Stunning HDR Photography examples and Tips for Beginners

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High-dynamic-range imaging (HDRI or HDR) is a set of methods used in imaging and photography to capture a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than current standard digital imaging methods or photographic methods. HDR images can represent more accurately the range of intensity levels found in real scenes, from direct sunlight to faint starlight, and is often captured by way of a plurality of differently exposed pictures of the same subject matter.


How To Make Subtle HDR Photos:

Tip 1: Capture great images: Take a really great set of Raw images one stop apart, altering only the shutter speed. Every other camera setting should be tied down manually – including focus, WB and ISO100. Capture more than the entire brightness range – a few extra images won’t hurt. A tripod is essential (see our 4 tips for sharper shots when using a tripod).

Tip 2: The grunge look: Photomatix, Nik, and the other independents give you a good ‘grungy’ image fairly easily. With Photoshop, it’s easy to produce a natural image, but to get Photoshop to grunge it up, you need to feed it plenty of image data. Aim for an eight-image set at a minimum, but depending on the light, 12 to 16 is often required.

Tip 3: Adobe Camera Raw: Calibrate or fix the following: White Balance, Noise Reduction, Lens Correction, and Cropping. Use Default, or non-Auto, for all exposure, contrast (Linear) and saturation settings. Turn off Sharpening and apply the same settings to all images in the set.

Tip 4: 16-bit TIFFs: If you use third-party HDR software, export TIFFs from Adobe Camera Raw. Don’t even think of using their Raw converters! For example, how do you fix chromatic aberration in Photomatix? You get my point. You can even build and export one HDR file from Adobe Camera Raw to open in your choice of program for Tone Mapping (you might also like our tutorial Make HDR images from 2 exposures).

Tip 5: Post Tone Mapping: Tone Mapping isn’t the finish line in HDR. Just like processing any other image, there’s still work to do. In Photoshop, try a Shadows and Highlights value of just 1 for each. Adjust end points and middle points in Levels, and create a pleasing S-shape in Curves to add snap to the midtones.

Tip 6: The build quality: Always move files between programs in 16 bits or more – think TIFF. If you use Adobe RGB (1998) in your workflow, make sure all the programs you use understand and support it at each step. JPEG is just a final step for the web, and remember to convert it to sRGB.

Tip 7: Get a biiiiig memory card: The urge to save space on your memory card is the most detrimental thing for photography. It makes you do things like reducing the image quality, turning off the RAW images, not taking certain shots, deleting shots etc. If you use a modern DSLR with 12+ mega pixels, I recommend a 32GB memory card. Maybe you won’t need all that space, but it frees your mind! In fact, using all the techniques described below, I came close to the 32GB limit on some occasions, and I was happy to have a spare 16GB card in my pocket. In addition to having big memory cards, you should also take a small laptop with enough hard disk space with you when you are traveling. After each shoot, move the photos from the memory card to the laptop to archive them and to free the space on your memory card.

Tip 8: Get a small external hard drive as a backup, just in case. We all know that shit happens. If you incrementally copy all the images from your memory card(s) onto a single hard drive, this may not be the safest place. The laptop and/or hard drive may fail, it may get stolen, and you may lose or forget it somewhere. Get a cheap external drive and copy all the images from your laptop onto this drive to have a backup. You may either take it with you when you leave your hotel room, or you may put it into the safe at the reception or another safe place.

The Preparation: Speed and effectiveness are very much a matter of preparation. This is not only true with respect to your gear, but also for using it. Here are my tips for being prepared.

