7 Tips for HDR Photography that Doesn’t Stink.

PinExt 7 Tips for HDR Photography that Doesnt Stink.

By Gavin Seim: Updated 05/13)HDR (High Dynamic Range) is really powerful, but often misunderstood. People will throw images into the latest software only to mimic the easy, but often ugly and over processed “HDR look”. That HDR that has become the stigma of the technique. HDR and especially HDR portraits can be challenging, but they are not rocket science. It just takes some time to get the hang of the subtleties. Here’s a few tips that anyone can use for both pictorial and portrait work to mange dynamic range better.

Folio Look to the Wind 600x391 7 Tips for HDR Photography that Doesnt Stink.

1. Understanding HDR: It’s not a style in itself. A style is something that comes from you. HDR all about light. Sometimes it’s from a single file. Often it means getting various exposures at different lightness levels and then combining them in a way that looks good either manually, or using tone-mapping or fusing, with software like Photomatix and others.

Folio Doorway to Winter 300x210 7 Tips for HDR Photography that Doesnt Stink.

But contrary to what overdone HDR suggests. It’s not about showing ALL the light in a scene. Without shadow, an image is usually flat, chaotic and without focus. HDR about gaining control over all the light in a scene. It’s almost like a bucket filled with light from an entire scene and you can use it however you want.

2. Tripods & Releases: While most HDR rendering software can attempt to line up images, you really want clear consistent frames because stability is key. If there’s no other option, you may have to hand hold and hope for the best. It can work, but a tripod is king and is always the safest route. Even with single image exposures, using a tripod will generally get you better quality. See The Six Keys To Image Quality.

Cable releases are also a great tool. Allowing you to avoid touching the camera while making frames. Good for sequences and long exposures. Besides that, it looks cool to stand there majestically and press the release button.

Folio Midnight Seattle 600x379 7 Tips for HDR Photography that Doesnt Stink.

A PPS Loan award winner from 2010. 3 images blended in HDR software and finished in Photoshop.

3. Auto Bracketing: Most DSLR’s have an auto bracket function that allows you to have -2, 0 and +2 exposure compensation in one quick burst. AB allows you to expose things fast without handling the gear as much. In some cases you may want to manually get a wider exposure range, but I find that 3 images are usually all I need.

Auto bracketing is not only convenient, it’s especially valuable with HDR portraits or moving subjects because you need to capture your sequence as fast as possible without having to manually change settings. But remember that just because your bracketing is not an excuse for poor exposure. Keeping that middle frame dead on will give you a better final result.

Folio Hunters Bridgey 600x428 7 Tips for HDR Photography that Doesnt Stink.

A three image bracket blended in Photomatix and refined in Photoshop.

4. Think Simple: Every HDR image does not need to portray some kind of crazy, hyper real fantasy look. That can work, but it’s heavily used and a bit of a fad, that personally I think is on the way out. HDR is all about the control of light. You still need to find your own style and refine your process.

With a great HDR, viewers may not even know it’s HDR, they’ll just know it looks amazing and that’s all that really matters. Newbies often think that just because it’s “HDR” it will be something special. But rules of composition and beauty don’t change just because you have a new piece of software. Great photography is still a craft.

5. Use Layers? When working with dynamic range don’t be afraid to use masking methods. This involves taking exposures (sometimes including a tone-mapped version) and loading them as aligned layers in Photoshop. You can then mask or erase (masking is better) parts of layers to reveal ones below.

This is a powerful tool for controlling light in an image, because you decide what elements to use from your images. I call this masking to base. It’s very controlled and is often perfect for a very subtle process. It can also be used to blend a tone-mapped image with original exposures to better control tone, reduce artifacts etc.

King Over the Thistles 600x425 7 Tips for HDR Photography that Doesnt Stink.

A layer blended HDR made using two exposures.

6. Don’t Over Edit: This is the most common problem people have with HDR. Making bracket and tossing it into your software is easy. But to get the magic, you need to edit well. Don’t always go for that heavy look. Just because it’s HDR, doesn’t mean you have to edit heavy. I use HDR a plethora of different ways for various images. Single images, tone-mapping, mask to base, fill flash HDR . Just consider what you want in a great image and use dynamic range to make it even better.

