HDR 101

Most of my photos shown on this blog are created using HDR techniques. OK, but you might ask, why do we need another HDR tutorial? There are plenty of them already available on the Internet. Why need another one? The reason I want to share my HDR flow is for a few reasons:

  1. Why not?  Smile
  2. I want to share the basic flow specific to how I do it, and not only via typed text but I’d like to show it via video demonstrations (my upcoming projects is to record some video tutorials) as well. So if you like to read and use it as a reference you can do that or if you like to watch a quick video and see the entire process, you’ll have that choice as well.
  3. Keep it all in the same place for easy find and reference. Provide it free for anyone’s use.
  4. I’ll be first to admit that I ‘m learning as I go and I do not know everything and more likely doing some things not the most optimal way. So by sharing my techniques with you, hopefully I’ll get some pointers from lurking Photoshop experts on how to improve certain techniques and learn something new from you.
  5. Helping you helping me.

The three steps I use to create HDR photos are the following:

  1. Shoot actual photo. (This Page)
  2. Use HDR processing software to create initial HDR image. I use Photomatix Pro v4.1.1.
  3. Do the final post processing with Adobe CS5.

It is so easy, anyone can do it!

Step 1: Go and Shoot Your Photo

Step one is the most important, you need to be in the right place at the right time to get nice dynamic range for your photo. If you are outdoors, then it is usually sometime during golden hours of sunrise and sunset, but I think you have opportunities to get great results at night or day time as well. Just try it in different conditions and see what kind of results you are going to get. If it is midday and there is no cloud in the sky then you probably not going to get great results. At the same time even during sunrise and sunset on cloudless day you will be very disappointed – sun just deeps behind horizon or pops up from it and nothing happens, no magic in the sky. Just be patient. Wait another day and try again. Also, if you are shooting indoors then it really doesn’t matter if it is a night or day, what is important is how your scene is lighted, what type of shadows are there, how good the textures. The more interesting light effects around, more dramatic your photos are going to be. Shooting good photos and setting right composition is a huge topic on its own and people make careers out it by teaching other folks how to do it. I think that the more you do it, the better you get at composing your photos, you start seeing things you never paid attention to in the past. So while reading tutorials on how to compose your photos might be useful, the best learning is to go out and shoot, then see what you have and think what you could do different if you’d do it again to improve it. Practice is the best way to improve shooting skills.

So what do I use to get those photos? If you checked “In My Bag” page you probably learned that I don’t use a lot of fancy equipment, I do not have professional DSLR body (not that I would refuse to have one one day!) so it is possible to get good results with consumer oriented camera. I do use wide angle zoom lens (14-24 mm, f2.8), which is professional grade and will work on the professional full frame DSLR bodies. I use this lens for 90 percent of my photos because it is wide angle and I can get a lot into the frame. Because most of the time I do not use f2.8 on this lens, working with consumer lenses is fine too, it just you’ll not be able to get a wider photo. Only after dark that I use f2.8, otherwise it is somewhere between f5.6 to f11 and sometimes even go up to f19. All consumer lenses support this range.

OK, so I use Nikon D90 which supports bracketing feature. If you are not familiar with bracketing, it is a feature that allows camera to get multiple images with different exposures. One bracket at normal exposure, and other with a bit less and a bit more than normal. This way you get multiple photos of the same scene capturing a bit less, normal and bit more of light, in other words you are able to get details in shadows, details in bright spots and all in between. Nikon D90 only supports three brackets.

Note: Professional DSLRs support more than three brackets, but I’m not using it so I’m not going to cover it in this discussion. It is pretty much the same process as with doing three brackets. Some people shoot 5, some 7 and some even go up to 9. Shooting into the sun is especially helpful with more than 3 brackets as it allows to get more details in shadows.

So I set D90 to use brackets to the following settings: –2, 0 and +2. It supports other bracketing settings, like –1, 0 and +1, or you can set it to use only two brackets. I do not use any of these settings because with –1, 0, +1 it does not get enough of light range from the darkest to the lightest and capturing only two brackets defeats the point of getting entire range of the light. BTW, this is important to mention – you have to use Aperture priority on your camera to use bracketing.

