HDR Photography Tutorial

I was recently asked to create an HDR photography tutorial, so here it is!  I know some people are familiar with what HDR photography is, but very few are completely sure how to create an HDR photograph outside of their iPhone.  Allow me to demystify the art of High Dynamic Range photography.

HDR photographs are created by taking a series of multiple exposures (typically three, but can be more) and merging them together to create one final image with a large dynamic range.  The technique used to take these photographs is known as exposure bracketing.  The photographs taken are typically one at the proper exposure (0 EV), one that is two stops* underexposed (-2 EV), and one that is two stops overexposed (+2 EV).  What this does is allows you to capture darkest and brightest aspect of your subject and bring them out when we process them later.

[note_box]NOTE: A stop is a measure of exposure value (EV).  I would go more into what exactly EV is and how it is calculated, but nobody wants to get into logarithmic scales right now; we’re here to make cool photos! :)[/note_box]

Now that you have a background on what exactly HDR photographs are and the techniques behind making them, let’s start creating them!

Step 1)

The first step is to take the actual photographs.  To do this, you are going to need to set the auto exposure bracketing settings on your camera.  Most cameras do it a little differently, but here are the steps to do it on most Canon cameras:

  • Press the menu button and go through the red tabs until you find  [Expo. Comp./AEB] and select it.
  • Use the main dial (the clicking one by the shutter button) to select the amount you want your exposures to be bracketed.
  • Exit the menus and there should be a symbol on the LCD panel (on top of camera, not LCD screen) that indicates you are taking bracketed exposures.
  • Take photos.

For the Nikon users out there: I’m sorry you’re still using a Nikon 😉  But here is a video tutorial on exposure bracketing on a Nikon:

[youtube_video id="dK1TFi33O8A"]

Step 2)

Once you have a set of photos that you like, load them onto your computer and open Adobe Photoshop.  Make sure you remember the exact location where you import your images, you’ll need to navigate to them soon.

[note_box]NOTE: I like to keep a folder inside of my Photography folder titled ‘HDR Exposures’ where I store my bracketed exposures until I am done merging and editing them. This allows me to always know where to go for my exposures and I don’t have to search through my entire import to find them if I have been taking a lot of photos.[/note_box]

Step 3)

In Photoshop, go to File > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro.  When prompted with the dialogue box, click “Browse…” and locate your images and import all three by selecting the first image and holding down the shift key and selecting the last.  After that, click OK in the dialogue box and Photoshop will begin to process the images.

Step 4)

Once Photoshop has processed the image, you will see the merged image appear in a window.  From here, you are able to adjust the settings of your HDR image.  If you didn’t use a tripod for your images, you may need to click the “Remove Ghosting” box at the top of the setting pane.  This will attempt to get rid of the areas where the image may not match up exactly due to camera shake.

[download_box]TIP: Try playing around with the strength and radius setting to see the different type of ‘halo’ effects that you get on the more contrasted areas of your photos. Clouds are great subjects to test the settings of an HDR photograph.[/download_box]

Step 5)

If you are happy with the results of you photo, press OK and your photo will open in a normal Photoshop canvas.  From here, you can choose to add adjustment layers, add graphics to it, or anything else that you want to do to make your photo look neat!

[note_box]NOTE: SAVE OFTEN!!!! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people tell me they had an awesome edit going, but then Photoshop crashed, their computer died, or something else happened and they hadn’t saved their file yet. I’ve made it a natural reaction to save after doing just about anything to my photo. I find myself pressing CMD + S (CTRL + S on PC) when I’m in a finder window just because I’m used to saving so often. There is no worse feeling than losing a file you’ve put a lot of thought into editing because you don’t save. SAVE, SAVE, AND SAVE AGAIN![/note_box]

This is my final image created with HDR Pro

Alternatives to HDR Pro

Personally, I’m not a big fan of the Photoshop HDR processing software.  It lacks a lot of things that plug-ins can offer to HDR photographers.  I use Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro to merge and process all of my HDR photographs, and I have found it to be my favorite plug-in after trying many others on the market.  It gives me the freedom to do anything I want to the photos and the presets are truly incredible.  If you’re looking for a great HDR processing plug-in, I’d highly suggest HDR Efex Pro!

The End!  Thanks for taking the time to read my tutorial and I hope I helped you better understand HDR Photography.  If you enjoyed the tutorial, please send it on to friends, share it on your social media accounts, or just shoot me an email and let me know what you thought.  I take requests for any tutorial, so feel free to ask me for help if you want to learn about anything photo(shop)graphy, audio, or video!

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