HDR photography

There are three main factors that influence the quality of a digital image. The resolution is probably the most common. How many megapixels is your camera? Then, we have the compression. If you compress an image to make a smaller file using the JPEG-system you will loose some quality.

The third factor is the so called dynamic range. Can you take care of the details in both the highlights and the shadows? Here’s an example. You have a scene where the sky is dramatic and interesting. But you also want some details on the ground. In the following image I adjusted for the sky. And as you can see the ground is only a silhouette.

So you need to let in more light. Open up the aperture or add some time to the exposure. Very nice scenery, but no dramatic sky. As the next image shows.

Seems like you can’t have it all. Or maybe you can? There are actually a couple of solutions. One of them is called HDR, or High Dynamic Range photography. To put it simple, you combine several exposures into one using some magic mathematics. And the good news is that you don’t need to understand much of the mathematics, there are several tools to make HDR images and you can use most digital cameras when shooting for HDR.

For the image in my example I actually shot three versions. One standard exposure, one with +2 stops and one with -2 stops. All the three exposures are loaded into the HDR software to make an image that will show both the dramatic sky and the forest.

What do you need?
When you’re out in the field you need a digital camera that let you manually adjust the exposure value and a tripod or something to support the camera. The three exposures need to be identical. Or at least nearly identical. Some of the HDR software out there will try to adjust if you have moved the camera slightly between exposures.

When you get back you need a computer and some HDR software. I am using Photomatix Pro. Available for both Mac and Windows. For Mac you can also try the free DRI maker. It doesn’t make true HDR images, but will help you with that difficult dynamic range by combining several images in a different way.

And if this quick introduction was interesting you can go further by having a look at the HDR group on Flickr. Lots of examples, tips and links.

Oyvind adds two good links to tutorials for HDR in Photoshop in the comments. One from luminous-landscape.com and one from backingwinds.

And you can have a look at some of the other HDR images I have made recently. These three are from the beautiful Røisheim Hotel in Bøverdalen in Norway.

HDR photography

46 thoughts on “HDR photography

  1. Very nice, Eirik. Have you noticed a quality difference between Photomatix trial and Pro? I d/l the trial on Mac and took some pictures around the yard with my S1 IS. I wasn’t very pleased with the results, unfortunately.

    Obviously, this could be due to poor subjects, poor photography, or poor manipulation of the software. Mostly, I wish I could have exported to JPG, even with a watermark, so I could have looked at the resulting photo outside of the Photomatix software. Unfortunately that option is disabled in the trial.

  2. eirikso says:

    I was pleased with the results from the trial version and bought a license number for Photomatix Pro.

    If you want you can publish the full resolution images on your blog, flickr or some place where I can download them and I can give it a try with the Pro version and send it back to you.

  3. eirikso says:

    Yes, I tried Photoshop as well. But I have an extremely low patience regarding software. If I can’t get any results after 5 minutes (without reading any manuals) I try something else. I truly love Photoshop and have been using it since version 2.5, but the HDR functionality didn’t give me any results after less than five minutes. So I tried something else. And that “something else” was Photomatix. And Photomatix did wonders after 3 minutes…

  4. When it comes to my camera FujiFilm FinePix S3000, I don’t have that many options (if any) in the setup. But does it work focusing on three different parts of the scenario/view that have different darkening levels, like this:
    1. photo with nearly/mostly dark colors.
    2. photo with “normal” colors.
    3. photo with much light.

    And then put them into Photomatix Pro. Have I got it?!!!

  5. eirikso says:

    You could get around the automatic exposure by doing something like that, but it would be very difficult to get the exact same framing on all the exposures.

    According to the tech specs for your camera there should be some manual control available:

    Exposure control 64-zone TTL metering Program AE (Exposure Comp. available in Manual Mode)
    Exposure modes Auto, Manual (Aperture Priority, Exposure Compensation)

    …I would have played around with the menus and tried to find the exposure compensation.

  6. eirikso says:

    Yes, I got that one, but didn’t really figure out the tone mapping and auto adjusting. That worked instantly with Photomatix.

  7. eirikso says:

    I don’t think I explained my experience with Photoshop very clear, but you’re right. Tried, but didn’t get the right results. The tutorials you link to are excellent. I have updated the post to include these links.

  8. I have read your excellent post. This is something I must try! One thing I am curious about is if this is suited for motives with a strong sky and a strong foreground or is it for landscapes in general. What is your experience?

