Some tips to get the most out of your HDR shooting!

A long exposure HDR overlooking the Loop 360 Bridge in Austin, TX

Here are a few things to think about and/or experiment with before or while shooting, or when you are back at the computer.  These are tips that have helped me, though I admit that some are just personal preference.

  1. Always shoot in RAW.  A RAW file captures all available data in an image, and this will come in handy when you are later merging the files and adding filters/presets/whatever.  The files will be larger, but that’s ok.  What you care about is that when you are processing the image, the greater amount of data in the RAW files will allow you the flexibility to push the pixels around, should that be your choice.  If you shoot in JPG, you are likely to see artifacts in the image when you are making adjustments to the file.  Also, with RAW you can easily correct the white balance or “save” an overexposed photo, for example.  With JPG those options are limited.
  2. You can take as many photos in your bracket set as you want to.  I generally take 3 exposures for each of my HDR photos.  Years ago, I would take 7, all of them one stop apart.  But with the inherently better dynamic range of today’s cameras, I don’t feel like I benefit from having that many exposures (except in extreme situations).  I find that 99% of the time, it works great just taking 3 shots, each 2 stops apart.  However, I highly recommend that you experiment with this and see how you feel about it.
  3. You don’t have to center your brackets.  When you read about HDR, many photographers mention that their bracket set will look like this -2, 0, +2 (if they are taking 3 shots).  This is a centered set of brackets, by which I mean the middle shot is always at 0.  I rarely center my brackets.  I prefer to start a little darker, and my sets are often like this: -3, -1, +1.  Sometimes, they are even darker, looking like this: -4, -2, 0.  It definitely depends on the scene.  But I find that most of the time, if I were to center the brackets, that +2 exposure would be JUST SO BRIGHT that it’s basically useless to me.  Again, this is a personal preference that I got to through much experimentation.  I recommend you experiment with this as well.  Find out what works for you.
  4. Take a LOT of photos.  The only way to get good at something - anything - is to put in the time.  So go out and take some photos as often as you can.  They don't have to be great photos, but take the tripod and fire some brackets.  Then merge some to HDR and start experimenting.  See what you come up with.  Experiment.  Take creative risks. 
  5. Please yourself.  It's inevitable that feedback on your photos will range from "OMG that's incredible" to something like "What are you thinking??".  Ignore most/all of it and please yourself.  This is art and if you are not happy with it, what's the point of doing it?  Isn't this supposed to be fun?  Don't try to create something because it's popular, or you think it will get a lot of "likes", or whatever.  Just do whatever pleases your inner artist.  Trust me, you will be happier, and you are more likely to create compelling work if you are happy with what you are doing.
"Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst."  - Henri Cartier-Bresson

Waterfalls look great in HDR!

The basics before you start firing off shots:

  • Get the camera on the tripod and line up your shot - this sometimes takes me a bit as I like to move around and check it out from various spots, as you probably do too!
  • Put your camera in Aperture mode - this gives you control over the Aperture, but the camera uses it’s own brains to figure out how many seconds per shot (shutter speed).
  • Set your Aperture depending on the scene, available light, etc.
  • Set up auto-bracketing with the number of exposures you want (3, 5, 7, etc); I normally use 3 shots per HDR photo, each 2 stops apart, but in some scenes you will need more.
  • Check to make sure you are shooting in RAW format - I recommend that you do so since you will capture a greater level of detail with each exposure and RAW files are better for possible white balance and other changes that may come later.
  • Check your ISO.  I usually leave mine at 100 (the basic setting on my Sony camera).
  • Ensure your cable release is attached.
  • Shoot!

HDR photo taken in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Basic Outline of my HDR Workflow: 2016

I manage all of my files in Lightroom and I love it.  It’s a great product and I normally use it for some final touch-up and other adjustments after I have completed my work in Aurora.  It’s also how I manage my entire library of photos, which is nearly 200,000 images at this point, so clearly I need some help with that piece of it!

Everyone has their own preference in terms of organization, and I find this is a very personal thing.  For me, I organize by location, and then by date - and I group countries by region into folders (ex: I have a Europe folder, and under that I have each country and/or city).  I have a folder just for Austin, since I live here and thus have a lot of shots of my hometown.  I have a folder just for US cities, with the individual cities listed under it.  That’s my basic structure and it works well for me.

I know a lot of photographers organize by date, naming folders by the date and then grouping them by the year.  I don’t see a benefit in that type of organization for me.  I often need to pull a photo from a certain place.  I can’t remember when I went there, so it’s easier for me to just open the folder for a place and find it that way.  Anyway, that’s how I do it.  Again, this comes down to personal preference so see what feels right and do that.  There is no correct way to do it. 

Here is a basic snapshot of my HDR workflow:

  • Create a folder in Lightroom and import RAW files into it
  • Select the appropriate images that I plan to use for an HDR, and export them from Lightroom directly to Aurora as 16 bit TIFF files 
  • Aurora merges the files into an HDR image
  • Make all necessary adjustments in Aurora (more of that to come) and save the file, which then brings it back into Lightroom
  • Make any final adjustments in Lightroom
  • Export final image for social sharing, or to add to my portfolio site, etc

This is a gross oversimplification of my process, because it’s very high-level - but it’s accurate.  As you can see, all the real work is done in Aurora, which is what we will get into next!  

Take me to Aurora, Jim!

A colorful sunset in Dublin, Ireland