How to Photograph for HDR in 5 Simple Steps

After the Storm | Sedona | Arizona | How to Photograph for HDR

Creating HDR (high dynamic range) photography is a 2-part process: part one takes place behind the camera – part two, behind the computer.  Often I talk about how I process my HDR images, but today I’m going to share how to photograph for HDR in five simple steps.

Simply Sublime | Pier Cafe and Coronado Bridge | Seaport Village | San Diego | California | How to Photograph for HDR

Step 1 – Clean Your Gear

HDR brings out a lot of detail, which is great…except when that detail is the dust on your lens or camera’s sensor. While most dust spots can be fixed in post processing you can save yourself a lot of time by cleaning your gear before you head out for your shoot.

Old Dusty Winey Bottles | Castello di Amorosa | Calistoga | California | How to Photograph for HDR

Step 2 – Check Your Settings

  • Shoot in RAW format (or RAW + JPG if you must).
  • Set the camera to Aperture Priority (if using auto-bracketing) or Manual (if manually bracketing).
  • Turn on Auto-Bracketing (if using).
    • Some older/entry level cameras limit the number of auto-bracketed shots to 3. This can work for some lighting situations, but often 5-7 exposures (or more) are required to get all of the detail from the highlight and shadow areas. If 3 is the maximum number of frames your camera can automatically bracket you may need to manually bracket to fully capture the details in the highlights and shadows.
  • Use ISO 100 for best results.
    • Increasing the ISO will introduce noise/grain which will be emphasized during HDR processing.
  • Turn on continuous shooting for auto-bracketing, use single shot for manual bracketing
  • Set the white balance to something other than auto to keep the white balance/color consistent across your bracketed exposures.
  • Set the aperture between f/11-f/16 for a wide depth of field and keep the aperture consistent across your bracketed exposures.
  • If using you’re using Aperture Priority your shutter speed will be set automatically. If you’re using Manual mode, set the shutter speed to get a ‘0’ exposure by watching the camera’s internal light meter.
After the Storm | Sedona | Arizona | How to Photograph for HDR

Step 3 – Focus on Your Subject (or 1/3rd into the scene)

Maintaining consistent focus throughout each exposure is critical in photographing for HDR. If your focus point differs between exposures you can get a ghost image when processing that can make your merged HDR photo appear out of focus.

I usually use Live View and autofocus to focus on my subject. Then I turn off autofocus, while being careful not to shift the lens’ focal length.

Abandoned Beach Cottage | Cape Charles | Eastern Shore | Virginia | How to Photograph for HDR

Step 4 – Make Your Photos

Trigger the shutter for each exposure. If you are bracketing automatically you can use the continuous shooting mode to quickly fire off your bracketed set. If you’re manually bracketing a pause between each frame will be necessary to change your shutter speed.

Stairway to Nowhere | Abandoned Spiral Staircase | Pismo Beach | California | How to Photograph for HDR

Step 5 – Check Your Histogram

Watch the histogram to ensure that your darkest shot isn’t clipping the highlights (i.e. touching the right side of the graph) and your brightest shot isn’t clipping shadows (i.e. touching the left side of the graph). 

How to photograph for HDR: Bonus Tips

  • Whenever possible, use a tripod and a cable release (or the camera’s self timer) to minimize camera movement between exposures.
  • See the Light – Evaluate the contrast range in the scene to determine the number of necessary exposures (3, 5, 7 or more).
  • Too few exposures will leave gaps in the dynamic range.
  • Too many exposures will increase the chances of noise and chromatic aberrations when processing.
  • Pay attention to anything in your frame that might be moving between exposures (wind, clouds, water, trees, grass, etc.). Any movement will impact how you process the image. Deghosting technology for dealing with movement in HDR has come a long way, but it can impact the amount of flexibility you have in processing as well as the quality of the final image.

HDR Processing Software

Ready to process your bracketed exposures? Aurora HDR 2019 and Photomatix Pro 6 are my top picks for processing HDR photographs. Click here to see how they compare.

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  1. David H Sherman on November 7, 2019 at 11:59 am

    great information

  2. JEAN-FRANÇOIS DAMON on February 6, 2020 at 7:12 am

    merci pour ces informations !

  3. Fulvio on January 23, 2021 at 12:56 am

    Thank you Angela, really a useful checklist.

  4. Norma Meyers on October 18, 2022 at 4:27 pm

    Angela could you explain how to do this step?
    See the Light – Evaluate the contrast range in the scene to determine the number of necessary exposures (3, 5, 7 or more).

    • Angela Andrieux on October 20, 2022 at 8:42 am

      Hi Norma – The best way to do this is by watching the histogram on your camera. Your darkest shot should not have any blown out highlights (shown on the histogram by the graph touching the right side) and your brightest shot should not have any blocked up shadows (shown on the histogram by the graph touching the left side).

      In a scene with minimal contrast between the light and dark areas, you might be able to accomplish this with three shots (or even a single exposure with modern cameras). In high-contrast scenes, for example, photographing an interior with a window on a bright sunny day, you’ll likely need 5, 7, or more exposures to ensure you have a brackets with detail in all of the brightest and darkest areas.

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