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HDR (high dynamic range) is a term describing a set of techniques that expand the dynamic range of luminance between the lightest and the darkest area of an image.

Does that sound confusing?  Ya - it does ...

OK - say you are out at dusk (or dawn) and see this amazing landscape scene that just begs to be photographed - it's a potential prize winner!

The only problem is the huge dynamic range of the scene - the number of f-stops between the lightest and the darkest parts of the scene you want to accurately capture with your trusty digital camera.

This gorgeous landscape may have a range of 15 to 20 f-stops while your digital is only capable of capturing 8 to 10 f-stops so something has to give.  Either the shadows will be blocked out or the highlights will be blown out.

By using high dynamic range techniques you can more accurately capture what was visible in that scene than you can with a normal digital image.

This is what I'm talking about ...

The following images were taken just before sunset and while all of them are acceptable, not one of them accurately captures what was visible with the naked eye - the emotional content has not been recorded.

hdr as metered The shot as metered.

hdr-minus one One f-stop below the metered value.
hdr plus one One f-stop over the metered value.

What we need to do is combine these three images into one super shot - and that's exactly what High Dynamic Range does and here it is ...

hdr merged image

After completing the merge process you will generally find that some additional editing in your favorite digital editor is required - things like levels or curves, maybe some sharpening.  You can even get into the image with a soft light layer and do some dodging and burning with your Wacom pen.

What I've Learned About High Dynamic Range (so far)

Here's what I've learned about High Dynamic Range photography - so far ...

  1. Multiple images of the exact same scene taken one right after the other are necessary to do the conversion which means ...

  2. You need a camera that's capable of taking at least three Bracketed shots with different Exposure Values (EV) which probably means you need a Digital SLR but there are a few high end Point and Shoot cameras that will take Bracketed shots.. Check your camera manual if you are not sure.

    (Terry of Terrys Tutorials adds - the best aperture is about 3 stops down from the maximum stop - so for an f/4 lens - f/11 is about best - the exposures should be set so that in the darkest one there is detail in the highlights AND in the brightest one there should be detail in the shadows - THEN you have the true range available.)

  3. The shots should be taken with the camera set to Aperture Priority (which means the Aperture is set to one opening - say f 8.0 for example - and the shutter speed changes - the Aperture that is set is given Priority and the shutter speed will depend on what the camera light meter reads). Aperture Priority is generally indicated by the letter A or Av on the camera's selection dial.

    The reason for setting the camera in Aperture Priority is that the aperture will remain the same for the three shots and always have the same depth of field.

    (Additional comments from Terry - because the various auto functions in a camera can change each others' settings you are best setting the focus to manual AND setting the vibration reduction OR image stabilisation to OFF and setting the flash to OFF AND setting the ISO to the base level AND setting the white balance to a setting of your own choice otherwise the merge functions in say PSP will not do the job properly.  The more complex the image the more critical these settings become.)

  4. The camera should absolutely be mounted on a good, sturdy tripod.  Any motion of the camera during the bracketed shots will cause problems during the conversion stage.  
    I took three lovely shots of a water sunset with some boats in the foreground and somehow the camera jiggled, darn.  If there's a mistake to be made rest assured I will make it but that's how we learn - we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes.

    Don't want to carry a bulky tripod everywhere?  How about investing in one of those cool Gorilla Pods that will wrap their arms about things and hold your camera steady or ...

    As a last resort simply jam your camera up against something that doesn't move, lean into it to keep it motionless and take your shots.  Maybe do two or three sequences to insure that one set has no motion.

    (Terry's final thought - not only is a tripod essential but some authors advise a remote shutter release because even the slightest movement in the images sequences can confuse the merge.)

  5. The subject matter needs to be perfectly still because any motion will be visible when the three shots are combined with your software.

And that's only the set-up!  

Those five points lead to one conclusion and that is - converting to HDR requires some planning.

The High Dynamic Range Debate

Some folks love High Dynamic Range photographs, some hate it and the debate rages on.    Over the past month or so Terry (Terry's Tutorials) and me have been trading emails about HDR.  Terry sent me a couple of links looking at both sides of the High Dynamic Range debate.

These are articles written by Pro Photographers espousing both points of view for your reading pleasure ...

Why I Don't Do HDR

Why I Do HDR

Practical Photography Tips

HDR practical photography tipsThis is a fabulous site your just have to visit for photography tips to create wonderful images for HDR conversion.

Breathtaking vistas, beautiful sunsets and sunrises, the contrasting textures and colors of fields, whatever the place there is something special about capturing the beauty of creation through landscape photography.

High Dynamic Range Planning

High Contrast Scenes - the human eye is capable of seeing a very large range of brightness (dynamic range) - some say it's in the range of 20 f-stops.  Your digital camera can see and record about 10 f-stops.

If the scene you are shooting includes 17 levels of brightness and your camera can only record 10 of them how do you think the picture will look?  

It will probably be OK but with either blown out highlights or blocked shadows and you don't want that, do you?

For example, have you ever seen something that absolutely had to be photographed because it was so beautiful or unique only to suffer great disappointment when you downloaded the picture?

Sure you have, we've all had that experience.

The dynamic range of that particular scene far surpassed the dynamic range capability of your camera and something gave.

High contrast scenes can include but are not limited to ...

  • Early morning
  • Early to late evening
  • Sunrise and sunset
  • City scapes
  • Landscapes
  • Beach scenes
  • Snow scenes
Pretty much anything that has a high contrast is a good candidate for HDR.

If you're looking for tips to help improve your outdoor photographs then check out this site ...

Digital Photography Basics for Outdoor Enthusiasts!

Follow the tips, techniques and tutorials in this site to shorten your learning curve and start creating better photography immediately!