Tip 9: Know your camera setup. Since you normally work under some time pressure, you have to get your shots quickly. But still, your camera setup is vital for getting good results. Now, you could just bump your camera into auto mode and let it take all the decision for you. But since you are an ambitious photographer, that’s not what you want. You want to set the vital camera settings to decide the final outcome yourself. In order to be able to do that, there are two things you need: 1. decent knowledge about how a particular setting changes the result (basic photography knowledge – e.g. how the aperture influences the depth of field), and 2. a base setting from where you can operate. I will not tell you anything about no. 1. There are tons of pages on the Internet that do a good job with that. However, I want to emphasize the importance of no. 2: I always have a base setting on my camera that suits the given location. When I want to shoot a particular scene, this lets me quickly change the settings accordingly. After the shot, I change them back to the base setting. If you do not have such a base setting, you have to check and adjust the entire range of settings for every photo because you will probably not remember the most recently used settings. If you do have a base setting, you only need to change 1 or 2 things and then change them back immediately after the shot. I usually change the aperture, the ISO sensitivity, and the auto-bracketing mode (see below).

Tip 10: Have a steady hand. Especially if you are into multi-exposure techniques like panorama or HDR photography (or HDR panoramas for that matter) you have to take many single shots that are combined into one final photo. This can be between 12 and 30 shots sometimes. The more steady your hand is, the less problematic the process of combining these shots will be. Furthermore, in low-light situations (e.g. in a church) shutter speeds will be quite low. Having the ability to hand-hold very low shutter speeds (1/40 – 1/10 seconds) and still produce sharp photos is a definite advantage since you do not need a tripod or monopod each time. This can save you a lot of time and trouble with local authorities. Practice proper techniques of hand-holing shots before it counts!

The Shoot: When you are shooting, the most important thing is to produce material that gives you the flexibility of choosing the best shot and of improving the shots in post-processing as much as possible. The following tips allow you to maximize this felxibility.

Tip 11: Auto-bracket your shots. Most DSLRs have an autobracketing mode. However, most people don’t know what this is, how to turn it on and off, or how to use it. Basically, autobracketing means that your camera takes 3 or more shots when you press the trigger, each with a different exposure. I auto-bracket 90% of my shots. Why? Bacause this allows me to choose the best of the three exposures when I am selecting shots for post-processing. Furthermore, for scenes with a high dynamic range (big difference between the dark and the bright parts), you can later combine those three (or more) shots into a single one where all the areas are exposed well. This techniques is called HDR. Most cameras allow you to bracket different settings. You should bracket the shutter speed, not the apreture or ISO!

Tip 12: Shoot RAW (and JPEG). Especially beginners tend to switch off the RAW output of their cameras. RAW images take a lot of space and time to download, and you don’t really know what to do with them anyway. Right?… Wrong! I was like that too. Now, I wish I had taken all my shots in RAW format right from the start. RAW images contain all the information your camera captures while JPEGs are compressed. Some of the information gets lost in this compression. Especially, if you post-process your images, this lost information usually translates into notably lower quality of the final result. I am not going into the details of this here. I can only tell you: turn on the RAW output format on your camera! If you don’t know what to do with it now, just let the RAW files sit on your hard disk. Some day, you will be thankful that you have them. Additionally, you should turn on the JPEG output in highest quality. RAW images cannot be used before your run them through a RAW converter, and you do not want to do this with each and every shot you take just to view it and share it with others. So, let your camera produce both the RAW image and the compressed JPEG for each shot you take.

Tip 13: In critical situations, shoot multiple times. If you are in this fantastic church and there is this gorgeous golden ceiling that you would love to get a great shot of, take as many shots as possible. If you are taking a panorama or HDR shot, repeat the whole series of shots 2 or 3 times. Check the result on your camera display to see if the images (longest exposures) are sharp enough. If in doubt, shoot again. Sometimes you may also vary setting inbetween. This ensures that you have enough material to produce a high-quality photo. Chances are that you will only use 10-20% of all your shots. But who cares.

Tip 14: Have fun: There is one final tip that I had to include for two reasons: 1. to give you the right perspective again and 2. in order not to let this post end with a 13th tip (some people may be supersticious). This final tip is: Don’t let this whole thing stress you too much. Producing high-quaity images under pressure may seem to be stressful. But it should be fun. Enjoy your time wherever you are on the planet.

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