Introduction to HDR Photography

This introduction was written by Curt Fleenor, a regular contributor at HDR One.

My name is Curt Fleenor and I love creating HDR images. In this article, I’m going to layout some of the things that you need to know when getting started with HDR photography. First let me give you a little background on how I came into this art form.

I became interested in HDR a little over 3 years ago. I had just began shooting again and was struggling with the whole digital experience. I was seeing amazing work everywhere and just couldn’t understand how people were doing it. Then I discovered the work of Brian Mataish and Trey Ratcliff. Their sites were full of fantastic works and loaded with information on how I could do the same thing.

Months of experimenting and learning the ropes followed. Along the way I have met some amazing photographers who were willing to share their tips and tricks. Now it’s my turn to return the favor and share what I have learned with the rest of the HDR community.

What do I need to begin shooting HDR?

Truthfully, the only thing you really need to get started is a digital camera that allows you to shoot the same scene at different exposures in quick succession and some software to combine those exposures. A tripod and remote shutter release will come in handy and make processing worlds easier but they are not absolutely necessary. There are plenty of great images that have been created completely handheld.

Most DSLR cameras have this Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) function built right into them. Canon systems allow you to bracket to 3 exposures at a time while Nikon allows for 9 different exposures. Canon users can still get 9 brackets, it’s a manual process and fairly easy.

How many exposures do I really need?

There are few questions that spark heated discussion within the HDR world this one is one of them. The simple answer is that depends on the scene. A scene with little range of light and color may only require 3 exposures while a more dynamic scene like a sunrise or sunset may require more. In the end it really comes down to personal preference and what you feel is necessary. Personally, I typically shoot only 3 brackets. If I’m shooting directly into the sun or an overly bright sky then I go for more.

Should I shoot in JPEG or RAW?

This another of those hot-topic questions. Again, it’s completely up to you. I’m not going to go into the technical differences between the two formats but there are some notable advantages to shooting in RAW. While JPEG files are definitely more lightweight, RAW files give you the ability to fine tune elements such as white balance.

You can always export the original RAW files as JPEG before shipping them to your HDR software for faster processing.

What software do I need to combine and process my HDR images?

Now that you’ve got your brackets what software do you use to merge them? By far the most popular HDR software packages on the market are Photomatix by HDRSoft or HDR EFex by NIK Software. I currently use Photomatix for all of my HDR work. It’s versatile, easy to use and integrates into Lightroom and Aperture as a plugin. Photoshop has a Merge to HDR function but I have personally never had much luck using it.

Do I need Photoshop to edit my images?

While Photoshop is a very powerful tool is not always necessary, especially if already use Lightroom. Most of my early HDR work was completed exclusively in Lightroom with no additional plugins. For work that requires a little more heavy lifting you can pick up a copy of Photoshop Elements for a fraction of the cost of Photoshop.

To add that extra punch, you may want to try using some of the products offered by NIK Software, Topaz Labs or OnOne Software. The NIK and Topaz tools work as plugins to Lightroom, most of the OnOne suite does require Photoshop. I personally use Topaz but you can’t go wrong with any of them!

What next?

Go shoot some brackets! Process them using different settings in your HDR software. Process them again! Practice your processing on the same brackets using different settings on them, you’ll learn how the variety of settings interact with each other to create unique images. Search the web, browse tutorials and practice. Don’t worry if you end up with halos and noise the first few times, we’ve all been there and over the next few articles I’ll show you some ways to avoid and fix them.

My photographic journey has taken me from simple landscape photos into the world of High Dynamic Range (HDR) images and long exposures. I use these disciplines to bring out the beauty of the world around us. Landscape photography is my first love but great images are everywhere and there is an ever-expanding set of tools available to the modern photographer to help create a unique vision. This is an amazing field whose technology is expanding exponentially and I am willing to try it all!