Tripods or Robotic Hands

Great, so now I have the camera set to shoot in brackets and have a great scene to shoot. Unless you have next generation robotic hands attached to your body with zero shake you’ll need to find something stable to hold your camera so it does not shake or move between each capture and during longer exposures. Remember, I’ll be taking three separate photos for each scene and later combine them into a single image. I for sure want to make them as sharp as possible and I’d like to eliminate any shake or camera movement as taking my photos.

There are a few ways to achieve desired results. The best way to get sharp photos is to use tripod. I carry it everywhere. On my business trips I put it in my luggage. I have it in my car if I go somewhere around the town. You never know if picture opportunity comes around. It is a hassle but if you want sharp HDR photos, the best way is to use tripod. I don’t have super fancy tripod but it is not general consumer tripod. I’d not recommend to buy any that you’ll see at BestBuy. I have an aluminum tripod. If I was making ton of money with this photo hobby, then I might would consider getting a bit lighter fiberglass one, but aluminum works just fine. The two main requirements that I need from the tripod is to be able to get as low to the ground as physically possible and to get it as high as I can pick into the view finder. While my current tripod only lowers down only about 18”, it does not go all the way to the ground, it is satisfactory for pretty much 99% of situations where I wanted to take a shot as low to the ground as possible.

So what happens if you see a cool scene and you don’t have a tripod? In many situation you might find a way to get your photo without it. Look around and see if you find something sturdy where you can put your camera on. The rail in the building, stone in the forest, your backpack or your hat or coat can make a good sturdy base to put your camera on. Most photos at Air and Space Museum were taken with using stair rails as base for my camera, like this one, for example:

Click me!

If there is nothing around to give you this base and you really want to take your photo, then your only option is to handheld your camera, keep your breath, freeze and take your photo. Depending on the light conditions you might need to increase ISO from your default (my is always at 200) to something a bit higher – this will reduce required time to take each capture and will increase the likelihood of unshaken  photo. Also, increasing F to the highest possible will help too, like f2.8 on 14-24 will allow more light into the lens and reduce the time for each capture. The following images were taken handheld:

Click me!

Click me!

You probably already have a question – if you handheld the camera and need to take three different captures (one at 0, one at –2 and one at +2), wouldn’t you shake the camera? It is a good one and I’m rarely use camera shutter  button to take each capture in my bracket sets. For 90% of all of my brackets I use timer control, and this applies to all situations – handheld or tripod. I set my camera to time control, find the scene, push the trigger button and about three seconds later camera automatically executes three brackets, one after another. There is no shake, no camera touching in between each capture, pretty much guarantees the same image in each frame. But what if you want to control when you want to take each bracket and do not want to wait for a few seconds between each set of brackets? I use little wireless remote control (aka ML-L3, can be purchased under $20 I believe) to do that. Push the wireless button and camera will take required captures, no touching and no shaking. This photo was taken with remote control:

Click me!

Note: There are other ways to reduce camera shake. One of them is by locking mirror for entire set of brackets. This feature is not available on D90, so obviously I’m not using it. If you have professional level camera then it will probably provide that function.

Keeping It Leveled

It is usually a good idea to get photos that have proper horizontal alignment. This is especially evident in many landscape photos or street photography where it is easy to see horizontal lines. While it is possible to fix horizontal alignment in post processing, I prefer to get it right from the start and take my photos with proper horizon. I use little magic green cube to help me keep horizon under control. It costs under $10 and super invaluable in services it provides.


True little story: Once, while in Miami, me and my wife had dinner on the Ocean Boulevard in South Beach. Most of those restaurants are outdoors with tables flowing from restaurant outdoor space onto the sidewalks. Very cool place to watch people. I had my camera on the table with little magic green cube attached on top of it. Next table to us they seated couple nice looking ladies, I guess on their night out or what. One of them saw my camera and got very intrigued
about the mysterious green attachment and asked what it is for. I told her that it is special device to broadcast and communicate data to other gadgets. She was totally impressed and bought into the story. Nope, she was not blond. Magic green cube.

