Manually Blended HDR

A photograph represents an artist’s vision. The vision of HDR photography is often associated with highly saturated and unrealistically texturised images.  I like to think of HDR in more literal terms. ‘High Dynamic Range’ is a term for a technique which is used to overcome the current dynamic range limitations of modern DSLR sensors.  By using these techniques, detail can be captured from highlights and shadows which would otherwise be impossible from one exposure.  It helps me fulfil my photographic vision.

I feel that HDR is a technique which should be explored and developed after a photographer is already comfortable with the basics of photography, such as composition, and using the elements of the exposure triangle (shutter speed, iso and aperture).  The risk of using HDR (and automated software in particular) before the basics are acquired is that the final product may represent a software style and not the evolving personal style of the photographer.  For this main reason, I usually choose to manually blend exposures though sometimes, elements of a software produced image can be pleasing.  I do not have a strong preference for one particular program over another.  I shy away from debates regarding filter use vs blending, and manual vs automated blending. I would advise that the photographer learns all of these techniques and with experience, chooses which one(s) suit the image being produced.

Most people associate HDR photography with post processing whereas in fact, the success of HDR images mainly stems from the way the image is captured in the field. These are some tips regarding the ‘field’ work of multiple exposure blending.

–          Do not refrain from using filters (GNDs and NDs) as part of way to capture more dynamic range. You may ask , ‘why use filters when I could just take even more exposures?’ Firstly, I find myself ‘lazy’ in that if a scene is captured in one frame, it cuts down post processing time significantly. Secondly, filters can help you achieve a shutter speed which would not be possible if the frames were captured without filters.

Lake Mackenzie – 4 exposures using a 4 stop soft edged GND. They were merged manually and I also generated a photomatix ‘exposure fusion’ image and incorporated some aspects of that image into the final result.

–          Use the histogram to judge how many exposures you need. When taking multiple exposures, it is important to isolate your examination of an image to the area of interest. In your darkest exposures, only the brights of the image (sky for example) should be exposed correctly hence the histogram should be bunched to the left entirely. In your brightest exposures, only the shadowed areas of the scene should be exposed for correctly meaning that the histogram should be bunched to the right entirely.  How many exposures you require for a scene depends on how ‘wide’ you bracket your exposures. I prefer to bracket manually with no more than 1-2 stops apart for each frame. This might mean that I capture 6 or more images in a particularly contrasting scene (eg shooting into a sunset). Take as many images as you need to and for the most control, do it manually. Remember that most of these bracketed images will look awful as standalone images so resist using the ‘delete’ button.

–          Remember to vary not only shutter speed to achieve the desired exposure but also consider aperture and iso. Certain images such as seascapes may benefit from a very long exposure in the sky with streaking clouds. For this, a low iso , narrow aperture and possibly a neutral density filter could be used. For artistic interpretation of waves a shorter shutter speed may be required. This could be achieved by an increase in iso or a wider aperture for a given shutter speed when light is low and fading with dusk.  In this instance, increasing the shutter speed alone to achieve the correct exposure will limit your creativity significantly.

–          Use a tripod to capture the images where possible. This cuts down on the need to align the images in post processing if you are attempting a manual blend.

–          In order to achieve the results which I desire, I often find it a good exercise to visualise the end result before worrying about the technicalities which will help me recreate this mental image. Most of all, this process takes practice so be prepared for many unsuccessful attempts!

Before entering the stage of post processing the images, it is once again helpful to have a mental image of the desired end result. Sometimes, by chance, automated blending can result in the image you desire but I find this an extremely rare occurrence. These are some areas of my workflow for manual exposure blending.

–          Using luminosity masks and layers is something I have found helpful and I give credit to the very useful resource Tony Kuyper has made available online.

–          The masks created from this process delineate areas of the image with varying degrees of ‘brights’ and ‘darks’. I select the most neutrally exposed image in a series of exposures (+0EV) and create the luminosity masks from this image. I add a layer to the image using an exposure  of the scene which is overexposed (eg +2EV)and therefore has all shadows in the image correctly exposed.  With this new layer highlighted, I apply the layer mask which delineates ‘darks’ in the scene  which will then reveal appropriately exposed shadows . I then add another layer to the image using an exposure of the scene which is underexposed (eg -2EV) and apply the layer masks which delineates  ‘brights’ in the scene which will then provide  appropriately exposed highlights.

Kirkjufell, Iceland -manual blend of 3 exposures

–          It is important to review the results of these masks and adjust the masks manually with a brush set at low opacity to achieve the smoothest results.  Take care not to introduce any halos into the scene when doing this.

–          Once I am happy with the blending process itself, I will often end up with an image which has a very ‘flat’ tonal curve, lacking in contrast and comprising predominantly of midtones. I would therefore recommend that this blended image is the starting point for further post processing.  This includes adjusting individual colours, contrast enhancements and sharpening.

Why go to all this effort to produce an image? As time goes on, an evolving photographer develops an increasing skillset of capture techniques as well as post processing routines.  All of these aspects of photography open a world of endless possibilities to achieve a satisfying end result. The process of using HDR techniques is simply one of those many means to bring reality to a vision.

We (Dylan Toh and Marianne Lim) are both self-taught amateur photographers who are based in Adelaide , South Australia. Our love of photography grew from a desire to capture lasting impressions of our travels. As working professionals, we rely on photography to escape the routines of the working week. We hope to convey a sense of awe, mood and appreciation through our photographs. We are ever in search of that one perfect moment, that one perfect scene which will give us that one perfect photograph. Walking that path will hopefully give us many more opportunities in the future to capture and share these scenes.



  • Kerry

    OMG!!!!!!!!!!1 You guys are amazing. If my pics can look like that one day, I’ll be a very happy photographer!

  • Dylan Toh

    Thanks Kerry ;) Thanks also to Jimmy for giving us the opportunity to write this piece!

  • Gregg

    Been reading HDR One for months now love every article but this is my favourite.

  • Neil

    Great article Dylan

  • Adrian Evans

    Thank you for all the good info :)