Image without HDR
When shooting HDR (High Dynamic Range) images there are two ways you can produce them. The first, is in camera with a built-in mode and the second is manually where the photographer produces various bracketed exposures and combines them in software once back in front of their computer. This isn't a technique just for advanced camera users either as you can also do HDR with images from compact digital cameras so long as you can control the exposure.
But before we look at the how, we need to look at the why this feature is useful for photographers.
A photographer could choose to shoot HDR images just to be a little more creative or because the scene they are trying to capture won't look at its best without it.
What we mean by this is the camera's sensor doesn't see how we do so if you meter for the brighter areas of the scene then changes are you'll lose some shadow detail. Do the opposite and highlights can end up looking 'blown out'. However, by working with a built-in HDR mode or shooting a HDR image manually you'll be capturing a series of exposures, known as a bracket, that will be combined into one image that has better dynamic range (highlights and shadow detail).
HDR In Camera
Select cameras feature a built-in HDR mode which does the work for you. This captures a wide range of tones, from shadows to highlights to produce an image with a more balanced exposure. Take a look at your camera's manual to see if your model has this function built-in. Using a HDR mode can make a big difference to your images with more detail and colour becoming visible.
When shooting, it’s vital that you keep the camera as still as possible between each of the shots, so as to produce identical images. This makes the blending process much easier. Mounting your camera on a tripod is the simplest way to ensure your shots stay lined-up. It'll also help if you use a cable or remote release so you don't have to touch the camera when starting an exposure. If you don't have one, use your camera's built-in self-timer.
Try to avoid adjusting your zoom between shots too as it'll be a pain trying to line them back up again and once you have your focus point, switch to manual focus (if not using it already) so the camera doesn't refocus after taking your first shot. You may want to lock the focus and switch to manual exposure to help ensure everything remains consistent throughout. It's also worth switching to aperture priority mode as this will ensure that the aperture doesn't change from shot-to-shot.
Most cameras will have an auto bracketing feature which makes the photographers job slightly easier as all they have to do is pick the increments the exposures are going to differ by and the camera sorts the rest. If you've checked your camera's manual and this feature isn't offered, you can use exposure compensation and bracket manually.
Three images, at two stop intervals, should produce good results but this will depend on the contrast range in the scene you're capturing. Taking between 3 - 7 shots is common for this type of photography so do take the time to access the scene to see how many shots will produce the best result for you. Use zero as your base exposure then take your +2 and - 2 exposures and check the results. It's worth checking your camera's histogram when setting your base exposure to ensure the highlights and shadows aren't clipped. Take a look at our article on using histograms on your camera for more information on this.
Once you have a set of images that cover the scene's full contrast range you can open the exposures on your computer in an HDR software program, various are available, and bring them together in one image. Adjustments can be made to the image to produce a more accurate representation of the scene or you can go for a hyper-real shot where elements are over-cooked. Do take care with this though as not all scenes will work with the latter.
When To Use HDR
HDR won't work for every situation, you need to judge if it's needed. For example, If you have a landscape scene that's evenly exposed and well-lit you won't need to use HDR. However, if you have a scene where the camera can't handle all the different exposure levels present, HDR can help you capture a more balanced exposure. having said that, it's worth using a longer exposure before reaching for the HDR controls to see if it'll give you the sharpness and detail you're after.
You can always take a few test shots, paying particular attention to shadow areas, to see if any detail is lost before working on your HDR image.
As mentioned, do take care in post production too as a strong HDR effect won't work for everything. Go for subtle then add more if you think the image needs it.
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