Getting it Sharp

Lets not forget to get sharp focus on your subject. Getting blurry images is no fun. I have big share of those. Focusing your camera on the right target to get super sharp images is as important as making sure it does not shake as you take them. With landscape or street photography the general rule is to focus on something about 1/3 into the scene that you are seeing in the viewfinder. Most of the time we want to have majority of the scene very sharp right from where it begins to the infinity. By focusing on 1/3 will usually provide sharp focus for the entire scene. I use autofocusing on my camera but I control the focusing points in the viewfinder. Most DSLRs allow you to do that. By controlling where to focus I can make sure to get entire scene in focus before pressing the trigger. Also, most of the time, after autofocusing my camera, I turn autofocus off to manual focus (via little switch on the lens)  – this is to ensure that camera doesn’t try to refocus as it takes each capture in the bracket set. This is especially important when it is dark or your scene doesn’t have very clear subjects, like with fog or similar situations.


So now you took your photo and have three images on your camera. What is it that we want check to make sure we got good captures? The tool for this is your camera histogram. I configured my camera LCD display to show histogram on every image. The general rule of thumb is that we want to cover entire spectrum without breaking out to the left or to the right. So when you review your histogram with three brackets you want to see something similar to this:







With –2 we cover the brightest spots, with 0 we take everything in the middle, and with +2 we get details from the shadows. The ultimate goal is to combine all brackets into single photo and get good view of the entire scene, from bright spots to shadows. What you see above is usually the case in fairly decent lightning conditions. If you shoot in the dark, then everything will be moved to the left, because it is dark and it is normal to not have anything on the right side of the histogram.

In my experience in most situations you’ll get a nice spread in your histogram, just like shown above, but sometimes it does not work well and you have to take a bit more control over some settings to get the nice spread. In different situations you might need to use different settings and sometimes combination of them. Lets cover couple situations:

  1. Lets say you are shooting in day light and see literally no change in histogram, –2, 0 and +2, all showing the same curve. Check your F and make sure it is not set to something very wide open. It might be set to f2.8 or f5.6 – it is too open for the day light and you get too much light into the camera. Change it to f9.5 or f11. Take another set of captures and see if it makes a difference – more likely it will give you better spread.
  2. Sometimes you have to use f-stop to increase or decrease the default exposure by a few steps. You might be shooting into the sun and everything around the sun is getting very underexposed. By adding additional f-stops to normal capture you’ll force the shutter to stay open a bit longer and it will allow to capture more light from the shadows around the sun. I use this trick once in a while, but truly, if sun is so strong that you have to do this and camera can’t automatically expose itself then more likely results will not be super stellar. At least it not worked well for me in the past.

Have you seen photos with with sun having very cool sunrays? It is very hard to shoot into the sun. One way to get those ray to spread in a nice way is to configure your camera to shoot at around F11 or higher. Try it sometimes to shoot into the sun with f4,  f8, f11 and f19 and see what you going get. This photo was done with f11, if I opened it higher then I would not get this burst of rays:

Click me!

Shoot in RAW

Next thing I want to discuss is related to file format that I use on the camera. You can shoot in JPEG, RAW or JPEG + RAW. When I started shooting with DSLR a few years back, for luck of basic knowledge and not having right software, I shot everything in JPEG at Highest quality setting. It was good at the time, but then I quickly figured out that you can’t do much with JPEG files and I learned more about RAW format and acquired proper software tools to be able to do something with it. I started shooting everything in JPEG+RAW, so it created two files for every capture, one as JPEG and one in RAW format. I thought that I’d like to have both for easy browsing. Soon I realized that having JPEG files was a waste of space and additional clutter on my hard drive. Since summer of 2010 I shoot everything in RAW only.

