7 Tips for better HDR photos

Article by Ben Fewtrell

1. Shoot with HDR in mind. Whilst I am a HUGE fan of HDR, there is a time and a place for it. There are certain times of day and some subjects that just don’t work that well in HDR. I usually look at a scene and make a decision as I stand there, usually based on the contrast between light and dark and make a decision before I hit the shutter button whether or not I am going to create a HDR image.

Then there are times I am not sure, so I will shoot several exposures just in case. Sometimes it is easier to stretch one RAW file than it is to work with several exposures to get the look I am after. For me, if I am shooting directly into the sun I will usually use HDR to make sure I get the entire dynamic range. The more HDR you shoot the more you will get a feel for when you should (or shouldn’t) use HDR, keeping in mind that it is free to shoot your bracketed exposures and choose later whether to use them all or not.

Avoid using HDR when shooting people as it does nasty things to skin tones.

2. Use a Tripod. I guess it goes without saying that this does not just apply to HDR, but when shooting HDR it certainly helps if you have all your bracketed shots aligned by using a tripod. Yes, pretty much every HDR software has the ability to ‘align’ your images for you, but this takes extra time and sometimes it doesn’t work 100%.

Another great benefit of using a tripod is that for your +2ev exposure, your camera will want to use a slower shutter speed making it harder to maintain a sharp image.

And finally, I also find that using a tripod makes me take my time and think more about my composition resulting is a better image.

3. Use Photoshop. One of the reasons HDR is controversial is the fact that some of it just looks horrible. HDR software does a great job and gets your image 75% of the way to looking great, but you will need to use something like photoshop to clean it up.

Typically HDR will make whites look grey, your nice blue skies will become dirty and you may end up with halos around areas of high contrast. It may seem daunting to use Photoshop, you just need to understand how to use layer masks to get much better results than just HDR software on it’s own.

Be patient and take your time and you will be surprised how easy it is to use Photoshop or similar to make the needed corrections to your images. Once again this doesn’t just apply to HDR, being able to use layer masks will help you in a lot of other circumstances too!

4. Take several ‘sets’ of exposure. If you’re in a situation where things are moving in your frame (waves, cars, people etc) take several sets of your bracketed shots.

This allows you to choose what images to use later if you want the moving subjects to be in a certain position. It can also be a great way to capture the changing light, you can then go through them and pick your favorites to process.

5. Use high ISO to freeze motion. One of the tricks I use If I am in a situation where things are moving in my frame (waves, cars, people etc), to make sure I get a sharp image of the moving subjects, after I have shot my bracketed exposures, I will increase my ISO and this will speed up my shutter, then take a single exposure (properly exposed) allowing me to catch the movement where I want it and without blur.

Doing this allows me to use layer masking to replace ghosted parts of my image with these sharper images, being careful only to mask in the areas I need as they will be noisier due to the high ISO settings.

6. Use low ISO to reduce noise. I would rather decrease my depth of field than increase noise, in particular, with HDR processing in mind. In some situations you would increase ISO, but if you’re shooting on a tripod, my mantra is ‘Go Low on the ISO’. This will reduce the amount of noise in your final image. Even if your camera is excellent at higher ISO settings you will find that HDR is going to bring out the noise more than you imagined!

7. HDR won’t fix a bad Photo. Remember that you still need to make a great photo, shoot at a time of day when the light is more appealing and make sure you take your time and compose your shot to draw the viewer in.

Ben Fewtrell is based in Sydney, Australia and has been a keen photographer since the 1990’s. He fell in love with HDR in early 2012 and now processes 95% of his images this way. His main interest is landscape photography and most mornings you will find Ben with his Nikon D800 on the coast of Sydney waiting for the sun to rise… you can find him at www.facebook.com/on3legs or follow his blog www.on3legs.com

Ben also has a free HDR ebook available: http://onthreelegs.com/learn/free-ebooks/

  • http://twitter.com/matthewbamberg Matthew Bamberg

    Also, try HDR indoors. Some of those shots are way cool.