for HDR it's important to choose the correct Exposure Mode - in this case it is definitely the Aperture Mode. Choose an aperture, then let the camera adjust the shutter speed to make the exposure bracket suitable for turning into an impressive HDR picture.
Auto Exposure bracketing harks back to film days when we were never 100% sure that the exposure was going to come out - now we use this feature, and HDR software, to expand the dynamic range capture capabilities of our cameras Here's what AEB looks like on a Canon DSLR camera.
All but the least expensive cameras feature an exposure bracketing mode - here's how to set it up on an Olympus mirrorless camera.
Although you can get acceptable HDR results using the humble JPEG file, photographers will always get superior results from RAW files. Here's a quick show and tell on how to set this up in-camera.
Though the best HDR results come from multiple exposure brackets, the process excludes moving subjects - unless you make an HDR image from a single, well exposed RAW file.
All good digital cameras have inbuilt High ISO Noise Reduction Filters, Long Exposure Noise Reduction Filters and even Exposure Optimisers, all good functions but all of which slow image processing considerably. Turn them off for optimum HDR performance.
Picture Control (Nikon) and Picture Styles (Canon) are settings to display more interesting colour/tones on the LCD screen - they do not affect the amount of picture data recorded in a RAW file, but they can be used to enhance what you see on the LCD screen. All cameras have them (with different names).
You cannot create good HDR effect images without software. And there's a confusing number of HDR applications available. Here's a short overview of some of the best products on the market.
Photomatix Pro is one of the best HDR software apps on the market. It'll work on a Mac and PC and comes with free upgrades and patches. Watch this lecture on how to get started with this powerful application.
The Nik plug-in suite of software filters used to cost more than US$700 - it's now free through Google (it's now called the Google Nik Collection) and includes an impressive HDR app called HDR EFEX Pro 2.
Here's what it looks like...
Here's an overview of this very capable HDR software; Easy HDR for Mac, or PC
Aurora HDR Professional is produced by Trey Ratcliff, in association with software designers, MacPhun.
It's an impressive product and I think possibly the best HDR application around.
Here's a brief overview on how it works.
Here's a look at Canadian software developer Mediachance's HDR software.
Adobe Photoshop has for many years included an HDR component called Merge to HDR Pro, but it has never been as effective as some of the excellent third party applications on the market (discussed elsewhere in the course) Here's how it works - you make up your mind on its efficacy....
It might be obvious to some, but clicking the Browse button all the time to get your bracketed sequences into an HDR program can be the slowest way to do it.
Far better to use a browser (i.e. Windows Explorer or the Mac Finder) and just drag the image icons directly into the application. Couldn't be easier.
In most good HDR applications, you can apply chromatic aberration reduction, automatic or manual alignment and even ghosting reduction - all before you actually start processing the files.
Here's how to do this, plus some examples of how effective these features really are.
Photomatix Pro, and other HDR applications, create high dynamic range results using a range of different 'methods'. This video is all about identifying those methods, and deciding which ones are most appropriate to use...
Photomatix Pro has the capability to work with just one RAW file. This is especially useful if your subject matter is moving and, providing the RAW file is correctly exposed, you can expect to get very good HDR results. This program will also run single files (.jpg or RAW) through its batch processing utility, useful for making time-lapse videos sequences (see separate video on Batch Processing for HDR Timelapse).
If you find that the HDR software does not do a good job of auto aligning your HDR frames well, you can adjust Photomatix to be more aggressive in its application. Very often this is the best policy to get absolute clarity in the end result.
If it still does not work then try using Photoshop's impressive auto alignment layers tool, then re-import the files to make a perfectly-lined up HDR result (see separate video about this in the troubleshooting section).
Most HDR applications have some form of frame alignment function - this is used if the exposure bracketing was shot hand held. This is a quick overview of how to fix up the alignment using Photoshop's excellent Auto Align Layers feature - it usually does a far better job than the in-application alignment features - but of course, it takes longer because each frame must be imported into Photoshop, altered, cropped, then saved once more as individual file,s before having a second go in the HDR software. If it's an important shot that must be clear, this is the best way to do it...
If you shoot time-lapse files for making a video, use this very useful processing utility to batch process single or multiple files automatically and with great efficiency.
Watch this six-minute video on how to pre-process one file from a sequence shot for time lapse. You can then save that 'develop recipe' as a preset and replay it on hundreds more files in that same sequence. The resulting HDR stills are then assembled into a time lapse video using another application like Apple Quicktime Pro or Time Lapse Tool.
If your exposure sequence includes something that has moved between frames one, two and three (or however many frames you shoot in a bracket) you'll get a ghosting effect when all frames are combined. The de-ghosting feature, found in Photomatix Pro, Aurora HDR Professional, and some other HDR applications, is there to help remove blurry, ghosted images.
In most cases, it works extremely well and can transform a messy-looking composite into an image of remarkable clarity.
More often than not, a single HDR image has successful 'bits' in it - but at the same time there might be sections in the image that do not 'translate' well into the HDR format. They come out darker, smudgy, or strangely highlighted.
One way to produce a better result is to process two, or more HDR versions from the same files - and produce different results - which are then merged together into one 'master' file using Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.
When multiple exposures are merged into a single HDR picture you'll often notice the appearance of dark sensor spots and other unsightly specks in the final result - merging multiple frames together usually exaggerates the marks you can have on a dirty sensor. Here's a simple Photoshop/Photoshop Elements way to clean these up with its professional retouching tools.
Chromatic aberration appears as unreal rainbow-coloured lines, usually around the edges of objects, at the very edge of the image frame. It's usually more apparent in wide-angle lenses.
Here's how you can reduce/remove the worst of this annoying lens failing...
Haloes look like glowing edges around some objects that have been poorly processed in HDR software. Here's a Photoshop/Elements retouching tip to paint these unsightly edges out of your work using the retouching tools set to the Darken Blend Mode.
Very often the results you get from the HDR process is a bit blotchy - looks great across most of the photo but there's usually a few weird darker or lighter areas, maybe unsightly haloes - or tonal areas that just look dull. Here's how to fix those errors locally using the Burn or the Dodge brushes in Photoshop or Elements.
This is one of the best HDR applications - not just because it works well, but also because it has tools such as masking which you won't find in other HDR applications.
In this lesson I demonstrate how easy it is to combine one HDR effect with a second effect, using layers and the masking brush.
Aurora HDR Pro has a gradient tool that looks remarkably similar to the one in Adobe Lightroom - and it works just as effectively too. Here see how easy it is to add further dynamism to your files by adding a gradient to a landscape shot.
Like a few others involved in the industry, I’m in the enviable position of being able to combine my life’s passion, photography, with my job. And, even though I spend too much time in front of a computer, it remains one of the best occupations in the world…
Born in the UK, I’ve spent the past 31 years in Sydney. I began work in Australia as a cameraman in the audio-visual business, then as a freelance photographer. In the nineties I worked as a contributing freelance writer for several photo publications, then as a full-time magazine editor for more than eight years. In 2000 I started my own publishing business producing Australia’s best-selling specialist digital photo techniques publication: Better Digital Camera magazine.With this I aggressively pursued the goal of producing clear, well-illustrated information written in simple English and continued to develop this plain-speaking style in another specialist magazine, Better Photoshop Techniques.
Nowadays I mostly teach and run specialist photo tours to photo-centric locations such as Africa, Japan, Bali, Iceland and Cuba. When not travelling I run photo workshops, teach digital photography, video and post-production classes online and in face-to-face classes locally through Sydney University.