All about HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography

4 min read
HDR image of an European town buiildings separated by a canal

Photo by Meduana on Unsplash

What is HDR photography?

HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography is a technique used to capture a greater range of luminosity or brightness levels in a single image. It involves taking multiple photos of the same scene at different exposure levels, and then combining them into a single image that has a greater range of tones and details.

HDR photography is particularly useful when the scene contains both very bright and very dark areas, such as a landscape with a bright sky and dark shadows. Without HDR, a camera might struggle to capture both the sky and the shadows in the same image, resulting in a photo that is either overexposed or underexposed in certain areas.

By using HDR, the photographer can capture a series of photos that cover the full range of brightness levels in the scene, from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights.

HDR image of a building's exterior taken against a bright blue sky

Photo by Il Vagabiondo on Unsplash

These photos are then merged together using software, such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, to create a single image that displays the full range of detail and tonality. The resulting image can have a more vibrant and dynamic appearance compared to a single exposure photo.

How does it work?

HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography is a technique used to capture a greater range of brightness levels in a single image than a camera's sensor is capable of capturing in a single exposure.

When taking a photograph, the camera's sensor records the brightness values of the scene based on the exposure settings (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO). However, the range of brightness levels that can be captured in a single exposure is limited by the camera's dynamic range, which is the range of brightness levels that can be distinguished by the camera's sensor.

In contrast, the human eye can perceive a much wider range of brightness levels than a camera sensor can capture. This is why photographs can sometimes look dull or lacking in detail compared to the real-life scene they were taken from.

HDR photography addresses this limitation by capturing multiple exposures of the same scene at different exposure settings, ranging from underexposed to overexposed. For example, the photographer might take three or more shots, one that is properly exposed, one that is underexposed, and one that is overexposed.

The underexposed shot captures details in the bright areas of the scene, while the overexposed shot captures details in the dark areas. The properly exposed shot is used as a baseline reference to ensure that the final image has accurate colors and white balance.

A composite HDR shot made from two images - one underexposed and the other overexposed brough together for the HDR image

Once the multiple exposures have been taken, they are combined into a single image using specialized software, such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. The software aligns the images and selects the areas with the best exposure values to create a final image with a much wider dynamic range than a single exposure could achieve.

HDR photography can create images with greater detail and vibrancy, and can be especially useful in high-contrast scenes such as landscapes or interior shots with bright windows and dark interiors. However, it is important to use HDR judiciously as it can also result in an unnatural-looking or over-processed image if not applied properly.

How can I create an HDR image?

To create an HDR image, you will need the following:

  • A camera that allows you to adjust exposure settings manually
  • A tripod (recommended but not mandatory)
  • HDR software, such as Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, or specialized HDR software like Photomatix.

Here are the steps to create an HDR image:

Set up your camera on a tripod (if available) and frame the scene you want to capture. Set the camera to Manual mode and adjust the exposure settings to capture multiple exposures of the same scene at different brightness levels. You can use bracketing mode if your camera has one, or you can manually adjust the settings. Generally, you will want to take at least three exposures: one underexposed, one properly exposed, and one overexposed.

Take the multiple exposures, ensuring that the framing and focus remain consistent between shots.

Transfer the images to your computer and open the HDR software. Follow the software's instructions to merge the images into a single HDR image. In general, you will need to select the images you want to merge and adjust the tone mapping settings to your liking. Tone mapping is the process of compressing the dynamic range of the HDR image so that it can be displayed on a standard monitor or print. After merging the images, save the final HDR image to your computer.

Image of a person editing an image in Lightroom on his Macbook

Photo by Igor Lypnytskyi on Unsplash

Edit the HDR image in your preferred photo editing software to adjust the color, contrast, and other settings to your liking. You can also export the HDR image as a standard image file, such as JPEG or PNG, if you want to share or print it.

It's important to note that creating an HDR image can be a complex process, and the results will depend on the quality of the original images and the software used to merge and tone map them. It may take some experimentation and practice to achieve the desired results

What kind of subjects are best suited for HDR photography? What doesn’t work?

HDR photography can be used effectively in many different types of photography, but some subjects lend themselves better to the technique than others. Here are some examples of subjects that are well-suited to HDR photography:

  • Landscapes: HDR photography is ideal for capturing the full range of tones in a landscape, where the sky and foreground can have vastly different brightness levels. By combining multiple exposures, you can ensure that both the sky and foreground are properly exposed and that the details in each are visible.
HDR Image of an European beach-side town

Photo by Patrick Pahlke on Unsplash

  • Architecture: Buildings with a lot of detail or intricate designs can benefit from HDR photography, as the technique can capture the full range of tones in the shadows and highlights, bringing out details that might be lost in a single exposure.
  • Interior spaces: HDR photography can be useful when capturing interior spaces with bright windows or strong light sources. By combining multiple exposures, you can ensure that the details in the darker areas of the room are visible, without losing the details in the brighter areas.

On the other hand, some subjects are less suitable for HDR photography. For example:

  • Moving subjects: Since HDR photography involves capturing multiple exposures, it is not suitable for capturing moving subjects, such as people, animals, or vehicles, as the movement can cause ghosting or blurring in the final image
An over-saturated and over-sharpened badly executed HDR image of a man standing in front of a waterfall
  • Low-contrast scenes: If the scene you are capturing has a low contrast, with little difference between the brightest and darkest areas, HDR photography may not be necessary or effective, as there may not be enough detail to bring out in the shadows or highlights.
  • Portraits: HDR photography can be used in portrait photography, but it should be done subtly to avoid making the image look unnatural. It is best to use it only in situations where the lighting is particularly challenging, such as a backlit subject with a bright background.

