HDR Photography Tutorial – Can I Learn How to Do That?

Josh’s Note: I have invited my good friend Craig Hood to write a series of articles on photography.  You may be aware that Disney World’s theme for 2011 is, “Let the Memories Begin.”  A big part of the campaign is capturing special moments on film.  Craig’s  articles will focus on making great photography accessible for those of us who don’t necessarily want to invest thousands of dollars on equipment (though that never hurts).  Photography has long been an interest of mine and I’ve always wanted to learn how to achieve some of those effects that seem too complex at first glance.  With Craig’s help, we’ll be able to improve our skills and catch those pesky memories with our cameras, nets, or whatever else he tells us we need.

Without further delay, let me turn you over to Craig:

For my very first photography article for easyWDW, Josh asked me to give a how-to for a particular aspect of photography he was interested in, so that’s what I’ll try to do.  Let me start by saying that I’m not a professional photographer, so for any “pro’s” who may be reading this, take it easy.  I’m just a guy with a little knowledge and a passion for photography and Disney.  I know, dangerous combination.  I’ve been somewhat interested in photography pretty much since I was a kid.  Remember the old Kodak Instamatics? I’ve only been what I guess you would call a serious hobbyist for the last 3 years.  I’ve decided that taking up anything as a serious hobby means spending a lot of money on equipment, because I have.  Not that you have to, but I’m weak.  As anyone who owns a dSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera knows, you absolutely can not have just one lens, oh no.  For example, there’s that lens that you need  because you absolutely can’t get the picture you want of that grave digger and his freakishly skinny dog in the Haunted Mansion, with that crappy kit lens that came with your camera.  That’s what I told my wife.  There’s always some little gadget, lens or better camera that will make your pictures infinitely better or allow you to take pictures that you could have never taken before, but that’s a different article.  So, here we go.

One of the most talked about topics on photography forums today is HDR imaging, or High Dynamic Range imaging.  You absolutely can do HDR and you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment, we’ll talk about what you need later.  However, you do need a basic understanding of exposure which consists of shutter speed, aperture and ISO, as well as a little experience with photo editing software.  So, if the terms “shutter speed”, “aperture” and “ISO” just made you say “what?”  I recommend getting a book on dSLR’s or do some Google-ing before you read any further.  I started with a book, Digital SLR Cameras & Photography for Dummies by David D. Busch and did a LOT of Google searches.  You can learn this stuff on your own and get results that you’ll be happy with, it just takes time and a little effort.  I did it, and if I can do it, anyone can do it.  I found that I learned the most simply by reading the owners manual that came with my camera, taking  pictures and just playing around with the settings on the camera.  Go ahead and push those buttons, change all those settings and see what you get.  Remember, it’s digital.  It doesn’t cost a dime to press that shutter release.  If you don’t like what you see, “delete” and try again.

Most everyone remotely interested in photography has seen an incredibly vivid, tack sharp image and said, “Wow! How did they do that?” I said it too.  It’s a picture that seems to jump off the paper.  You think to yourself “nothing I have taken has ever looked even remotely as spectacular“.  E very part of the image is properly exposed, every detail is visible and clear. No blown out (completely white) areas, no dark or black areas that should be visible.  The image looks almost as it would have if you had seen it with your own eyes, right?  There you go, that’s the connection between an HDR image and what your eye sees.  When you look at something with your naked eye, anything at all, your eye has the ability to properly “expose” every part of the image because your eye has a much higher dynamic range than a camera.  From the brightest areas to the darkest areas and everything in between, even in weird lighting conditions, your eye sees a completely perfect image. Cameras aren’t that smart…yet.

Without getting too technical, via a lot of electronic technology, a camera takes in all the available light and tries to properly expose an image for all of those lighting conditions by adjusting the shutter speed, aperture and ISO automatically.  The camera hopes to achieve a kind of happy medium.  This is what all point and shoot cameras do, as well as dSLR’s when set to an “auto” mode.  This is where cameras can struggle to take a properly exposed image when there are different levels of light sources and high contrast.  Sometimes it gets it right, sometimes it doesn’t.  Your main subject may look good, but other things in the image may be too light or too dark.  Like the sky in the background that was a very vivid blue, gray, purple or whatever when you looked through the viewfinder, is now almost completely white in your image.  Or the sky looks right and everything else in the image is too dark and barely discernible.  This is where HDR comes in.

Now, here’s how it works.   The most popular true HDR method is multiple image merging. This being a combination of multiple images at different exposures (in this case different shutter speeds) of the same subject that have been merged into one image via HDR software.  It’s not just a mega-expensive camera taking those spectacular photo’s.  It’s any camera with a “manual” setting, a tripod (or some way to keep the camera perfectly still) and image merging software.  So, you will need a dSLR or a point and shoot camera with “manual“ mode, so that you can change the shutter speed manually.  We’ll talk about the software in a bit.  If you choose not to use a tripod and hand-hold your camera you may not be thrilled with the results.  All HDR software aligns the images as part of the merge, but if you moved too much while snapping your pictures, well, the software can only do so much.  I prefer the tripod method because it works, but that’s just me.  Have you noticed that HDR photo’s are of objects that are not moving?  Buildings, landscapes stuff like that.  People and animals usually don’t work well as HDR subjects – we tend to move around a lot.

