Psst….heard about HDR ?

HDR – The bare minimum.

Hi. I am Vishal Tomar and welcome to my guide to HDR photography. Here I would cover, as the name suggests, the bare minimum you need to know to get started with HDR photography.

If you are still confused that what the heck is this HDR, I am talking about, then I am glad that you have hit the right spot in the big wide cyberspace of today. Already happen to know about HDR ? then ..well come on, say with me “HDR stands for High Dynamic Range” Photography. say that 5 times…well done !

Now, all of us have come across (especially as beginner photographers) images that are rich and vibrant with colors and full of minute details and textures. At times they look surreal and defy the basic laws of light and its interaction with its surroundings. But they are visually pleasing and evoke a strong sense of emotion. Such are the pictures I am talking about, When referring to HDR photography. Here are a few examples :

A little about why HDR is so very popular these days:

Its surprising to know that HDR is not a new concept at all. We have a long long..really long relationship with it, without ever realizing. Yes, the best dynamic range one can find is in the best camera provided to us by Mother Nature, our two eyes. Dynamic Range basically means the ability to differentiate a wide variety of shades of a particular color (I include black and white when I say color). Our eyes do it perfectly, setting a bench mark which we are still to achieve (as far as I know) with all the digital/analogue photographic equipment we have created till date.

Surprisingly early film cameras and glass lenses provide a dynamic range matched only by pro level digital camera and lenses these days. For most of us, mid range or beginner level DSLRs or Point and Shoot users, getting a rich and vibrant photograph is still an extra effort over and above the ‘simple’ ‘little’ challenges of photo making. To me HDR is still a compensatory way of achieving what our retina have been doing since we first opened our eyes(talk of beating eyes in its own game huh!! ). In that search for perfection HDR has now become a separate genre of photography.

The comparison between dynamic range of human eye and a camera, shown above

Then why didn’t HDR become popular back then ? because it was very costly and difficult and less fruitful and less viable to control dynamic range back in the film camera era. Now with the gamut of digital tools available for photo making every computer has become a virtual dark room/studio where even uummm.. Dino (my pet dinosaur) can experiment with 😉

Lets rock n roll :

The must haves :

1.Any, and I mean any digital camera (with ability to change exposure settings..hunting for the manual already..!! )

2. A tripod.

3.Photomatix pro software (I personally use this, by far the best, though many others are available on the net )

4. Photoshop cs 3/5 (Ps lightroom/Ps elements/Aperture/GIMP but I have experience using Photoshop, hence recommended )

For the luxurious few :

1.A cable shutter release.

2. Neutral density filters

3.A wide aperture lens.

4. A swim-suite model (you are now a photographer, remember 😉

5. Lots of cash to lengthen this list 😉

Step 1: Setting the scene.

Many people ask me that what kind of camera do I use, but none ever sees that photography starts first with your eyes observing and the mind analyzing before you uncap the lens. So, for good HDRs we need a subject rich in colors and details with lots of tonal variations (best examples are landscapes, cityscapes, waterscapes, junk yards, farms, colorful vehicles, reflective surfaces, low key lit areas, etc. Portraits don’t look great in HDRs, unless its your childhood bully you wana photograph )

This picture is going to be our work horse for today. It is a good choice because of a wide range of highlights and shadows seen in the landscape, good for HDR.

Step 2: Know your gear.

Now, in order to get our HDR made we would need at least three different photographs taken at different exposure settings, viz +2 0 -2. It is best if you have a mid range DSLR since you might get this function automated, known as exposure bracketing, or if you have a simple point and shoot, worry not, we can manually change setting each time for each photo (for which you will need a tripod to steady the camera)

This is the automatic exposure bracketing seen in DSLRs these days, however we can also click each picture separately.

Step 3 : Click click click.

Now for each exposure compensation setting click one picture. It is very important that all the pictures should exactly coincide upon each other since we are going to superimpose them one upon each other later. If the pictures don’t match properly then the final photo will not look good. So all the photos for different EV values have to..I repeat ‘have to’ be exactly the same.

At ‘0’ EV (Exposure compensation Value) – for neutral tones (The normal picture)

At ‘+2’ EV – for highlights. (The brighter picture )

At ‘-2’ EV – for the shadows. (The darker picture )

So far, your field work is done. Now its time to head to your computer/s and make the magic happen.

Step 4: Photomatix at work.

Above is the main screen of photomatix which you will see when you first open the software. You have to drag all the three or more files into the big grey area you see on the screen.

Photomatix does not understand raw format of cameras, at least .CR2 files from my canon. Hence I would suggest you to change you files into .TIFF/.jpg format. Now, you have to load all the three pictures you clicked together at once into the software.

Having done that you have to click on ‘Generate HDR image’ to get started.

On the following window, these are the settings I commonly use.

Now wait say the magic words…..HDR…HDRR…HDRRR… HDRRRRR..and presto..!! you HDR is ready.!!

Or is it .? you sure were not dreaming of the swim suite model and you when I asked you to say the magic words.. 😉 don’t worry….that ugly picture brings us to our next step.

Step 5 : Tonemapping.

This is step basically gives more or less the final look to you photograph. You make it look artificial, natural, grainy, smooth, bright, dark, saturated, unsaturated..etc etc. A good starting point is to use the preset setting like ‘grunge’ ‘natural’ etc given at the bottom menu and build upon it to suit you taste.

A you can see on the left panel are many sliders. Each of them deals with different properties of you photograph for e.g temperature, saturation, smoothness, brightness, shadows, highlights, etc etc. There are no rules or formulae as to what setting will give you the best picture hence feel free to play around with them.

Step 6 : saving the image and polishing in Photoshop.

as seen above, we can save the picture where ever we like and open it in Photoshop automatically.

After some finishing moves in photoshop ( Here i changed the temperature, saturation and contrast of the picture mainly ) you will end up with a great image.

As mostly HDRs will take you to heavenly landscapes, it is best if you also read a bit about green photography once done with this tutorial.

Here is the final photo and some more of my favorite HDR photogpraphs.

Thanks for visiting. i would be glad to know if you found the above information useful and discuss any topics about the same.

11 responses »

  1. Just Perfect…cool article !

  2. Finally i understood the way…only one quest. i have a Nikon D3000 n it lacks in exp bracketing. So should i keep my camera on Aperture mode n shift exp??

  3. It is not only informative, helpful and productive article but you’ve imbibe humor too which is keeping reader keen on reading further 🙂 ..right flow of information from start till end with good example ..absolutely fantastic ..thanks a ton for sharing it 🙂 ..keep it up!

  4. it is really Cool…thanks Vishal for that

  5. Hey i am Jus Speechless….

  6. thanks all..don’t forget to checkout the link about ‘eco friendly photography’ ..bravoo…!! have fun

  7. Aalaap Yogendra Jawadekar

    Hey thanx for that! Im ready with a camera in my hands to try this out!

  8. But how do we take photos in hdr of say, moving objects like the train in the third pic? The train is sure not going to wait till i change the aperture settings for each photo.

    But in general the information and techniques are awesome! Thx!

    • HDRs for moving objects will generally get the object becoming blurred which actually looks very nice. or else you may need a really fast lens for focusing and clicking at high speed. changing the aperture settings would not be a problem because most of the DSLRs today have the auto bracketing function as shown in the picture above.

      glad you liked the post..thanks, keep coming..!!


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