HDR photography can produce spectacular images. It can also produce a supersaturated, overcooked look that we’ve probably all seen too much of. Getting that balance right is an art in itself. For now, though, here some HDR tips for shooting and then editing your images.
1. In-camera HDR
In-camera HDR is becoming more common and it can work pretty well, but it’s not the same as being able to choose your own presets and HDR settings. The results can look flat and lacking in midtone contrast and leave you with just as much work to do as if you’d just started from scratch and manually merged a series of different exposures. In fact, check to see if your camera’s HDR mode keeps the original images, because you’ll probably find these more useful in the long run.
2. HDR made easy with bracketing
Some cameras offer an HDR exposure bracketing mode, but if you don’t have this it doesn’t matter because you can do this with regular exposure bracketing. Remember, though, you’re not bracketing for subtle improvements in exposure – you’re aiming to capture a much wider than usual brightness range. A bracketing step value of 1EV is too subtle. 2EV is better, and 3EV better still. Many cameras will let you shoot not just 3 bracketed images but 5 or 7, offering an even wider potential brightness range. Good HDR apps will be perfectly happy merging this many shots. I like HDR Efex Pro, part of the free Google Nik Collection. Skylum Aurora HDR is even better.
Read the Aurora HDR 2019 review
3. Bracket in continuous mode
Annoyingly, some cameras stay in single-shot mode even when you’ve set them up for exposure bracketing. I’m mentioning no names, but if you own a Nikon this may resonate. The solution (with Nikon DSLRs at least), is to set the camera to continuous shooting mode at the same time. You should find that the camera will then rattle off the bracketed exposures you’ve asked for when you press and hold the shutter button and then, conveniently, stop.
4. Offset your bracketing with exposure compensation
Sometimes you just know that the scene will cause problems either with the highlights or the shadows in particular. You could just expand the bracketing range to accommodate the extra brightness range, but there is a smarter solution. If you apply some exposure compensation first, the camera will bracket its exposures around your ‘compensated’ light level.
5. Shoot RAW not JPEG
Actually, this is not so simple. Raw purists will quickly agree that raw files contain a greater dynamic range than JPEGs, and that is surely a killer feature for high dynamic range photography? Yes, but many cameras are now smart enough to correct chromatic aberration (and other lens aberrations) in-camera, and chromatic aberration is a big problem in HDR (see below). You don’t get these corrections in the raw files. Some HDR tools will offer to correct chromatic aberration as you merge your images but I’m not yet convinced they do it quite as well as in-camera corrections. Don’t forget, too, that you can easily compensate for the lower dynamic range of JPEGs by capturing more of them across a wider exposure range. Hmm, tricky.
6. One exposure may be enough
Often, yes, especially if you shoot raw. So check the image histogram when you take the shot, and if there are no major clipping issues at the shadow and highlight end, why shoot more? You can still use your HDR software to give you that characteristic HDR ‘look’ or just to even up the shadows and highlights. Be aware, though, that some cameras have noisier shadows than others, and if you use HDR software on a single image, those darker areas could end up centre-stage.
7. Don’t use Photoshop
Maybe it’s me, but I just can’t get on with Photoshop’s in-built HDR tools. As far as I’m concerned, they’re difficult to use and the results look terrible. Anything is better than this, even layering your separate exposures and masking them manually (which is labour-intensive but effective). Photoshop’s HDR Toning? Well, as a complicated alternative to a Shadows/Highlights adjustment, maybe, but otherwise, don’t bother. Use something else.
8. Lightroom HDR Merge
This is interesting. It’s a relatively new addition to Lightroom CC and it automatically blends the individual images in an HDR exposure series and saves them out as a single DNG file. What’s interesting is that the result is not a wild and wacky HDR effect but a realistic looking image. You can then use Lightroom’s regular Tone and Presence controls to adjust the brightness range, contrast and clarity still further – though you may find that Lightroom’s merged image has already pushed some of the sliders just about as far as they will go anyway.
9. Realistic versus artistic
There are two types of HDR effect: the spectacularly obvious HDR ‘wow’ look which is clearly digital in original but gratifyingly jaw-dropping nonetheless, and the subtler ‘invisible’ HDR effect that brings full shadow and highlight detail back into the photo, even with super-high-contrast scenes, in such a way that the viewer doesn’t even know what you’ve done. You must let your conscience be the judge. I offer this only because it might help you think more clearly about what you are trying to do.
10. Look out for noise
HDR plug-ins and applications tend to have undesirable side-effects. One of these is a very obvious ‘glow’ effect around object outlines, and keeping this under control is a constant battle with some of the less effective tools out there. More insidious, though, is the noise issue. HDR effects emphasise local contrast and detail and often, at the same time, noise. Noise doesn’t bother me particularly, which is why I’m perfectly happy with HDR Efex Pro and Snapseed. But it bothers some folk a lot, so I’d simply say keep an eye on it, use whatever noise reduction tools there are in your HDR software, and be prepared to use a tool like MacPhun Noiseless later if it’s still a problem.
11. Chromatic aberration is your enemy
I don’t like chromatic aberration (colour fringing). At all. I can forgive most image flaws, but not this one. Worse, HDR software tends to exaggerate chromatic aberration which you might previously have overlooked and turns it into a real eyesore. Some HDR tools offer chromatic aberration correction, and I heartily recommend that you use it. Alternatively, if your camera offers in-camera chromatic aberration correction I’d recommend that too, even if it means shooting JPEGs in your exposure series rather than raw files.
12. Keep some contrast
I offer this as my parting shot. HDR is great because it evens up the bright and dark parts of the picture. But it’s easy to take this to extremes and end up with a picture that has no broad tonal contrast. When you’re zoomed in a 100% everything looks great because all those individual little parts of the picture have a full range of tones. But if you zoom out to fit the image to the screen, get up out of your chair and stand and look at it from the doorway you’ll see that, often, the picture lacks the broad contrast it needs in order to be a compelling composition. Ansel Adams might have approved of HDR but only up to a point, Rembrandt would have hated it.