5 Things I wish I knew when I started HDR

1)      It’s about light, not color

When you start with HDR, one of the first things you notice is that all of a sudden, you are getting some incredible colors and high saturation levels.  It can be inspiring and interesting, and in a lot of cases I’ve seen folks getting carried away with it (myself included!).  I’m a big color guy at heart, anyways, so this one I struggled with.  It’s easy to push those sliders, but be careful because otherwise you may end up with what I have seen referred to as “clown vomit”.  Very descriptive.

But I believe it was Trey Ratcliff that once said “HDR is about light, not color” and his words are so true.  The real reason people normally shoot HDR is to balance out light in a scene where it isn’t balanced.  So keep that in mind and watch your saturation levels.  Nothing wrong with big bright, saturated white bouncy castle colors – and it depends on what you are trying to achieve with the shot, because this is art after all – but just remember to keep those saturation levels in check if you are trying to appeal to a wider audience.  Not too many folks enjoy clown vomit – not even clown mothers!

2)      Photomatix is the first step, not the only step

I made reference to this in my last article.  When I started HDR, I went straight to Photomatix, expecting my shots to come out of that product looking great.  Sadly, they didn’t and I was disappointed.  I saw all these other great HDR photos out there, and could not possibly understand how they were getting Photomatix to product those results.  Well here’s the answer: they weren’t.

Somehow I missed the memo about creating the HDR in Photomatix, but then finishing it elsewhere.  There are a million choices for what to do after you create your HDR in Photomatix (or whatever software you use for HDR creation) and if you ask 10 HDR photographers, you will likely get 10 different answers about what they like to do next.

Personally, I use Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro and Topaz Adjust quite a bit, as well as Aperture.  Lots of folks use Photoshop or Lightroom, or both.  Many use onOne Software’s products.  Bottom line – it doesn’t really matter, but just don’t stop at Photomatix because there is always a bit more to do.  Experiment and see what works for you.

3)      Take more shots per HDR

This is another one of those situations where you will get different responses to the question of how many shots are in each bracket.  In my case, I normally shoot 7 exposures per bracket (and all 1 stop apart), unless the light dictates that I don’t need that much (or need more) or if I am shooting handheld for some reason (my arms are not exactly capable of being still for 7 exposures).  Keep in mind this is a personal preference, and I know lots of folks that shoot just 3 exposures per bracket and their HDR work is fabulous.

When I first began, I normally shot 3 exposures, 2 stops apart (so it was -2, 0 +2 normally).  It worked fine for me for a while, but the more I experimented, the more I realized that I could get better results if I shot 1 stop apart and more frames per bracket.  Making the jump to 1 stop apart made a big difference in my opinion, and having more exposures to work with just gave me a greater range of light to work with.  So nowadays it’s usually -3 to +3, but not always, because…..

4)      You shouldn’t always center your brackets

This is another personal preference that I learned through experimentation.  The traditional approach is to shoot 3 or 5 frames per bracket, which means either -2, -1, 0, +1, +2 if shooting 5 frames or just -2, 0, +2 if shooting three.

But sometimes a scene is fairly bright and you don’t want that long, bright exposure just being a big white mess.  So, often times I dial down the brackets and start with -4, which after 7 exposures ends my set at +2.  That way my darkest exposure gives me a somewhat darker sky too (which seems to balance out the light in sky well against the really bright exposures) and the brightest one is only -2 so it’s not a total waste.  I have even shot brackets starting at -5 if the scene is really bright.  Just experiment and see what works for you – plus it’s fun as hell!

5)      Find your own best methods

HDR is, in relative terms, still pretty new and there is a lot of interest in this type of photography.  It is growing fast in popularity and there are a lot of folks joining in the fun, which is great.  And like anything else, everyone has their own way of doing things, which is also cool.  When I started, I read a lot of blogs and tutorials, and tried to follow along with everyone’s ideas, but it got to where I felt like I was doing “their version” of my photos and not my own.  So with some experimentation and practice, I have sort of fallen into my own methods for shooting and processing HDR.

I think it’s great that you can make your own path in terms of how your process your shots.  There are no rules.   There is no “right” way to process your shots.  Just like any other art form, it is a type of self-expression so find your own best methods, and if you discover something that seems new and interesting, don’t hesitate to share, as we are all learning as we go!

Jim Nix is a photographer, traveler, HDR enthusiast, explorer, iPhone shooter, and tea drinker based in Austin, TX. He shares his photos and travel experiences on his blog at http://www.nomadicpursuits.com/

Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/NomadicPursuits

  • Paul Mack

    I can say with conviction that loading exposures with a 1 ev spacing into Photomatix will yield a better,and smoother,result.All the pitfalls of tonemapping(halos etc)become less of an issue.Owning a Canon only gives me the option of 3 exposures at a time,so what I usually do to overcome this shortcoming,is I adjust for ev in Adobe Raw.I will then end up with either 5 or 7 exposures (depending on the light dynamics) spaced 1 ev apart :-)

  • http://mikehardisty.wordpress.com/ Mike Hardisty

    I used to try and get the same effect as some of the great HDR photographers by following their tutorials and putting the same settings into PhotoMatix as them. Then one day I woke up. I don’t want to emulate them. I want to be me. I don’t even use PhotoMatix these days, instead preferring Machinery HDR. One thing I will agree with. The HDR process is not the end, it’s only the beginning…..

  • http://twitter.com/matmaxx Matthias Weigel

    Totally agree with you – especially #1 and #2 are soooo true.

  • Jim Nix

    thanks everyone!