If you are tone-mapping, also remember that it’s easy to get artifacts. Be careful when processing and use your sliders deftly. Also a Tone-mapped image rarely gives a finished product. Tone-mapping a great pixel mixer, but I always head to LR and PS for final tweaks, actions and and the all critical burn and dodge to control all that tone. Take it slow.

Folio Artists Sunset 528x600 7 Tips for HDR Photography that Doesnt Stink.

A single image HDR. Managed dynamic range using good exposure.

7. Single Images: There’s nothing that says an HDR has to be a bracketed sequence. Remember it’s all about capturing a high range of light and today’s cameras are pretty good at capturing that range, even on a singe RAW file. Yes, a multi-bracket with capture more range, but you don’t always need that much range.

Sometimes I find a bracketed sequence give a worse image than a single file. Now You can tone-map a single file, similar to the way you blend multiple files. But often I find it goes too far. Usually if I’m working with a single image, I’ll just draw out that range straight from the RAW file in Lightroom, using channels, brushes etc – It’s always all about the light.

That’s all for today but there lots to talk about. But lets remember that not so much has changed since the film days. Ansel and others used techniques for exposure, developing and in the darkroom to get high dynamic range. The approach was different, but the idea has not. A bold look is fine if you have a reason, but don’t use a look as an excuse because you don’t know how to edit in a way that best fits the image you visualized before you released the shutter.

If you need Photomatix you can use our reader promo code PPS15 to save 15%. Also check our the HDR MAGIC video workshop for in depth looks at how to manage dynamic range at every level. You can check out that on Seim Effects.


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  • dan

    DUDE!!!! Enough already! The plural of “photo” is “photos”. There is no apostrophe. Nice to finish elementary school.

    • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

      Dan I’m sorry your offended by the apostrophe in photo’s. I don’t know exactly what the rule states and I doubt you do either. Either way I happen to like apostrophe on plural’s. The English language is full of things that are debated and confusing. Perhaps, if that makes you cranky you should learn another one.

      I’m certain you could find many real typos if you feel like griping. Frankly I’d say you have way too much time on your hands, or maybe need a girlfriend. I however do not. In the spirit of life being to short therefore I’ll stop talking now and do more productive things ;)

  • RS

    I do believe that someone was being a bit cranky.

    The use of an apostrophe (as I recall) is either
    to show possesion or a contraction.

  • Brian

    Dan is not being overly offended. While the web is full of bad grammar, if you’re going to present yourself in a professional manner, being able to write well is expected.

    Apostrophes are for forming contractions, such as “I’d rather be taking photos” and possessives, “Bob’s 5DII rocks.” Occasionally you will see apostrophes used to form possessives of uppercase acronyms, such as “PSD’s”, but I am fairly certain this is incorrect as well.

    I’m not sure if most people ignore the bad grammar that’s out there or simply fail to notice it. Grammar is important because it conveys meaning. Reading an article with improper grammar and spelling makes it difficult to comprehend and does a disservice to your readers.

    Just as you wouldn’t create a business site with a pink polka dot background and purple blinking text, if you’re going to write in a professional capacity, learn the basics.

  • Brian

    I can’t seem to edit my post, but where I wrote “possessives of uppercase acronyms,” I meant “plurals of uppercase acronyms.”

  • alan


    Lets be honest here, Dan, you are a prick!

  • Jeanene

    You know…I would have to say, regardless of grammar…polite and respectful communication is of primary importantance. After all…language is for the purpose of communication! If an individual chooses to take offense at something that has nothing to do with him…that is his problem…it is a shame that he missed the point of this site and the generous information offered here. It leaves me wondering just how far such an individual has progressed since elementary school(since that is the measure he chose to use)…emotionally, I’d say not much further than grade five.

    Gavin, thank you so much for sharing what you have learned…there are those of us out here who are not so arrogant as to throw away the jewels you offer because we “think” that we might discern a tiny flaw in the packaging! Content is everything…I for one and fascinated by HDR photography…I have only been limited thus far due to budget constraints that have kept me from purchasing really good HDR capable editing software. I will be keeping my eyes open for any further tips you might choose to share! Thanks again!

  • http://n/a nsl4

    Gavin, thanks for the post and very informative website.