Besides many other benefits of shooting in RAW, one is directly related to HDR – it is possible to create HDR photos from a single RAW capture. Sometimes you can’t take multiple bracketing captures. Single RAW file will allow to create HDR photo, it might not be as good as one created from multiple captures but it works. The same is not possible with JPEG files.

The following are examples of HDR made from single RAW file:

Click me!

Click me!

Great, so we went out and got some great photos. Now we need to move them into our “Digital Dark Room” and start processing them. Next page will discuss how to use Photomatix to combine our photos into single HDR image.

Next is Step2: Take your photos into your HDR Digital Processing Room – Use HDR processing software to create initial HDR image. I use Photomatix Pro v4.1.1.

71 Responses to HDR 101

  1. Boyer Writes says:

    Thanks for all your information. I am learning…so very helpful. Nancy

  2. sayvan says:

    This is a great information. I have been shooting jpeg on fine and wondering about moving to only raw.

  3. I invested in a Promote Control unit to allow me to get more than three bracketed exposures. It is a remote control device that attaches like a remote shutter release and also through the USB port. Besides allowing for up to 11 exposures, the unit can also be used for multiple timed exposures, as a remote shutter release, and for calculating hyper-focal distances. There are other applications as well that are covered on their website. It is a little pricey at around $350, but I have gotten a lot of usage out of it. You might want to take a look. It is still cheaper than a pro-grade camera body. :)

    • Dmitrii says:

      It is a good device, based on all reviews. I looked into it about 12 month ago, but didn’t want to invest into it in anticipation of D800, waiting for it since then, hehehe, maybe it will be released sometime soon.

  4. charlieszr4 says:

    Wow i love your photos!!!

  5. Alexis Meyer Photography says:

    Thanks for this! I’ve been wanting to get into it for awhile.

  6. Very interesting tip about using the Histogram to determine your exposures rather than a set of plus and minus EV exposures. I’ll need to try that sometime, thanks.

  7. BonMinou says:

    Thanks for this well written and easy to understand (even for a blond) tutorial. I have been playing around with this technique for a while but using the histogram is a good tip along using the RAW format. My beloved little Canon point and shoot will, fortunately, do both RAW and bracketing.

    I think I will buy her a little Magic Green Cube so she can talk to other devices. ;)

  8. Great article! Thanks. I might try using RAW capture and see how I go.

  9. Johanna says:

    Great advice! I’ll have to try HDR with my SLR. Up to now I’ve only used HDR on my iPhone.

  10. I’m enjoying this and learning. Keen to understand HDR.

  11. Great stuff and beautiful shots. Thanks for liking my post. I need to learn a lot about photography and I appreciate the free info!

  12. I am very new to photography and love messing around with my photos and now I’m even more excited to try this out. Thank you for the wonderful information. I am going to start working on using this and posting my new HDR images. Keep checking my blog to see them when I get it going. Thanks again!

  13. Ahmedsnaps says:

    Great post .. Learned alot ..

  14. clevelandg says:

    Excellent clarity. Other articles try to do too much; this was just right. Thanks.


  15. Yemi says:

    That red door feeds my curiosity.

  16. balifornian says:

    Great helpful article here
    You can see some of my samples here

    Great work here Dmitri and thanks for the great tips

  17. Joanne says:

    These are very good images! This is an excellent HDR tutorial.

  18. Great stuff!!! thanks for this :)

  19. Lee says:

    Thanks for the great information.

  20. geoffwatt says:

    Great article! I’m always looking for new ways to approach different photography techniques, particularly HDR which I think offers a huge scope of creative opportunities beyond the simple “adjust all the sliders to the max” overcooked looking images that have flooded the internet lately (although they too have their place).

  21. richman22 says:

    This is a great article, thank you for posting this. I love the effects the HDR photos have.

  22. Thanks so much for the step by step – I haven’t tried this YET but do plan to.
    And thanks for stopping by my site as well!

  23. Thanks for stopping by my blogg, i really like your work, fantastic images.

  24. jenyphero says:

    Great information! Thank you!

