HDR Tutorial


Here is a good example of the benefits of a photography technique called HDR. The challenge of taking photos of sunrises/sunsets is that, if you adjust your exposure for the bright sun, the rest of the photo will be under exposed (too dark) or if you expose for the foreground and sky, the  sun will be over exposed or blown out. This photo is 5 exposures taken at an ISO of 100 at f9, 16mm. The exposures are 1/13, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, 1/200 per second.

What is HDR?

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. Standard photography limits the range of light that you can see as opposed to your natural vision. With digital photography, there are techniques to show a wider spectrum of light. These include using a RAW file format on your camera that packs in more data from the spectrum of light. Using special software for editing photos such as Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop you can edit the photo. These have tools to bring out natural colors and lighting in addition to many creative tools. A third and powerful method is to take multiple photos of the same subject. With this method you would take 2 to ten (or more) photos at different exposures. You would go from under exposed to over exposed on these photos and then combine in the above mentioned software packages. One more software package specially designed for this is Photomatix.

The end result is a better color range, better contrast and a more realistic look (if that is what you want).

What you need:

Camera that saves images in a RAW format. This is all of the data from the camera sensor and is unprocessed.

Camera that allows for bracketing. This feature allows for multiple photos with one press of the shutter release. Each  photo will be at a different exposure depending on the setting of this feature.

Here are the photos that created the image above through bracketing:


Note that the exposure is slightly different in each photo.

You do not need to use bracketing to create a nice image if you are using RAW files and software like Lightroom. However, the extra exposures give much more data to create you your finished product.

Your camera does not have the features mentioned above? The see: —> So you want to buy an new camera.

Editing a RAW file

As mentioned above, RAW files are just data straight from the photo sensor. In the past, special software was needed to convert the file to a usable format for an editor and most photo sharing and viewing programs will not display the files. Now many editors allow you to edit files in real time.

Because RAW files have so much data, major changes to photos can be made in the editor. For example: over and under exposed photos can be corrected. Color and hues can be completely changed. Errors made while taking the photo can easily be corrected. Using programs like Lightroom, Photoshop and Photoshop elements make all of this very easy.

How to use bracketing

Button to access Bracket Settings on Nikon D7100

All cameras are different but generally you will need to turn on the bracketing feature. If you are using Aperture Priority, you can choose between 3 consecutive exposures or 5 consecutive exposures. If you use three exposures set it for 2 stops + or -. This will take a standard photo, then one 2 stops under exposed and the next 2 stops over exposed. If you use 5 exposures set the interval for 1 stop. This gives you -2, -1, 0, +1, +2 stop interval. The control should be marked like this. Next you will have to set up your drive motor to high speed continuous. Your owners manual will cover all of this.

One of my first HDR photos. This is three photos combined as an HDR in Photmatix.

Using these settings take a few sets of photos (it is best to use a tripod) and copy them to your computer hard drive.

Processing your photos:

Once you have taken your photos and copied them to your hard drive you are ready to process them.

Software needed: You can use Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. However, one of the most popular and versatile programs is Photomatix. This is what I will be discussing here.

To edit you photos using Photomatix, follow these steps:

  • Open your Photomatix program
  • Click “Load Bracketed Photos”
  • A dialog box will pop-up, click browse
  • Another box will pop-up, use this to find your saved photos
  • High-lite the photos you want to use to makeup you HDR photo
  • Click “Open”
  • They are now listed in the dialog box, click OK
  • Another box pops up “Merge HDR options” on this box,
  • Check “Align Source”
  • Check “Crop Aligned Image”
  • On Preset, select: “on tripod” or “handheld” depending how the photo was taken
  • Check Reduce Noise: All Source Images
  • Check “Reduce Chromatic Aberrations”
  • Set White Balance: as shot
  • Color: Primary ADOBE RGB
  • Click “Align & Merge to HDR”
  • On the left side of the screen check: click Tonemap/Fuse

A sample tonemapped photo will appear on the screen. On the right you will find about 20 sample photos. Review each of these and select the photo that you like. Once you have selected the photo you like, you can fine tune it using the sliders on the left. You do not need to know what each slider does, just start trying them and see if it makes the photo better.

  • Now select “Apply”
  • A “Finishing Touch ” box pops up, select the sharpness and color you like
  • Select Save Final Image.
  • Find your finished image on the hard drive!

You should be amazed how great your photo looks after processing, good luck!

Here is a video’from Photomatix  that will help:


Here are a few of my favorite HDR photos:


City Garden (33 of 1)
This is a three shot photo take with a Nikon D7100 with a Sigma 17-50mm lens at 17mm. The three photos were combined in Lightroom into a HDR Photo. Other specs on this photo: ISO 1000, average exposure: 5 sec., f7.1. A tripod was used and no flash.
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