If you’ve been practicing photography for any length of time, you have probably heard of HDR photography. You have also probably heard that you SHOULD NOT do HDR photography. That it looks bad and there’s no way to get decent looking photos using HDR. This is a straight up lie. There are tons of examples of terrible HDR out there. However, there are millions more examples of photos that used HDR techniques to achieve amazing results.

I personally use HDR photography every day in my real estate work. And I couldn’t imagine not using it capture gorgeous photos for my clients.

What the Heck is HDR Photography?

Single shot vs HDR

So what exactly is HDR photography? HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. See, when you’re looking at a scene – like an amazing landscape, or really cool building – your eyes can see pretty much everything. You can see the subtlety in the blacks of the shadows, the multiple shades of whites in the clouds. Pretty much everything. Your camera, however, can not see as much as you can – especially in high contrast situations like a bright, sunny day. It’ll pick up most of it, but all of your beautiful shades of white may end up looking just white. And all of your shadows may end up just black.

Shooting in HDR helps alleviate this problem of crushed blacks and blown out whites. HDR photography uses multiple photos at different exposures and blends them together to create a single, beautiful and well-lit photo. Still not sure if you want to give it a try? It’s not super difficult, so keep reading!

When to Use HDR

HDR photography is great for many applications, however it’s not perfect for every situation.

Use it for:

  • Landscape
  • Architecture
  • High Contrast Scenes
  • Still Scenes
  • Interior Design
  • Real Estate

In the above situations HDR is perfect because it allows you to capture the whole scene without missing too many details in your shadows and highlights.

Do not use it for:

  • People or Pets
  • Moving scenes
  • Sports
  • Fashion
  • Events

HDR is not good for these situations for a few reasons. First of all, movement is incredibly hard to capture with HDR. Since you’re shooting multiple exposures, anything that moves can mess with the image. There’s a lot to be said about using movement in HDR photography and photography in general, but that is a whole other article. A second reason is that in a lot of these cases you’re not looking to capture a whole scene, just part of it so you want the subject to stand out from the background, therefore it’s okay if your highlights are blown out a bit, or your shadows underexposed.

What You Need for HDR Photography

The setup shooting in HDR is pretty simple. Here is what you’ll need:

The Camera

Pretty much any DSLR will do, but you’ll want one that can do Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB). This just means that the camera can take multiple frames at different exposures.

A Tripod

You’ll want to keep your camera steady while it’s shooting multiple frames so your photos will align later. So a steady surface is necessary. I’ve been known to use piles of rocks, ledges of buildings or bridges, and chairs, stools and tables, but nothing beats a good tripod. If you have a steady hand, you can shoot hand-held if you want, however any movement will make editing your photos more challenging.

A Remote Trigger Release

Okay, you don’t have to have this one, but most real estate photographers use one. I don’t because I always lose them about two days after I buy them. Many other photographers will tell you they are great because you can set up your shot, then not worry about touching your camera until you are completely done with that shot. I just use the built in self timer. It gives the camera time to settle after you hit the shutter release and will take as many shots as you want it to.

Setting up your Camera

Before you can start shooting in HDR you have to set your camera up to shoot brackets. Many newer camera models have a built-in HDR function, but for me, good old-fashioned brackets are the way to go. I shoot on a Nikon D750 so these directions will be for that specific camera. Most Nikon DSLRs should be fairly similar.

Step One: Look for the button labeled “BKT” on the left-front side of your camera, underneath the flash button. Press and hold this button.

Step Two: While holding the “BKT” button rotate the dial on the back of the camera (the one you use for shutter speed) to set the number of exposures you want to take. I usually do three or five exposures, however, you can do as many as nine.

Step Three: Keep holding the “BKT” button and rotate the front dial (the one for aperture) to set how far apart you want the exposures to be. You can set them to be three full stops apart or only a third stop apart. I usually set mine for two stops if I’m shooting three exposures or one stop if I’m shooting five exposures.

Step Four: Set up your self-timer. Go to MENU -> CUSTOM SETTING MENU -> TIMERS/AE LOCK -> SELF-TIMER. I have my timer set to a five second delay, and to take three shots a half second apart. It doesn’t really matter how many shots you tell it to take when in self-timer mode. As long as you have your bracketing turned on, it will take however many you have that set to.

Step Five: Turn on the self-time. On the dial on the left side of the camera, rotate the bottom portion to the self-timer clock symbol.

Step Six: Set the exposure for your middle bracket. I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode when I’m shooting brackets. This means your Aperture (and depth of field) will stay the same for each frame, but your shutter speed will change for each one.

Step Seven: Set up your shot and take your brackets!

Not too bad, right?

The Brackets

HDR Brackets

After you take your shot, you should have three or five or however many frames you took of the exact same image, just at different exposures. Your middle exposure should be close to what your exposure would be if you were taking a single frame. The rest of your exposures will be darker or lighter by a stop or two depending on how you set your brackets up.

You’ll notice in your darker frames that your shadows are pretty much all black. And in your lighter frames your highlights are probably completely blown out. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. Your lighter frames are to capture the areas in your scene that are super dark and shadowy and your darker frames are to capture the areas that are super bright and blown out.

Blending for HDR Photography

There are tons of different methods for blending your exposures together. Some photographers use nothing but Lightroom and a plugin to get the perfect HDR blend, while others use Photoshop and hand blending to create their images.

Blending Software

There are several different programs that offer HDR blending. Aurora and Photomatix are two of the most common and do a great job of blending exposures together to create HDR images. Lightroom even has its own HDR Merge function. My favorite, however, is called LR/Enfuse. It’s a free plugin for Lightroom (though they do request a donation of a few dollars), and it does the best job at blending that I’ve seen so far.

When you first begin using software to blend your images, you may think that the blended image looks flat and lacks contrast compared to your single exposure images. However, you gain a lot more control over editing your image. Your highlights and shadows will have a lot more range.

Hand Blending

Hand blending your images in Photoshop is quite a bit more complicated than using software to blend them together. It also requires a lot more practice and is something I’m not very skilled in just yet. Hand blending, however, gives you a ton of control over how your final image looks. Essentially what it comes down to is layering your exposures in Photoshop, then masking in the parts of each exposure that you want to be visible.

Editing for HDR Photography

HDR Photography - Iceland

If you’re already familiar with photo editing and processing, you’ll find that editing HDR photography is actually pretty similar. Once the image is blended the process is mostly the same. You might discover, however, that you don’t have to push your highlights and shadows nearly as much as you would on a single exposure image. For this particular image, I brought my highlights down, my shadows up, pushed the whites up and the blacks down a bit to add some contrast. I bumped the exposure and contrast a bit and then played some with the color. And that was pretty much it.

HDR photography isn’t great for every situation, but when done right it can help you produce amazing landscape and architectural photos, interior shots and tons more. HDR is also not to everyone’s taste, so if you don’t like it, don’t worry. It’s just one more tool to add to your photography arsenal.

Want to learn more about photography? Check out my post about getting out of Auto Mode!

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Hey there! My name is Leah and I'm a photographer, blogger and wanderer from north Texas. I've been doing photography for nearly a decade now and absolutely love it. My day job is real estate photographer and in my free time you can often find me at a park taking pictures of leaves and flowers. Outside of that my fiance and I love to travel. We spent nine months backpacking through Europe and now spend our free time attempting to plan and going on shorter trips both in the States and abroad.

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