Friday, January 1, 2010

A Basic HDR Tutorial - Part 1

My goal with this post is to help you understand how to shoot and process HDR images and explain why I find the HDR process to be an exciting tool in the field and in the digital darkroom. I could rehash the HDR wars: those who hate HDR, those who love HDR and all those in between. Instead, I'm going to cover the major points and let you make your own decision. There's plenty of detailed information (in the blogosphere???) if you're intrigued enough to pursue hdr further.This tutorial will not be one that will teach you " The 9 steps to perfect HDR pictures every time". This tutorial will start you in a direction and give you a chance to experiment with the programs and settings I recommend. Only then will you find your own way and your own style. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. You can always step back or start over again with the knowledge you have gained from these mistakes.

At the end of Part 2 of the tutorial, I'll give a list of sites to explore. I encourage you to visit them and study the images you see there. Don't try to replicate them but try to understand what went into the capture and the digital darkroom processing.

Why use hdr?:
As simple as I can make it, we see in HDR. Take a minute to think about that. Our eye sees into the shadows and sees the highlights simultaneously. Our camera sensors can't do both at the same time. Hdr therefore is able to create an image that more closely reflects what our eyes see than standard digital photography. Some photographers argue that HDR is not true photography. I say, we don't see in black and white but black and white photography is not only accepted but is among the best-regarded of photographic methods.

The tools we need when we click:

  • A good dslr that has Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB). This will allow you to take multiple exposures without resetting your camera. More about this later.
  • A solid tripod
  • A cable release

How to set up your camera:

  • Turn off Auto Focus
  • Turn off Image Stabilizer
  • Set your AEB to +2 / 0 / -2 . For most HDR pictures this will give you all the exposures you'll need. I know there are some cameras that will shoot more when set up; that's okay too.
  • Set your ISO to 100. No set rule but we want to control the noise at capture, if we can. There's plenty of room for experimentation here.
  • Set your camera to Aperture-Priority mode (AE).
  • Set your camera to shoot RAW images.
  • Set your Drive Mode to High Speed Continuous if your camera has that option.
  • Turn on your Highlight Alert, known to some of us as Blinky's.

I'm a Canon shooter. My camera has "Register Camera User Settings" modes C1 and C2. Check your owner's manual. I've set these up so I can dial in most of the above setting automatically by just turning the mode dial.

Here's the "KEY CONCEPT". There is no substitute for taking a good picture. HDR will or will not make your print look better, but HDR will definitely not make a badly conceived and shot photograph better. It's just a tool to make your image look more like the way you saw it at the moment of capture.

The software I use:

Adobe Photoshop. This should go without saying.

Photomatix Pro. This program is the preferred choice of most people I know who process HDR images. It's reasonably priced and simple to use. You can find some really great tutorials on their site and on the web. I'll discuss the settings I use later.

Imagenomic Noiseware Professional. This is a very good noise reducing software package. The default settings usually do the corrections needed.

Topaz Adjust. This is not required but check out their site to see what it can do. Even though a single image can be processed in Photomatix, I also use Topaz Adjust to accomplish a similar effect, only faster.

Color Efex Pro 3. Again this is not required but it's a great help for local corrections and/or enhancements.

So now that you have the basics, go out and shoot some frames, keeping in mind that you're going to process them in Photomatix and create HDR images. Look for subjects that have hard shadows and bright highlights. Photos taken at mid-day with the sun shining are a good start, although it's the kind of shooting you would never choose to do otherwise. Try to focus in on and remember what you're seeing, not through the view-finder, but with your eyes. Try to view the world in a different way. It's challenging, but with practice you'll be able to do it. Trust your histogram. After the 3 click, check all 3 histograms, making sure that there are no Blinky's. If there are, make the required adjustments.

In Part2 of this tutorial, we'll take your uploaded pictures into Photomatix and process them. That's where the magic happens.

If you have a question with Part 1, send an email to

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