Camera Set-Up

Bracketed Exposure

The camera set-up will vary from camera to camera.

My six year old Olympus E-300 will take 3 bracketed shots ranging -1 EV to 0 to +1 EV (EV = Exposure Value).

Newer and more sophisticated cameras generally have a wider bracketing range, for instance ...

  • Canon 50D -5.0 EV to + 5.0 EV
  • Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX5 -2.0 EV to +2.0 EV
  • Olympus PEN E-P2 -3.0 EV to +3.0 EV
  • Nikon Coolpix L110 -2.0 to +2.0 EV
  • Panasonic Lumix DMC-G10 -3.0 EV to +3.0 EV
  • Samsung TL 205 -2.0 EV to + 2.0 EV

So I guess when my Olympus E-300 was new, -1 EV to +1 EV was probably about as good as it got - not now - and that would explain the reason that it's difficult to get three files with a wide separation of brightness between them.  

If your camera will do 2.0 EV or 3.0 EV steps then use the highest setting to get the greatest range in the images.

Manual Setting

The images needed to produce an HDR image can also be shot using the Manual Mode of your camera.  

In this situation just set the Aperture, determine the best shutter speed to produce a good image and then change the speed for each exposure and you can pretty much set any speed and create multiple images - 4 or 5 - or whatever you want.  In the actual conversion to HDR part this will give you lots of creative options.

The only challenge with using the Manual mode is that the camera has to be touched to change the shutter speed.  

With my Olympus I need to push a button to change from the Aperture setting to the Shutter setting and then I need to roll a little wheel to change the speed - all that pushing and turning is not particularly conducive to keeping the camera absolutely still, is it?

If you want to try the Manual method you will have to check your camera to see if the speed can be changed with minimal touching of the camera.

File Formats

If your camera supports RAW files then that is the preferred format.  RAW files will create the most striking HDR images.  A note - very few Point and Shoot cameras are capable of shooting in RAW.

Jpeg files can be used as well but they produce less stunning but overall great results.

Shadows Highlights

While not a standalone conversion, the Shadow Highlight adjustment in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements does what you would expect of High Dynamic Range - it increases the dynamic range of an image.

It's particularly useful with difficult images with either blocked in shadows or blown out highlights.

HDR - photoshop elements

Click the thumbnail to learn about the Shadows Highlights adjustment with Photoshop Elements.

HDR photoshop

Click the thumbnail to learn about the Shadows Highlights adjustment with Photoshop.

High Dynamic Range Software


hdr photoshopPhotoshop CS2 included its first Merge to HDR function in 2005.

It has steadily improved over the years and CS5 not only converts multiple images but it also has a function to create an HDR image from a single photo.

When everything is said and done it's tough to beat Photoshop, isn't it?  

Photoshop is available for both Windows and MAC.

If you don't already own Photoshop then the cost of buying the full package is steep.

Click the thumbnail (or here) to learn more about HDR conversion with Photoshop - from CS2 up to the latest version, CS5.

Paint Shop Pro

Corel's Paint Shop Pro Photo X3 Ultimate includes HDR Photo Merge ...  hadr paint shop proand it does a great job, at least in my opinion.

The interface is quite simple to use with only two adjustments available.

In terms of bang for your buck, Paint Shop Pro is tough to beat not only for the HDR Photo Merge option but for the full suite of digital editing functions as well.

This image was converted using Paint Shop Pro and then converted to black and white in the Photo Effects menu.  HDR  is an excellent base for converting to black and white.

The only downside is that Paint Shop Pro is only available for Windows.

Clicking on the black and white image will take you to the Paint Shop HDR page - so will this link right here.


hdr photomatixIn February of 2003 the first version of HDR software was released by Photomatix and it is probably the most popular standalone HDR software.

It's available in both Pro and Light versions and there is also a Photomatix plug-in available for Photoshop.

There are a lot of adjustments in this program and that's probably why it produces such dramatic results - from mild and natural to wild and crazy.

Photomatix Pro is not particularly expensive and the Lite version is even more affordable.

Photomatix is available for both Windows and MAC's.

When I first became interested in HDR I did a conversion with CS2 and proudly sent it off to my friend Kandace - an accomplished  photographer.  She asked me to send her the original files.

About 20 minutes later she sent me an High Dynamic Range conversion she did with her copy of Photomatix. What Kandace sent far surpassed my conversion.

Mine was fine, hers was great - it just seemed to glow and had colors where mine didn't.

She was using Photomatix and she thinks it is wonderful.

NIK Software

HDR Efex ProA relatively new entrant (October, 2010) in the HDR scene is NIK Software with HDR Efex Pro. 

HDR Efex Pro, is a completely new High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging solution designed to help professional and amateur photographers quickly and easily achieve a full spectrum of HDR enhancements.

HDR Efex Pro overcomes limitations in other software products with a revolutionary all-in-one approach and multiple tone mapping algorithms that enable realistic and artistic results to be created start-to-finish within a single tool.

NIK Software is known for their innovate, effective digital photography filters with a ton of awards to back them up.

This is a really fabulous program and worth checking out if you are looking for a complete HDR conversion package.

Click the thumbnail to discover more about HDR Efex Pro.

Page Links

What I've Learned so far

High Dynamic Range Planning

Camera Set Up

Shadow Highlight


A Very Brief History

The first recorded attempt to produce a high dynamic range image occurred in the 1850's by Gustav Le Gray.  

In the 20th century selective dodging and burning of an image produced results that darkened highlights and opened up the shadows.  Ansel Adams made this into an art form in his darkroom and selective dodging and burning is still a very, very useful method to edit an image.

With the increase in computing power and the introduction of Merge to HDR in Photoshop CS2 in 2005 creating High Dynamic Range images became a whole lot easier and available to everyone.  

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