    I’m disappointed to see many visitors to your blog getting so derailed by grammatical pedantry that they forget to comment on the content and all the effort you put in developing and maintaining the site. Come on guys….

  • Nico

    Did I have anything to learn from this? Yes, I did. so, to hell with a stupid grammar error that should be ignored. Great job and thank you Gavin for taking the time to share this.

  • Nisha

    yeah this is some great advice and fantastic photographs and I love that some loser has taken the time out of their day to fault your grammer, because they obviously cannot fault your photography

  • http://n/a Graham Thomas

    Go Gavin , the subject of HDR looms as very interesting to me . I am looking forward to hearing more from you , and also when I do get started on HDR , I may pester you . But , it will not be because of an apostrophe . Thumbs up for you Gavin. !!!!!!!!Help yourself to these DAN , i think it was he . Cannot be bothered checking.

  • Nik

    Thanks for the English lesson guys, but I really just wanted to learn about HDR photography. For the record though Dan is a prick but I also find the incorrect use of the apostrophe slightly frustrating. All the best everyone, and cheer up!

  • Andrew

    While some may look at over editing HDRs as improper, it is a preference to some. Just keep in mind you need not bias your article. We all warm up to different styles. Just my $0.02

    • http://www.prophotoshow.net Gavin Seim

      It’s not so much that it’s improper. Most just think it looks bad, usually because it’s poorly done. Heavy HDR editing can be used well, but usually isn’t. Usually it’s a result of someone who does not know how to edit it right. That’s always the wrong approach.

      To be really good at something one always needs to learn to do it in a balanced fashion. Once they know they can ride the edge a bit. I’ve seen heavily edited HDR that was cool. It’s often just the easy way though and people are tired of it. A well balanced HDR is usually much harder to edit than an over edited one.

      Being edgy is cool until everyone is doing it. Then it’s just boring and usually annoying.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/a_selfmade_view Gary


    The one thing that the whole HDR process has brought to my photography is improved composition. After visualizing the image, setting up my tripod and composing the scene in the viewfinder, I certainly find I take more time making sure everything is just right before I actually push the shutter release.

    Your tips are well conceived. Thanks.

  • http://www.mckaso.com Steve

    Thank you for posting this Gavin. All good points.

  • Chris

    Any chance you can do a video tutorial on mask or erase (masking is better) parts of layers to reveal ones below?

    This would be something I would be interested in learning…

  • GD

    As a complete newcomer to HDR photography, this has been a helpful and informative read.

    Though I don’t wish to prolong or inflame the grammar argument, I am inclined to offer some support for Dan. I think he made a bad choice by framing his observation as a personal insult but, Gavin, as the author of the article, should know better than to sling mud in return. Attempting to justify himself by implying that Dan is small minded, petty and in need of sexual satisfaction for caring about grammar is childish, as is pretending that he likes using incorrect grammar as a matter of choice. Apart from anything else, to some people, Gavin’s obsession with photography and disdain for over-processing will certainly look every bit as much a pursuit for a sexually frustrated geek.

    Unfortunately, writing articles for the public means opening yourself to criticism, and trading personal insults with someone who has criticised your article – even if they’ve been rude – just lowers you to the same level.

  • Nick

    It deos not mettar how the wrdos wree wrettin. waht mettars is taht the wrdos weer undersotod and taht the mssegae was cnovyeed aoubt HDR ptohogprahy. You wlil pbroably be sruprsied taht you weer albe to raed tihs msseage. Why? Bceause the hmuan eeys only raeds the frist and lsat ltteers of ecah wrod.

  • kenneth

    heyyyy are we English teacher here or Photographer?…. just kidding… anyway.. I greatly admire the effort of Gavin for putting up this very informative site, I will surely drop by here everyday. Once again Gavin.. Thank you from the bottom of my CCD..



    Thank you for sharing the knowledge that you learned. There are people who see the bigger picture of the content rather than paying attention to details of no use as for the moment since this is all about learning HDR Photography and not about lgrasping for the right rules of English 101. So Gavz, chill! for you are the man!!! For those wanting to learn the perfect english language, this ain’t the site. You are so lost!!! :P

  • Dee

    Go Jeanene….

    and yes, thank you Gavin for sharing your knowledge, for an amateur like myself this site is invaluable. Keep it coming!