First, find your subject.  Maybe that big castle at the end of Main Street that all of those people are staring up at –  yeah, that one.  Oh, a caveat, if there are people in the frame, your merged picture is going to look really weird.  Those people are gonna be a bunch of blurry blobs.  Remember the part about everything in your frame being still and how people like to move around?  Anyway, mount your camera on your tripod or however you plan to keep it perfectly still and in the exact same position for each shot.  You can release the shutter simply by pressing the shutter release button, or using your timer, but ideally it’s better to have a wired or wireless remote release.  The less the camera moves the better your results. Now, you’ll want to take at least 3 images with each image having a different level of exposure.  This is called “bracketing“.  Three images is about the minimum.  You can certainly take more and you may actually need to depending on the complexity of light in the subject you are trying to capture.  More images = higher dynamic range; this is a good thing.  If you do choose to take more exposures, just continue to increase your stops of under/over exposure with each shot.   This is where you have to have some understanding of exposure and what a “stop” is.  I could fill another article just on exposure, but here’s a quick explanation of a “stop”; if you’re shooting at a shutter speed of 1/50”, one full stop of under exposure would give you a shutter speed of 1/100”, two full stops would be 1/200” and so on.  One full stop of over exposure would give you a shutter speed of 1/25”, two full stops would be 1/13” and so on.  A “stop” is simply doubling the shutter speed for under exposure (less light), or cutting it in half for over exposure (more light).

OK, lets start shooting.  You’ve got your camera on a tripod, or something stable and you’re ready to take your first shot.

1.  Set for correct exposure of the main subject, take the picture, “click”.

2.  Change your shutter speed by two full stops of over-exposure, take the picture, “click”.

3.  Change your shutter speed again to two full stops of under-exposure, “click”.

That’s it, you’re done with the camera part of it, unless you choose to take more pictures.  What you now have are 3 pictures – one that is exposed correctly, one that is underexposed, and one that is over exposed. By the way, changing each shot by 2 stops of exposure (shutter speed) is not a hard fast rule, it’s just what I usually do and it works for me.  If you take more shots, you can certainly decrease each stop level.  You can try more or less and see how it works. A lot of dSLR cameras have an auto-bracketing feature.  This simply allows you to set your level of exposure and number of shots you want to take, in-camera.  That way each time you press the shutter release, the  camera makes the exposure change on each shot automatically.  This keeps you from having to change settings manually between each shot.  These are the 3 images I’ve just taken.

This photo is at 2 stops of under exposure (Click for full resolution)

This next photo is at correct exposure (Click for full resolution)

This last photo is at 2 stops of over exposure (Click for full resolution)

Now, you’ll need to have some type of photo editing software to merge those images into one after you upload them to your computer.  Most photo editing bundles that you buy will have some type of HDR merging software.  I personally use Corel Paintshop Pro X2 for photo editing, which they have recently upgraded to Paintshop Photo Pro X3.  I haven’t bought the upgrade simply because the version I have does what I want it to do…for now. My version (X2) has a basic HDR merge function, that works okay for me.  You simply drag and drop your bracketed exposures, the software does the merging and voila!  If you don’t want to invest in software, most all photo editors have a free trial that you can download.  There is also an HDR stand alone software out there called Photomatix.  It’s designed specifically for HDR and has all sorts of bells and whistles.  I’ve never used it so I can’t comment on it, but it seems to be the most popular.  It’s not free, but there is a free trial version on their website.  Even after merging the images, you still may want to play around with it to get the end result you want.  Again, this is done through photo editing software.

Those spectacular photos almost never come straight out of the camera looking that way.  They are always “enhanced” through the use of software.  Just be careful with the “enhancing”.  If you read much at all about HDR and look at a lot of HDR pictures, you’ll start seeing the word “cartoon-ish”.  This is the word that’s used to describe HDR images that have a LOT of software enhancement.  The images are so incredibly over the top with the saturation of colors that the crazy high contrasts take on a strange un-real look, kind of like…well, a cartoon.  I personally don’t care for it, but hey, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Here is the final product. The three images above are merged into one with some minor editing.  Notice how the areas that were dark are now much more visible and detailed, as well as the areas that were completely white and devoid of color.

The Final Image (Click for full resolution)

So there you have it.  Not saying it’s the end all be all right way, or the only way. It’s simply the way I do HDR and it works for me.  Now get out there and capture the Magic!


  1. MKS says

    Hey guys, thanks for this. Trying to improve my Disney photos and this is very helpful, though I’m not sure I’m ready to stow a tripod in my daypack just yet. But maybe soon.

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