HDR photography – how does it work?

tuscany landscape with clouds and green rolling hills

Have you ever taken a photo of a sunset and the foreground was all black? Or if the foreground was’t too dark, maybe the sky was completely blown out?
Or maybe you took a photo of an interior and the surroundings that could be seen from the windows are all white? These are just a few occasions where HDR photography could be the answer.

Details in the foreground, but the sky is completely over exposed.
… or details in the sky, but now the foreground is almost black.

What is HDR photography?

High Dynamic Range photography is very popular and even with modern sensors still has it’s place. There are scenes with such a wide range of darks and lights that it is impossible to capture everything in one photo. You could of course expose for the highlights and make a photo, but now probably the blacks are really dark. If you would brighten the darks in post processing, you would create noise in these parts of the photo. So to increase the dynamic range of your photos, we will need to take more than one photo.

Exposure bracketing

The only way to capture the details in both the whites and the blacks is to use ‘exposure bracketing’. Most cameras can do this easily taking 2, 3, 5 or even 7 photos in quick sequence with different exposure ranging from under-exposed to over-exposed. A software like Adobe’s Lightroom, Photoshop or several other softwares can put these photos together. You then have a photo in which you have all the details in the dark parts as well as in the bright parts.
You should keep in mind that things that move like leafs on a tree or grass in the wind or water can make it more difficult to put the photos together in Lightroom or Photoshop. So you can’t apply this technique to any landscape.

HDR photography can be overdone easily, but used with care, it can result in beautiful photos full of details.
One should pay attention to a halo effect around dark edges touching the sky for example. Also the sky should not become crisp and overly sharpened. The sky in reality is soft…

HDR photography in practice

So, let’s have a look at an example. Here we were in Tuscany on our photo workshop in Val d’Orcia. It was a cloudy morning and even though the first sunlight did not create any direct light on the rolling hills, we were patient and waited. As you can see on this photo the sunlight broke through the clouds and created thee patches of bright light. This caused very light patches especially in the clouds, but also dark spots on the hills where the clouds made shadows. So I took three photos with each 2 stops apart. One underexposed (-2 Ev), one ‘correctly’ exposed (0 Ev) and one overexposed (+2 Ev). You can see the three photos together in the photo below.

Our landscape in Tuscany with three different exposures

In Lightroom you can select the three photos from your Library and right-click with your mouse. Now choose ‘Photo Merge’ --> ‘HDR…’

 

This is the result after merging the 3 files. You can see in the histogram that we have information from blacks to whites.

We now have a photo with a lot more information than we would have had with a single photo. The great thing about doing this in Lightroom is that when you shoot Raw files, the HDR file will be a .dng file (digital negative), so still a Raw file with all the info of the three single finles put together. It still looks a bit dark, but we haven’t edited it yet. I won’t show you the editing in this post, but the final result for me looks like this.

After some basic editing this is what the landscape looks like

I hope you feel inspired to try HDR photography now. It’s easy and in Lightroom you can obtain a natural result. One important thing I did not mention before is that you need a good tripod. It will be so much easier for Lightroom (or any other software you want you use) to stich the photos together if the camera didn’t move between the shots.

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