How to shoot HDR photos on my phone?

Most modern smartphones have a built-in HDR mode that makes it easy to shoot HDR photos without any additional equipment or software. Here's how to shoot HDR photos on your phone:

Photo of a man holding an iphone and taking a photo
  • Open the camera app on your smartphone and go to the settings menu
  • Look for the HDR option and turn it on. Some phones may have an automatic HDR mode that turns on when the camera detects a high-contrast scene
  • Frame your shot and tap the shutter button to take the photo. Your phone will automatically capture multiple images at different exposure levels and combine them to create an HDR image
  • Wait for your phone to process the HDR image. This may take a few seconds, depending on your phone's processing power and the complexity of the scene
  • Once the image is processed, you can view it in your phone's photo gallery or share it on social media or messaging apps

If your phone doesn't have an HDR mode, you can still shoot HDR photos by taking multiple photos at different exposure levels and combining them in a third-party app.

Here's how:

  • Set your phone to manual mode or adjust the exposure settings manually. Most camera apps have a slider or button that allows you to adjust the exposure levels
  • Take at least three photos at different exposure levels. Make sure the framing and focus remain consistent between shots
  • Transfer the photos to your computer and use a third-party app to merge them into an HDR image. Some popular HDR apps for smartphones include Pro HDR X, HDR Camera, and Camera+
  • Edit the HDR image in your preferred photo editing app to adjust the color, contrast, and other settings to your liking

Note that shooting HDR photos on a phone may not produce the same level of detail and quality as using a dedicated camera and software. However, it's a quick and easy way to capture high-contrast scenes on the go.

How do I shoot HDR video?

Shooting HDR video requires a camera that is capable of capturing HDR content. Here are the steps to shoot HDR video:

  • Choose a camera that supports HDR video. Most modern cameras and smartphones have the capability to shoot HDR video
  • Make sure the camera is set to capture HDR video. The settings may vary depending on the camera, but generally, you should look for an option that allows you to shoot in HDR or log mode
  • Set the camera to record in the highest possible quality. This will ensure that you capture the most detail possible
  • Frame your shot and start recording. You can use a tripod or stabilizer to keep the camera steady
  • When editing your HDR video, make sure to use software that supports HDR content. This will allow you to edit and color grade the video to preserve the highlights and shadows
  • Export the final video in HDR format. The most common HDR video formats are HDR10, Dolby Vision, and HLG (Hybrid Log-Gamma)

Note that shooting HDR video requires a camera that supports it, and it may not be possible with all cameras or smartphones. Additionally, HDR video requires more processing power and storage space than regular video, so make sure your device can handle it. Finally, keep in mind that not all devices and screens support HDR playback, so your video may not look as intended on some devices.

What are some common mistakes made during HDR photography?

Here are some common mistakes that are made during HDR photography:

A badly executed HDR photo with ducks at a pond
  • Overusing HDR: One of the most common mistakes is to overuse HDR, resulting in images that look unrealistic and over-processed. It's important to use HDR sparingly and only when necessary to capture the full dynamic range of a scene
  • Using low-quality source images: HDR works by combining multiple images of different exposure levels, so it's important to use high-quality source images. If the source images are blurry or noisy, the final HDR image will also be blurry or noisy
  • Poor alignment: When shooting multiple images for HDR, it's important to keep the framing and focus consistent between shots. If the images are not properly aligned, the final HDR image may look distorted or blurred
  • Incorrect white balance: HDR images can exaggerate color shifts, so it's important to set the correct white balance before shooting. If the white balance is incorrect, the final HDR image may have unnatural color casts
  • Over-saturation: HDR images can be more colorful than normal images, but it's important to avoid over-saturating the colors. Over-saturated images can look unrealistic and distracting
Over-sharpened and over-saturated HDR landscape image
  • Over-sharpening: It's common to apply sharpening to images to enhance detail, but it's important to avoid over-sharpening HDR images. Over-sharpened images can look artificial and noisy
  • Inconsistent tone-mapping: Tone-mapping is the process of mapping the high dynamic range of the source images to the lower dynamic range of the final image. It's important to use consistent tone-mapping settings across all images to avoid unnatural variations in brightness and contrast

By avoiding these common mistakes, you can create HDR images that look natural and realistic, while still capturing the full dynamic range of the scene.

What are some of the best cameras that offer HDR photo and video capability?

There are many cameras that offer HDR photo and video capability, ranging from professional-level DSLRs to compact point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones. Here are some of the best cameras that offer HDR photo and video capability:

  • Sony a7R IV: This full-frame mirrorless camera has a wide dynamic range and can shoot 4K HDR video
  • Canon EOS R5: Another full-frame mirrorless camera, the EOS R5 offers 8K RAW video and HDR video capability
  • Nikon Z7 II: This full-frame mirrorless camera can shoot 4K HDR video and has a dynamic range of up to 14 stops
  • Panasonic Lumix GH5: A popular camera for video production, the GH5 can shoot 4K HDR video and has advanced image stabilization
  • iPhone 14 Pro: Apple's flagship smartphone has a triple-camera setup that can capture HDR photos and Dolby Vision HDR video
  • Google Pixel 7: Google's latest smartphone has a Night Sight mode that combines multiple exposures to create HDR photos, and it can shoot 4K HDR video
  • DJI Mavic 2 Pro: This drone camera can shoot 4K HDR video and has a Hasselblad camera with a 1-inch sensor

These are just a few examples of cameras that offer HDR photo and video capability. When choosing a camera, consider your budget, shooting needs, and preferred features to find the best camera for you.