  25. bmhonline says:

    Thanks for recently “liking” one of my posts. The term HDR was totally new to me and I’ve just had a play around with the concept and written about it on my blog http://wp.me/p259ew-8h Thanks for the tutorial!

  26. lumiscience says:

    Thank you for an interesting post.
    Few comments: there is no real need for HDR during golden hour, as at this hour, uniform soft light within dynamic range of a sensor is a given. It makes sense to use HDR whenever a high dynamic range occurs, i.e, HDR makes it possible to shoot good pictures during daytime, when shadows are harsh. Photos made from a single file are not really HRD, the correct term to use is “tone mapping”, but being an alternative development technique, it sure does make photos to look different.
    As for handheld HDRs, they can be easily done given the exposure times are short enough (equal or less than 1/60 sec), to avoid noticeable camera shake and displacement. All you need is to set Auto Exposure to bracket, compose a scene, select correct exposure for a centered hystogram, focus, switch to manual exposure, focus and continuous shooting, and then fire three shots in a row.
    About using only aperture mode with bracketing – not necessarily. Bracketing does override manual setting – at least, in my camera, so I shoot all HDRs in manual. Actually, I shoot everything in manual. On cameras without manual control or bracketing function, one can shoot HDR, too, by using exposure compensation -it usually allows adjustments within +/- 2 stops.

  27. Eva the Dragon says:

    Great article. I showed my husband some HDR photos and he got all excited about it and bought a camera. Someday I will open it up and learn how to use the HDR.

    It’s one thing to take the photos. Then I understand you have to learn and use special software to create the end product. In the meantime I have to be satisfied with with pocket Sony digital and my iphone.

  28. lylescript says:

    love the images! thanks for the “like”

  29. appacana says:

    It was a good read.

  30. laura lynch says:

    This is so awesome. I’m just learning so, I’m so excited to take your HDR 101 post and put it into practice. Thank you so much for this.

  31. kerioke says:

    Wow, this is really great. I certainly would love to now try this out on my own. Thanks for the tips. Blog is awesome. I am new to blogging but will certainly learn a lot from here. Oh and thank you for the Like!

  32. christymoyer says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for this! I am excited to try some new techniques and this is just what the doctor ordered! I love your blog and can’t wait to delve into more of your beautiful photos and tips! Have a great day and thanks for liking my Hunting Island post!

  33. Mary says:

    You are a very generous sharer of information. Some of your tips are exactly what I need to learn. Thank you, and thank your for visiting my site http://cameracombo.wordpress.com What you said about capturing sunsets and sunrises of clear mornings is true – disappointing. But throw a few clouds into the mix and the results are amazing.

  34. jani1sanchez says:

    Can I just say wow and thank you?! <3<3<3 This is truly great tutorial and I'm flattered you liked my photo!

  35. CaiPhone says:

    Great article on HDR.

  36. fon8987 says:

    Hey Dmitrii,
    Thank you for visiting my http://nirvanaseeker.wordpress.com blog and the like on my [ The Pink Spring ] album. Thank you for sharing this HDR information. I have just started photography and was looking for a page with HDR technique so this is just perfect!

  37. obi3380 says:

    Thank you for viewing my works recently, your work is fantastic and I have enjoyed very much reading your HDR 101. Brilliant.

  38. John says:

    Wonderful Work. I enjoyed your post even though I don’t practice HDR. The magazines I shoot won’t accept composites. Still…Great Work here. Most HDR I see looks like the Sunday Comics. Congrats on a job well done.

  39. Yea! Dmitrii. Excellent HDR tutorial. I appreciate you sharing your knowledge with those of us who aspire to producing top notch HDR images such as yours! I don’t have a DSLR so my photo shoots are a bit of a challenge. But I love a good challenge and I will visit you often!

  40. Rachael says:

    A very thorough and helpful post. Love your shots, especially the space shuttle ones.

