I took this picture in Singapore and I thought it would be a pretty simple “introduction” to taking an HDR photo.  This will be a bare bones run through; there are many great HDR tutorials out there (see below) that go into far more detail on how this is done but I wanted to give a brief overview for those of you that are new to this.

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range.  The idea is that your camera, no matter what model you have, has a limited capability with respect to capturing light in both the highlights and shadows in the same picture.  So the amount of detail you can capture based on a given level of light is limited.  You get pictures that may have great detail in the shadow parts of the picture but then the highlights are blown out.  On the other side you may capture detail at the high end of the exposure but fail to get details in the shadow.  HDR allows you to effectively combine different photos, capturing the detail from each and merging them together in software.

For this particular photo I waited until evening – light is crucial, and HDR won’t “fix” the light at the time you take the snap(s).  I also knew that I wanted detail in the shot, so these were shot at f/10 to make sure I had appropriate depth of field and since I wanted to have as little noise as possible I set the ISO to 100.  So – not much light (twilight), plus a small aperture of f/10 (not letting much of the available light onto the sensor) plus an ISO setting of 100 (meaning that the sensor is not very sensitive to the light available) all means that the shutter speed is going to have to be long to compensate.  This means you MUST shoot this picture with a tripod.  If you don’t have a tripod, you’d effectively need to change the other above components (shoot with a larger aperture or increase the ISO) to capture this shot.

With HDR, you take a range of different exposures with your camera.  This is known as bracketing, and most DSLR’s today have this availability (high end compacts and bridge cameras will have this capability as well).  My camera (Canon 50D) only has the ability to take a 3 image bracket.  So I start with -1 0 +1 exposures (3 different photos) and I also set my camera to timer mode with a 2 second timer.  This is because the camera’s on a tripod and I don’t want to risk shaking the camera when I push the button.  The DSLR knows what I’m trying to do (they’re pretty smart) and it will actually take all 3 images together.  When this is done I carefully approach the camera and extend the bracket by one further exposure.  So this time instead of -1 0 +1 I take the exposures at -2 0 +2.  The -2 exposure is very dark (the camera does this by having a faster shutter speed) and the +2 exposure is very light (again the camera achieves this by keeping the shutter open for longer, since I’m shooting in AV mode).  Below are my 5 bracketed images (note that I actually had two level “0” exposures so I threw one out – I only need one).

+2 Exposure - 8.0 secs @ f/10
+1 Exposure - 4.0 secs @ f/10
Normal Exposure - 2.0 secs @ f/10
-1 Exposure - 1.0 sec @ f/10
-2 Exposure - 0.5 sec @ f/10

I use Photomatix for my HDR processing.  This is generally “THE” software for doing HDR, but there are other programs you can use such as Photoshop to achieve the same look.  Photomatix is considered the best.  Below is a screenshot of what it looks like when you start Photomatix.  Simply load the bracketed photos as I’ve done here.

You will be asked a few questions about how you want to align the images; I generally choose “By Matching Features” but this doesn’t make much of a difference when the pics were taken with a tripod.  I also choose NOT to remove ghosts.  Remember, since you’ve taken 5 different pictures, there is a chance that there will be movement within some of the pictures; moving people, a boat further down the river, etc.  I prefer to take care of those types of movement in Photoshop after I’m done with Photomatix.  (In this particular picture though I didn’t feel the need to do any ghosting adjustments).

Hitting preprocess will send Photomatix grinding away.  It quickly comes back with an image and a selection of images on a bar, as you can see below.  These are basically presets that the developers have created to give your image a certain look.  So you can bounce between these, observing how the picture changes according to the preset that you’ve chosen.  There are also various sliders and options that you have to adjust the image; things like strength of the effect, details, micro-contrast, etc.

For this picture I chose the Enhancer – Painterly effect.  I find that I often choose that option but it depends on the picture.  This is what the picture looks like when Photomatix is done with it.  You can see that it still needs work and almost looks a little washed out.

I now edit the image in Lightroom.  Quite often when I get a picture out of Photomatix and put it into Lightroom I take the following steps, but every image is different.

  1. Bump the blacks to 5 – this helps to enhance the contrast
  2. Give the image an overall kick on Clarity – I bumped this up to +70
  3. Play with the Vibrance and Saturation until you’re pleased with the result; I find that Vibrance is more useful as Saturation in Lightroom tends to make the image too orange
  4. Contrast – I adjusted the contrast to Medium, I often use Strong but I thought Medium was adequate here
  5. I significantly bumped the sharpening up to 70, increasing the Mask as well ever so slightly.  I knew this picture could stand a lot of Sharpening (low noise and taken with a tripod)
  6. I sometimes will add a bit of a vignette; for this picture I didn’t.

And that’s it!  Next step is to tag the image with keywords, upload to Flickr and cross your fingers you make Explore 🙂

For more resources on HDR tutorials, check out the links below.

Trey Ratcliffe, aka Stuck in Customs, is the expert on HDR.  There’s no denying it.  His blog and HDR tutorial are incredible and he goes into significantly more detail for those of you interested in taking your HDR photography further.


I met Dmitri through the creation of this blog, he as well has an excellent HDR tutorial that takes a different approach from Trey’s.  Again highly recommended.


The Photomatix support site goes into all the details on what the software is doing and has an excellent FAQ for you nerds that have to get under the hood 🙂


And finally, Flickr is STILL the best photo website out there – they have numerous HDR groups for everything from beginners to experts.  Check it out.