Guide to HDR Photography

HDR photography can seem quite challenging when you’re getting started, but it’s really not as difficult as you might think. It just takes some time. A small amount to learn and a lot more once you’re hooked because of the fun you’re having. In our Free Guide to HDR Photography, we lay the groundwork that will not only get you started making your own HDR images, but will also help you to feel comfortable with the process.

Free Guide to HDR Photography by Tours Departing Daily


You can jump right in by following our free HDR tutorial below or you can download the free ebook and take it with you!

QUICK GUIDE TO HDR – Let’s Get Started!

Stop and think about how you see the world for a moment. You can drink in the rich highlights of a sunset and the shadowy entrance to a forest. Our eyes have the ability to scan a scene with wildly diverse lighting and find detail in all of it. But something happens when you take a picture. It loses something. It doesn’t convey the same sense you have, actually being there. The reason for this is that a camera sensor can only capture a small range of light in a single image, far less than what our eyes are capable of. That’s where HDR comes in. High Dynamic Range photography is an attempt to bridge that gap by combining multiple images captured at different exposure values — a dark photo to capture highlights, a bright photo to capture shadows and a normal photo to throw the party where the other two hook up.

The Archway leading from Pacific Wharf to Ornament Valley in Cars Land at night at Disney California Adventure



Photomatix Pro – This is the program used to create a HDR from your photos. It’s not the only HDR software in town but it’s our top pick and the one you’ll want to use to follow along in this guide. They offer a fully functional free trial on their site. The only caveat is that it leaves watermarks on your final image. Better yet, if you decide to purchase use the coupon code — ToursDepartDaily — to get 15% off!

Adobe Lightroom – Lightroom is a great resource for organizing your photos and for general editing. It’s not necessary, but it’s where we start the HDR process with adjustments to our initial RAW files before exporting them to Photomatix.

Adobe Photoshop / Photoshop Elements – There’s no doubt that Photoshop has a learning curve, but it’s where we craft our final images and correct common HDR problems. If you invest the time to learn and practice, the dividends are worth it. There are really no limits to what you can accomplish in Photoshop. Elements is less expensive if you’re looking to get started on the cheap. Why have one of these in addition to Lightroom? The ability to work with layers, a feature Lightroom doesn’t offer…yet.

All the Plug-ins – There are a number of third party companies that make plug-ins that add additional functionality to Photoshop. Topaz, Nik and OnOne are a few and if you look around online, you’ll find fans of each. It’s really a matter of preference. We got started with Topaz plugins and still like what we’re able to do with them, primarily using Topaz Adjust and Topaz Denoise. Sometimes buying the bundle packs from these companies is cheaper than buying individual plug-ins, so be sure to check! Whew… still with us? You have a lot to look at in terms of equipping your computer for post processing battle. That sounds sort of dramatic, doesn’t it?…Good.

Features – Just about any camera can be used to make a HDR photo but the best option is with a DSLR…or something like it. With so many great mirrorless and hybrid cameras out there, it’s hard to narrow down the field. The features you want to look for are: ability to adjust exposure, shoot RAW images and exposure bracketing (sometimes designated AEB). Bracketing will take multiple photos for you in rapid succesion at various exposure intervals like -2, 0 and +2. If your camera doesn’t have these features, don’t let that stop you. We use a Nikon D90 and D7000 now but we started out with a Panasonic point and shoot.

Tripod – You don’t need much in the way of accessories when it comes to shooting for HDR, but the one we highly recommend is a tripod. Because HDR involves taking a series of pictures, it’s important to make sure those images are sharp and can line up easily for merging with Photomatix. A tripod is especially important if you want to shoot in low-light settings or at night.

Sunset at Pfeiffer Beach along the coast of California



Shoot in RAW – RAW files have more information than JPEG files do, producing better results with more flexibility.

Use Exposure Bracketing – This setting can change from manufacturer to manufacturer, varying in the number of frames and the interval spacing between them. The goal here is to capture from -2 to +2, which is a good range for most scenes (though some might need more, like shooting into the sun). Our cameras can shoot 3 frames at 2 stop intervals. If your settings don’t cover that range, you’ll have to manually adjust your exposure to compensate.

Use a Tripod – If you can’t get your hands on a tripod, shooting handheld will still work in most situations. Just do your best to keep still. Keeping your elbows in and exhaling before pressing the shutter release can help. If you find yourself without a tripod when an opportunity that calls for one arises, look for a stable surface to place your camera on. The top of a (clean) trash can, table, chair or even the ground can all work well. A wallet or mobile phone can act as a shim for added support or angle manipulation. Don’t be afraid to get creative. Thinking outside the box often renders the greatest rewards and unique perspectives. But don’t walk away from your camera!

Use Low ISO – HDR has a tendency to exaggerate noise so it’s important to try and shoot with the lowest ISO setting you can, especially at night.

Next  — Guide to HDR: Part 2