When I started taking pictures, HDR was one of the things I was obsessed with. More precisely I was just blending photos with different exposures. I thought creating HDR photos means making better photos. I also used to carry a tripod everywhere and never set an ISO higher than 100. But you know what? It is stupid. You should use HDR only in particular circumstances. But don’t worry, I lead you through!
What is HDR?
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. It means that you try to capture an image with the highest difference between shadows and lights (=> expanding tonal range in your shots). In other words, the purpose is to keep as much information as possible in the photo. A small note – it is true that HDR has gained a poor reputation in the past because it has tempted some to drive the dynamic range of the photo to extremes. This resulted in often tasteless and unnatural photographs with wild colors. Do not be discouraged by such photos – it has nothing to do with the practical use of HDR technique.
A classic example is sunset, when there is often a huge contrast between shadows and lights. When we watch the sunset, it is beautiful. However, we often find that the photo does not look good at all. There are only black silhouettes of trees and hills, and the sky looks like a glowing orange surface. And that is the problem. The dynamic range of the human eye is about 20 stops, but an ordinary camera (DSLR) has only about 13 stops (a mobile camera even a poor 9 – 10 stops!). The purpose of HDR is to give details to the image, so the image looks similar to when we watched the scene with our own eyes.
In practice, this means that we take 3 (or more) photos instead of one (aperture and ISO must be the same for all photos). So we set exposure bracketing on the camera and take one photo with EV 0, the other with EV -2 (for more details to the sky) and the third with EV +2 (for more details to shadows). That means we get more than 13 stops, right? And then we compose these 3 photos on a PC (manually in Photoshop or automatically by any SW). It may sound complicated, but it’s very simple. On the picture below, for example, I tried to keep the shadows – so I merged the normal exposure with exposure by 2 stops longer.
A HDR shot from my latest hiking trip in Roháče – Slovakia
Don’t go crazy with exposure bracketing!
The problem is that practice is much more complex. And that’s why I wrote this article. You need a tripod to take overexposed photos (due to shadows) – exposure can take even a few seconds. These 3 photos must also fit together in terms of composition. It is true that a tripod may not be necessary because single photos can easily be aligned in Photoshop, but it may not always work out as desired. And then we couldn’t shoot with the ISO set to 100. That means a lot of noise (?)!
And you know what … In my case – I couldn’t let that happen. So the tripod became a “necessary” burden on my every single trip, which not only exhausted me, but also limited my creativity. Taking a tripod with you means that you have in your backpack about 3 kg extra weight. And this is nothing nice during all-day hikes. At the same time, constantly unfolding and positioning the tripod robs you of precious time. And that’s even worse. I would have taken many more photos on trips if I hadn’t used a tripod. And they would be much more creative in terms of composition. The funniest thing about it is that I tried to take HDR photos even when they were not necessary. That means, in cases where the dynamic range of the scene was far below 13 stops. Poor me.
So, when should I use HDR then?
Don’t get me wrong – taking HDR pictures can be a great thing, but you can’t make a habit out of it. If you are going to a place you know well and want to shoot a sunset and then return home, be sure to take the tripod with you and create a great HDR image. But if you’re hiking and walking in the mountains, don’t bother. Technology has also made significant progress over the last few years. Modern DSLRs have a dynamic range of more than 14 EVs. And if you’re shooting in RAW (always shoot raw!), we can say that the dynamic range is around 15 EVs, because the RAW format allows you to get a lot more information out of the photo. And that’s enough in most cases.
Just pay attention to the HDR features that manufacturers insert directly into DLSR or mobile phones. In most cases, the result is tragic, and moreover, the result is not a RAW photo, but a JPEG, which means that the photo can not be well corrected on a PC. However, when it comes to new mobile phones I am sometimes very pleasantly surprised by HDR mode. So be sure to try, but be aware. Although the software on the mobile is smarter and smarter, you certainly do not want the photo to look like a bizarre coloring book.
Should use HDR now? Well, if I were still thinking about it I would not have taken a picture below. It is a few weeks old photo from hike to Traunstein mountain. There were only few seconds left to take the picture. But since I didn’t waste my time with a tripod and was not afraid to use a higher ISO, I managed to take a beautiful shot of sunset. And add some compositional creativity.
Stunning Sunset on my hike in Traunsee mountain in Austria.
Here’s how to take HDR images:
- Tripod is almost a necessity so be sure to have it
- Turn off vibration reduction in DSLR settings (always do this when the camera is on a tripod)
- Set ISO to 100 (or lower)
- Set Exposure Bracketing to + – 2 EV (or less)
- Take 3 photos
- For the more experienced of you: Edit the images in Photoshop (merge layers);
For the less experienced: Automatically let merge images in any of the many SW applications (Lightroom, Photoshop, Zoner, HDR Projects, Photomatrix …)
The most common and easiest technique to manually merge HDR photos.
Probably the easiest thing you can do to create simple but good looking HDR photos is to replace the sky. It is enough to take 2 photos (with 0 EV & -2 EV), where we then replace the sky with a sky from a picture with -2 EV. The sky will not be overexposed, so it will have more saturated colors and will be without blown-out highlights. There is no need for a tripod. See below for an illustration:
In this case, the sky is only slightly overexposed… Still, the texture of clouds and color tones are not the best.
At first glance it is obvious that if we replace the overexposed sky in the first picture with a sky from the underexposed image, we will do well…
Please note that these are photos directly from the camera and without any further post-processing. However, the sky looks more promising, do you agree?
The merged HDR photo will look something like this.
So basically that’s all the magic behind creating smooth HDR pictures. Remember to keep it simple and don’t overthink the HDR photography!