Oftentimes our photographs of breathtaking views and incredible sunsets just don’t do the real thing much justice. How often do you take a picture of something spectacular, only to defend it later on with “Well, you had to be there” when you show someone else?
In conventional photography, we have to make compromises. We can either capture the details in the shadows, but our highlights will be blown out; or we can get our highlights exposed just right, but the shadows might be in total darkness. Simply put, the ratio between the lightest light and the darkest dark in your photograph is called the dynamic range. Unfortunately, there is still not a camera out there that can out-perform the human eye when it comes to processing the dynamic range that we can see when we look at a scene. Fortunately though, through HDR photography, we are able to reproduce the way in which we saw something with our own eyes. The way this is achieved is by taking three different photographs taken at three different exposures, and then merging them together in editing software such as Photoshop or Photomatix Pro (both of which will be explained), using sugar, spice and everything nice (i.e. the best parts of each photograph) to create one SUPER photograph with a High Dynamic Range.
These days, our smartphones have the capability to take both a regular photograph and an HDR photograph. However, if you want to take your photography to the next level, for the best results use a DSLR that supports RAW format and bracket shots.
RAW images generally contain more dynamic range than JPEG images as they are able to preserve the most amount of information. Though RAW files are much larger than JPEG, the resulting images will be uncompressed, which will allow full control over processing in post-production in Photoshop.
So, set your image quality to RAW. Next, switch to Aperture Priority (‘Av’ on Canon and ‘A’ on Nikon) so that your depth of field is consistent across your three photographs. You could use Manual mode, but honestly, it just takes twice the grunt work to achieve the same result. Sometimes it is better to work smarter than harder, especially if you are potentially losing that sunset! Set your metering to Evaluative Metering (or your camera’s equivalent) so that your camera can find the best exposure for the entirety of the scene, which will end up being your ‘base’ photograph, a balanced photograph for reference.
Set up the Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB) found in the Menu, or select your Exposure Compensation function, and roll the mode dial until your Exposure Value is 2 steps above and below 0 (-2, 0, 2). This will enable the camera to take three photographs in a burst: one that will be generally exposed, one that will be overexposed, and one that will be underexposed. This process is called bracketing. Bracketing your shots is a simple method to ensure that your end result has a high dynamic range with loads of detail.
HDR photography works best on still subjects and landscapes, so watch out for waves crashing, clouds moving, people walking around in your shot, or wind moving the grass, bushes, and trees. Oftentimes your shutter speed will be fast if you are taking pictures during the day with lots of light, so the movement won’t be noticeable; but sometimes the shutter speed will be slower to make up for a lack of light, therefore blurring the moving elements of your scene. After taking your three photographs, make sure to check each frame to see if there is extreme movement from one photograph to the next, which would result in “ghosting” (it will literally look like there is a ghost in your photograph!). Either manually focus the scene, or set your camera to Auto Focus (AF) and ONE SHOT, so that no part in your photograph will be blurry.
Speaking of eliminating blur, set your aperture to a higher number (somewhere between f/8 and f/16) for a deep depth of field, so that everything in the frame is sharp. Set your ISO to a low number like 100 so that there is as little noise as possible in your photographs. Use a sturdy tripod to ensure that your three photographs are aligned and have the same composition. Lastly, use a remote or set your timer to 2 seconds to avoid camera shake. And —
Click. SNAP SNAP SNAP.
You have your three photographs: one overexposed, one underexposed, and one just right. Now, Goldilocks, transfer your photographs to your computer, and let’s get editing!
There are a couple of ways to edit your exposures to create an HDR photograph, either through using automatic HDR software such as Photomatix Pro, or through exposure blending done manually in Photoshop using layers and layer masks.
If you would rather take the editing into your own hands for cleaner shots with more natural results, then read on and learn how to blend your exposures by hand. This is an opportunity to extend your skill set and get the most out of your photographs, rather than letting your computer do the work for you (not that there is anything wrong with that if you are running short on time!).
It is helpful to start out in Lightroom where you can do your general adjustments to each of the exposures (you may need to convert your files to DNG if you took RAW photographs in order for Lightroom to locate them). In Lightroom, you may want to bring up the clarity in one photograph, and bump up the contrast in the other, in order to bring out the best part of each exposure.
Once you’re done, select all three exposures, then select Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop from the menu bar. Once in Photoshop, switch your layers around so that your base photograph is the bottom layer, your overexposed photograph is above that, and your underexposed photograph should sit at the top. Label each layer accordingly (or title them according to which part of the image you want to use) to avoid confusion. Select all your layers and click Edit > Auto-Align Layers so that all of your exposures are exactly in line with one other.
