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How to shoot HDR photographs with your DSLR

How to shoot HDR photographs with your DSLR

HDR, or High Dynamic Range is a technique in photography to produce a great dynamic range of luminosity, which a camera sensor cannot capture in a single photograph. You heard for sure about HDR and you definitely saw that your mobile phone has this option on your camera settings but the question is:

How to shoot HDR photographs with your DSLR? When you are photographing a scene with major differences in the dynamic range, you will have to change the exposure value of your DSLR camera capturing shots from underexposed to overexposed of the same scene and then stack them into Lightroom or Photoshop.

Let’s go a bit further and talk in detail about how to obtain HDR photographs with a DSLR camera, how to manage to shoot those scenes handheld and what can you do to improve your HDR results plus a few tips I recommend.

How to shoot HDR photographs with your DSLR

Blending multiple shots into an HDR image

Crossing a line here, I want to mention that High Dynamic Range can be achieved mostly with any type of camera, both in the camera or on post-processing software. But with a DSLR, it is mostly recommended to do this process in either Lightroom or Photoshop.

When you are photographing a scene where there are highlights spiking out the graphics, and the shadows become flat, it is more than necessary to create a high dynamic range image.

As an instance, you are trying to shoot a cityscape with the sun fading over the city or a sunset over the forest. The sun’s highlights are burned into a single photograph, and cannot be recovered. The ‘forest’ shadows are too dark to recover them, and even like that, you create noise on the image.

How to shoot HDR photographs with your DSLR

But trying to take two or more still photographs of the same scene, at least one underexposed and one overexposed, blending them in a software like Lightroom, will create a single HDR photo. The easiest way to evenly change the exposure is to use the exposure value of your DSLR as presented in the image above.

The next step would be to capture at least a few images, where the negative value of the underexposed image would be equal to the positive value, where zero will represent the normally exposed photograph. As an instance, if you capture your scene with an exposure value of -1, you will need your normal exposed value of 0 and another shoot with the exposure value of +1.

From the over-exposed photographs, Lightroom will grab the right exposed parts where with a normal 0 exposure these would be underexposed, and from the underexposed images, Lightroom will grab those highlights where with a normal 0 exposure value, these highlights would be over-exposed.

Merging those photographs in Lightroom or any other photo editing software which supports HDR blending will create a single image, picking what’s the best from each of them. It is like you are using pieces from multiple broken cars to fix a good one.

The thing is that there is no limit to how many photographs you can use to create an HDR image. Not as far as I am aware. In fact, 3 or 5 is a good recommended number of exposures. More images will increase the processing times and the possibility of minor errors to appear on the images (such as flying birds in different parts of your photographs, tree leaves moving, motion in general) but it would have a better advantage over more complex scenes.

HDR Photographs: Handheld vs tripod

It is well known that on a tripod the HDR images will have a better field of view due to the fact that once you set up your DSLR on a tripod and shoot multiple exposure values, you don’t move your DSLR and the scene will be framed the same way in each of the photographs.

But in the moment when you are capturing with your DSLR handheld multiple exposure values of the same scene, it is impossible to frame the same elements as you do it on a tripod due to body motions and movements, therefore, when you will blend your images, parts of the edges will be cropped automatically and only the areas which are a part of each photograph will be converted on the final HDR image.

A tip that I can give is to take your time and be very steady when you are photographing handheld and attempting to capture multiple exposure values of the same scene. Holding your breath will always work on stabilizing your camera and image a bit.

One another disadvantage of photographing handheld is that at the moment you are increasing the exposure value settings, the shutter speed will significantly drop in order to capture more light (or ISO will increase if this is set on auto). In darker scenes where you are okay with capturing handheld an underexposed or even a normal exposed image for your HDR photograph, an over-exposed can drop the shutter speed to a point impossible for you to capture handheld.

This is not an issue on a tripod due to the fact that you are able to take really long exposure (if this is the case) on a tripod, where, handheld, it will be difficult to drop the shutter speed below 1/50sec or 1/4sec if your lens has image stabilization. This always depends on the photographer, lens and focal length.

Why and when it is required to shoot in HDR?

As I have largely spoken earlier about, it is pretty much required to shoot in HDR scenes with a great difference in dynamic range, where there are too much light and too much shadow on the same image. Let’s take an alternative mode, shall we?

We are going to ignore the HDR a bit and have an image shoot against the sun of a building where the sun will look very bright and the side of the building facing you will look very dark. The camera sensor is not able to balance the extreme highlights and the shadows and although you are shooting in RAW, let’s get to the post-processing a bit.

When the highlights are spiking out of the graphs, they are burned into the image, therefore, although you attempt to decrease the highlights and white settings of your image, parts of the sky will darken indeed but the sun and possible the clouds will still have an over-exposed value. At the same time, you are boosting the shadows as the part of the building facing you is too dark. That increased shadow will add up noise image in order to recover. Your final result will still have a burned overexposed part on your image and a recovered dark with a noise image.

If instead of the above experiment we choose to shoot 5 images with 5 different exposures, one very dark, one dark, one nominal values, one bright and one very bright, blending them into Lightroom will transfer the best and nominal part of each photograph into a new one, therefore, the final image will have nominal values across all surface.

What type of photography would work the best with HDR?

There are many cases where you can use HDR but this is most used during sunsets, sunrises, landscapes, cityscapes, basically nearly everything with, as mentioned above, a great difference in dynamic range. It is kinda crucial that those scenes should be out of motion.

Tips when you are taking HDR photographs:

  • Make sure the photo you are taking is still, framing the same scene as accurately as possible with multiple exposures.
  • Take an odd number of pictures, with the main one right exposed (3,5,7,9)
  • Use the EV (exposure value) on your DSLR for creating an accurate exposure at your choice.
  • If your EV is set to 0 for the main photo and you take a picture with EV -1 make sure the third one is opposite, as EV +1
  • Depending on the scene, if there is a moving object taken between multiple exposures, whenever you create the HDR photograph in Lightroom (as an instance), play with de-ghosting for the best results.
  • If possible use a tripod. The use of a tripod is not necessary, but you capture the same scene as accurate, therefore when you are creating the final image in Lightroom (e.g.), to minimize the crop of the edges, related to the camera movement.
  • Use the manual mode on your camera if you can, to avoid the auto settings to change the scene exposures randomly when attempting to create an HDR photograph.

Ideas for High Dynamic Range Photographs

  • Try to do a panorama view taken with HDR photos. Same way as you do a panorama, but include multiple exposures for each part of the panoramic scene. Ensure that you are using the same EV settings and your camera is set on manual mode.
  • Attempt to create long exposures HDR. (example, the golden hour over the sea). Same scene, normal exposed, underexposed and overexposed captures. But attempt on creating long exposures of all photos, for an amazing piece of fine art.
  • Be creative. Think different. Explore and try to combine HDR photography with other styles of photographs.

Things NOT to do when taking HDR photographs:

  • Taking photos to a scene where are lots of people, or objects moving (a group of people, traffic, etc)
  • One of the photographs is out of focus or blurry! This can ruin your final image, even if the others are in focus and sharp
  • Taking the reference photograph other than the nominal exposure for the scene.
  • Underestimate the power of HDR photography.

All right my friends, thank you for checking this guide and I hope you find it helpful and educational. Hope to see you around, take care for now!

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HDR, or High Dynamic Range is a technique in photography to produce a great dynamic range of luminosity, which a camera sensor cannot capture in a single photograph.

Many photographers ignores the power of taking HDR photographs and in my personal and professional opinion, this should be more often used. Do you want to read more?