  9. eirikso says:

    The method is best suited for scenes with a very high dynamic range. Like you mention strong sky AND foreground. Or, interior shots where you also want details of the stuff that’s outside the windows. Like this image:
    Jez's Kitchen - on the hottest day EVER

    …or the classic problem of the Norwegian winter. Details in both the white snow and the shadows…

  10. I know about about winter shots. They are difficult or impossible to achieve. Think about bringing your family and the photo equipment on the winter mountains. This calls for a guys tour with some beers and a lot of equipment on the cabin …. !

  11. eirikso:
    Exposure control 64-zone TTL metering Program AE (Exposure Comp. available in Manual Mode)
    Exposure modes Auto, Manual (Aperture Priority, Exposure Compensation)

    …I would have played around with the menus and tried to find the exposure compensation.


    Hey! Where did you find that? What does it mean? If you have time, could you explain it more? I have a wheel, where I can chose 1). “Auto” 2. “(Face of woman)” and 3. “Photo camera and a capital M” and a video camera function! Do I just take pictures with the wheel at different positions or do I have to go into the setup menu?

    You ar sutch a clever man!!!

  12. Uhmm… Had a long comment typed here, but didn’t fill in the email, when I clicked “Post it”, WordPress told me that email is mandatory and gave me no other option than to use the back-button in the browser. Guess what – the whole comment were gone, not a single character left – WAY TO GO WORDPRESS!

    In short: The interior HDR pictures on flickr has a “painted” and blur feeling to them, is this a result of HDR or chosen by the editor? Any good links to HDR samples with both result and originals?

  13. eirikso says:

    Unfortunately you’ll have to read about how to compensate the exposure in the manual of your camera. It’s impossible for me to know how it works. I would have tried the setting called “M”. And, I found the information about the options on your camera on steves-digicams.com

  14. eirikso says:


    About the lost comment
    That’s extremely irritating about your lost comment. I’ll see what I can do about it. At least I could clearly mark the fact that email is mandatory. Or, turn off the mandatory email all together…

    WordPress should include autosave on the comment fields as well… (It has this wonderful autosave on the articles…)

    I have experienced this on other blogs as well. When writing long comments I select all the text and copy it to the clipboard at regular intervals. That way I can hit “paste” when I get back after loosing the web page.

    About the HDR images
    I know what you mean by that “painted effect”. HDR very often tend to make images look like something from an adventure movie rather than a real piece of documentation.

    It depends on how you set up the software and adjust the different options.

    The “soft” effect is very often due do differences between the exposures. The software adjust some of the differences, but if you try to make HDR out of images that’s taken without the use of a very sturdy tripod you’ll often get that slightly soft effect.

  15. I have been reading your article about HDR photography with great interest and when trying this myself I had a problem that surely must hav a simple solution. I have a EOS350D Camera and I don’t know how to reduce and increase the stops. You say you have a standard exposure, one with -2 stops and one with +2 stops. But where do one adjust the stops??

  16. eirikso says:

    I am using the auto exposure bracketing on my 400D. I would guess that the 350D have the same function. When it is activated the camera snaps three images automatically when I hit the release button.

    You could also use full manual control or use the exposure adjustment available in P-, A- or T-mode. I don’t know the 350D good enough but if you look for exposure bracketing in your manual you’ll find it. According to the spec the 350D has this feature:

    “Auto exposure bracketing: -/+2 EV in 1/2 EV or 1/3 EV increments”

  17. Hi
    Interesting stuff, you and me both tend to cross areas of interest fairly often, no wonder I read your blog.
    Anyways, I’ve read a lot about HDR lately, but pratice is limited and was wondering: Have you tried creating HDR from a single RAW-shot (personally no Raw experience so far)?
    Under and over exposing RAW gives you the base you need, but HDR-puritans seems to frown on the idea.
    I have seen some ok results from this on flickr, and if would be so much easier to make the decision when you get home. Not to mention, no need for tripod.

  18. John Flemming says:

    I have a new Mac and an “old ” Nikon D70s. Thinking about buying new software and re-organizing. All this is strictly for my own enjoyment. I had a windows machine and a copy of photoshop cs3, but frankly I just never put enough time into the software to get the results I wanted.

    I am quite interested in the HDR photos I have seen. What would you suggest? Should I go with the new aperture 2.0 or re-invest in some flavor of photoshop? Does aperture adequately handle HDR photos?

    Thanks in advance for your advice!

    John Flemming

  19. I’ve been using Aperture 1.5 but abandoned it for Lightroom when it simply stopped handling my library of 60 000 images. Haven’t tried Aperture 2. As far as I understand it is way faster.

    As for HDR I think you’ll need Photomatix anyway. I don’t know of any native HDR support in either Aperture or Lightroom.

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