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How Do I Take HDR Photos?

There are so many techniques to use with photography that can set you apart and add a unique feel to your images. One popular technique and genre is HDR (or High Dynamic Range) photography.

The HDR technique works by taking multiple photos of the same image with varying exposure. In post-production, you combine these images and pull the best exposure from each shot. Maybe you want to take a landscape photo that has the sunset in the background, a shaded tree, and sign in the foreground. Because these different subjects in the photo require different exposure, you essentially take photos with proper exposure for each area and bring it all together in post-production. If that explanation went over your head, here's a more in-depth version!

While HDR is frequently used in landscape photography, it can give any image a neat, grungy look!

Now, it has been a while since I have used this technique, because it isn't heavily used in portrait photography (though it can be). But for the purpose of this post, and with some much appreciated help from James Brandon refreshing my memory, I went out and tested my landscape photography skills!

How to Shoot HDR - In Camera

You can go through and adjust your settings manually for each exposure to get your HDR photos, but that's the hard way. But time is money, and we want to spend it the smart way. There is a simpler option that will allow you to just hold down your shutter button and, without going in and changing settings, capture your high, low, and regularly exposed images.

Navigate to your camera's main menu and locate your "exposure compensation" adjuster thingy (like my jargon?). Use the dial on the top of your camera to adjust the range of your exposure compensation. The wider your range, the more dramatic and extreme your exposure change will be (super overexposure, super underexposure). Head back to your regular screen and set your exposure as you would for a regularly, well exposed image. We'll call this your baseline exposure 😉

Now, when you go to shoot, you should be able to hold down your shutter button and let your camera do the magic by snapping three photos: the underexposed, overexposed, and baseline exposure.

One of the articles I read said it's easiest if you use AV (aperture) mode for HDR shooting because your camera will automatically decide the appropriate aperture for the shots. However, if you are confident using manual, it might be more comfortable for you to shoot in manual. For me, shooting in manual is always easier now that I understand it. If you aren't comfortable shooting in manual mode yet but would like to be, check out this simple blog post I wrote explaining the basics of shooting in manual mode!

Bracketed High Regular and Low Exposure for HDR

What to do After Shooting - In Post-Production

If you do not have a post-production program like Photoshop or Lightroom, there are free sites and programs online that you can use. Some I found with a quick Google search were Fotor and LunaPic. But do some research and find what program and site works best for your needs and budget!

Now my technique for converting photos to HDR is probably a roundabout way of doing it.

Lightroom + Photoshop HDR Conversion

I upload all of my images to Lightroom first, which is where I do 95% of my editing. Once they are uploaded to Lightroom, before I do ANY editing, I select the three images I want to convert to HDR by using Shift+Click and selecting the images. Then, right click and select "Edit In > Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop".

Moving images from Lightroom to Photoshop for HDR

At that point, Photoshop should automatically open and work to convert your images. It will allow you to change settings like Edge Glow, Vibrance, Highlights, Ghosting, etc at that time and you can customize the intensity and style of your fancy new HDR. If you aren't sure what "Ghosting" is, watch the video below for some insight!

HDR Window in Photoshop

What is Ghosting?

To save the image back to Lightroom and continue editing or export as is, confirm your HDR settings in Photoshop and hit Command+S (Macintosh) or Control+S (Microsoft). This should automatically save the changes directly to your Library in Lightroom.

Lightroom HDR Conversion

Recently, Lightroom was updated to have an HDR option within the program so you don't have to navigate in and out of the window. To get to this feature, you would select your images to convert to HDR as you would with the other method using Shift+Click and selecting the images. Then, right click and select "Photo Merge > HDR". At that time, Lightroom will open a window with some options to adjust ghosting.

Photo Merge to HDR in Lightroom
Deghost option in Lightroom HDR Merge

But unfortunately... that is about all it will let you change. I personally do not feel Lightroom gives you as much control as Photoshop HDR settings provide. After converting you can go in and make usual adjustments in the Lightroom "Develop" module, but even with adjustments there I never get the same dramatic effect that I can obtain in Photoshop. Maybe I'm not utilizing this feature as well as I could be, if so please leave suggestions in the comments - I'm always willing to learn! Time is money, right?

In Photoshop

Open the images you want in Photoshop. They will open as individual files in the program, but you'll change that by going up to the very top of your screen, selecting "File > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro". A small window will pop up asking which files you want to merge, since you already have the files open, select "Add Open Files".

Using Photoshop to Merge HDR Photo
Photoshop HDR Merge How-To

This will take you to the same HDR window that would have opened if you transferred the images through Lightroom. This is the window where you can adjust your HDR settings to your liking!

Photoshop HDR Editing Window

Ta Da!

That's how you merge images and convert them to an HDR or High Dynamic Range photo!

Your post-production process is entirely up to you and I promise no two photographers are alike in their methodology here so feel free to experiment! Same goes for your HDR editing. This technique and genre of photography is so diverse and unique that you cannot possibly be too creative with it! Writing this post and getting back in the game myself with HDR has inspired me to try and use this technique more often in my own work. It is so easy when the camera does the work for you and it just takes a minute or two extra in post-production editing. I encourage you all to do the same!

HDR Example by Nettik Photography

Make sure you share your HDR attempts with me and let me know your experience in the comments! If HDR photography is your area of expertise please feel free to add extra comments and suggestions as well so we can all continue to improve in our skill!

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