HDR for people who can’t read good

High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is gaining popularity as tools for layering multiple exposures become more available and easier to use.

Borrowing a line out of the movie Zoolander – here is a quick tutorial on how to make HDR images for people “who can’t read good and wanna learn to do other stuff good too.”

OK, you’re going to have to do a little reading, but I guarantee you’ll get good at other stuff by doing so!

HDR imaging is basically the process of layering multiple images – including overexposed and underexposed frames – into one image that displays a wider dynamic range (visible exposure scale) than one exposure can.

In short, combining images in this way allows you to display the deepest blacks while maintaining shadow detail and not blowing out highlights. The process isn’t perfect, and some of the results look “fake” because our eye isn’t used to seeing images in this way, but with less dramatic subjects (my subject below, a church interior) the subtle differences are pretty cool!

1. Download or purchase a HDR tool.

There are some really good free ones. I like Luminance HDR. It is available for Mac, PC and Linux so should have you covered. Commercial HDR software choices are topped by Photomatix HDRsoft and NIC HDR EFEX Pro. HDR tools are also built into more recent versions of Photoshop – though Luminance HDR, Photomatix and NIC have more advanced algorithms (for now…)

2. Mount your camera on a stable tripod and take 3 or more bracketed shots of the same scene in rapid sequence.

Most cameras today, even many point-and-shoot models, come with a “bracketing” mode. This is where you tell the camera to take an odd number of images (3,5,7,9) with an exposure offset on either side of the base exposure.

You can do it manually too, but make sure you only change shutter speed to alter the exposure or your depth-of-field will look funny due to changes in the aperture.

Here is a five image sequence from a recent shoot.

Base: 1/30 @ f8, +1: 1/15 @ f8, +2: 1/8 @ f8, -1: 1/60 @ f8, -2: 1/125 @ f8

In my experience, it seems best to stick with three or five fairly wide latitude exposures (2/3 to 1 stop difference per image) rather than trying to mesh 7 or 9 or 11 images. Fewer images provide cleaner output no matter what software you use.

3. Color correct and output your images.

I find it easier to color correct my initial files – that way I can set the same color temperature (using Lightroom, etc.) across all the images. Much easier than possibly mixing various color temperatures and trying to correct it in the final output.

Once you’ve set the color temperature and hue the same for each image, output them as TIFF or full-size uncompressed 300dpi JPGs. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t crop or resize these output files – they won’t line up if you do.

4. Import the output images into your HDR program.

Each program mentioned above has the ability to import all the sequenced images with one selection. There are various options on all the programs – what gamma setting to use, the ability to override exposure for each frame, luminance/midrange adjustments.

For now, let the program import the images and automatically arrange them.

Bada-bing-bada-boom – a HDR image.

You’ll need to save the image and possibly edit the details – contrast, sharpness and maybe brightness – in the final image, but most of the “automatic” settings are pretty good.

Here are my church examples (all using Luminance HDR on a Mac, automatic settings…)


Notice the shadow detail and luminance corrections on the altar.


Overall, a great luminance boost to this long exposure of a baptismal font.


Another nice shift in the luminance of the altar. What I really noticed in this HDR image, as compared to any of its original images, was how wide a range of tones is being showed. Really cool to see the shadow detail of the back of the pews in addition to the bright altar and dimly lit facing side of the baptismal font.

Again, not as dramatic as some of the amazing outdoor/landscape HDR images I’ve seen, but for my purposes (not being a landscape photographer) I still think the results are great.

Give it a try and let me know your results!