  41. Sho Huang says:

    I sure will give it a try :)

  42. Great post! Making me drool for a new camera too!

  43. I’m really impressed with your blog and photography Dmitrii. I feel honored that you visited my blog and liked the Magnolia virginiana post! Did you happen to see the Main St. Station post, it worked out very well considering I’m still using an Easy Share Kodak camera. I’m where you were at the P&S stage (year and half) and ready to move on! Recently bought a four year old Pentax K20. I can use my father’s inherited manual lenes. Love all your photos, you make me hungary to learn the DSLR and take HDR photos! I will order the Magic Lantern book today!

  44. avphotoblog says:

    Thank you for looking at my blog. It is in very early stages yet as you would have noticed.
    I enjoyed looking at your wonderful pictures and site. It is refreshing to see see more realistic HDR in stead of the “overcooked” ones that is often held as the quint essential HDR.

  45. kerioke says:

    Hi dimitrii, You were limited to 3 exposures in bracketing mode in the old D80, with the D800 are you now bracketing for 9 exposures for night scenes?

    • Dmitrii says:

      With D90, I did -2, 0 , 2. With D800 I do mostly 5 brackets, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2. In most situations it get good enough range. If you shoot into the sun then it might make sense to get up to 7 brackets, I did a few of those but yet to process it, so not sure what it is going to look like. Never done 9 brackets yet, I’ll have to try some time.

  46. Michel says:

    I travel light and often shoot fast for street photography so never needed a tripod. I used to have a monopod for sports and royalty shots but never use that anymore either. I might look into this HDR photography lark but feel that all the post processing involved could be another time drain.

  47. aaronz92 says:

    Great guide. Makes me want to get out there and try HDR for myself.

  48. Wow! I definitely want one of these cameras. Your shots are amazing.

  49. Nicolas says:

    Hello Dmitrii,
    Found your blog from you liking my latest post. I see you have astoundingly sharp and well balanced photos. Great work! Thanks for the visit. I will come back.

  50. Thanks! Some more info that I did not know (or have been ignoring). I need to experiment with the “F” goody before reading more. Today is a nice sunny day to play and snap away

  51. markspowart says:

    Wonderful images, especially the Shuttle…great work. I am just starting to play with HDR, I really like the cabin shot with the sunburst just over the roof line…this is exactly the type of shots I want to create…great work. Of course it is also fun to go a little crazy with the toning from time to time.

    Cheers…all the best.


  52. Beautiful images and the information is very helpful. I am just starting to venture into HDR and this really helped a lot-thank you!
    and thank you too for taking the time to visit my blog-I appreciate it-

  53. I have only been using RAW files for a few months but I have noticed a hell of a difference. I have also been using Photivo after processing them in Photomatix. If you get the setting just right I have have found that for some images the difference is outstanding. Did have a bit of a problem saving the images at the the same size they went in as they would save the same size as the screen shot in the software, but with a small alteration after searching Google, the problem is easily solved. Thanks for sharing this post. Really enjoyed reading it.

  54. ginnietom says:

    big shots, very useful hints…
    have a nice day…

  55. ginnietom says:

    big shots – useful tutorial…:-))

  56. Thank you for the tutorial, i actually reimport mine to Lightroom for the final edit,i find this gives a clearer crisper finish than Photoshop. The problem i have with Photomatix is the selection of individual spots on the photo, i am finding i have to hdr the whole image at once because i have not yet learnt how to do individual selection.
    Is there some technique you can help me with?


  57. RDoug says:

    Dmitrii, I must say this is one of the best photoblogs I’ve stumbled across. It’s informative, fun, and the photographs are absolutely stunning on many, many levels.

  58. Thanks for publishing HDR 101. This has given me a different perspective for post processing! I do use ACR, Photomatix and Photoshop. I will give your technique a try! Sally

  59. This is great! Thanks for the information. I’m glad you liked my post, so I could come find this. :)

  60. aditi1641 says:

    Your tutorial is the best I’ve found so far. Every tutorial I’ve found online makes everything look easy without really touching upon the realistic problems that may concern photographers :) Thank you!

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