When all the images are aligned and just the underexposed layer is selected and sitting on top, the layers beneath it cannot be seen. Layer Masks allow you to see through a layer, down to the layer beneath it, without totally getting rid of all the pixels forever (which would happen if you just used the eraser tool — not giving you many options if you want to return to the file at a later stage). With your top layer selected, click the Layer Mask button at the bottom of the layers tab.
A white block will now be next to the icon of the image on the layer you selected. The white in the block means that nothing has been touched on the original image, so select black as your foreground colour and white as your background colour on the bottom left of the tools panel, and select the paintbrush. The areas that you paint black on the mask are the areas that you are letting show through from the layer underneath.
If you make a mistake by painting out an area that you didn’t want to be exposed, press X to make your foreground colour white, and paint in the area that you mistakenly painted out. Changing the opacity of the paintbrush can be helpful where you want to create shading, this can be done by moving the opacity bar at the top of the workspace, or by pressing a number between one and ten on your keyboard, 1 being 10% and 9 being 90% opacity.
Change the size of your paintbrush by pressing the [ and ] keys, and use Shift [ or ] to change how feathered you want the paintbrush to be. Using a feathered brush is useful in creating a natural look when shading, but oftentimes a harder paintbrush is needed when there are definite lines in the photograph.
Once you’re done painting in all of the highlights that you wanted from the overexposed layer, you can bring in the parts you want from the base layer by doing the same process. Press the Eye button on the first layer to make it invisible so that you can see what you are working with, and toggle it on and off to see how your image is looking. Select the second layer, click the Layer Mask button, and paint in the parts of the image that you want to be shown from the layer underneath. When you’re happy with the final touches, click File > Save As and save it as a Photoshop file first so that you can return to it later on, and then save it as a JPEG afterwards.
Alternatively, creating beautiful HDR photographs has never been easier with Photomatix Pro (you can try the trial version here for free — https://www.hdrsoft.com/download.html). Open up the application, click Load Bracketed Photos and drag your three exposures into the prompt box or click Browse to locate them, then click OK. At the first check box, you have the option to choose a preset for alignment reasons, so select On Tripod. If you have a feeling that there will be some ghosting (perhaps because of wind or people moving), select ‘Show options to remove ghosts’, then go ahead and click the button at the bottom of the prompt box to proceed. Once your three exposures have loaded, follow the instructions on the left hand side about selecting your base photograph if you choose Automatic Deghosting, or draw over the area of the image that you want to deghost if you want to do it yourself in Selective Deghosting. Once you’re done, select OK. Once your three bracketed exposures have merged into a single HDR photograph, click Method Defaults on the left panel so that you have a starting point before you begin editing your HDR image in a way that suits your style. To make editing easier, click Photomatix Pro from the menu bar at the top of the screen, and go to Preferences. Where it says ‘When adjusting Preview, refresh …’ click ‘continuously as slider moves’ so that you can see the difference in your photograph while you are moving the sliders, rather than only seeing the difference in steps.
For the HDR ‘look’, bump up the Strength to somewhere between 70-100. Play with the rest of the sliders until you get something you like, or take a look at the different presets on the right panel and see if you like any of those. I cannot tell you exactly what number on the sliders to choose because it all comes down to the composition of your photograph, the mood you are going for, and your personal taste in general. Continue to manipulate your photograph however you see fit until you are happy with the end result, and click Apply. If you are satisfied with your end result, go to File > Save As and save it in your destination folder as a JPEG, or 16-bit TIFF if you need to keep it as high-res as possible.
Now, with this knowledge about how HDR photographs are made, you can create an HDR photograph out of virtually any clear photograph. All you need to do is create your three bracketed photographs by copying your original photograph two more times, and editing them in Lightroom so that one is overexposed to bring out the highlights, and one is underexposed to bring out the shadows, and the original will be used for the mid-tones. Photomatix Pro can even detect that your photographs were taken with the same exposure, and will give you the option to change the exposure values.
HDR photography can be a lot of fun and very addictive! It is fantastic that we have the technology that allows us to recreate what we see with our own eyes. While HDR doesn’t work for everything and oftentimes artists tend to go too far, it works beautifully with landscape and architecture. But who am I to tell you what looks good and what doesn’t, and where the line is! As with all things art and photography, you really can’t go wrong with a little experimentation.