Defining HDR and how it works

What is HDR?

HDR photo of a Sunset in Amsterdam at the Bloemenmarkt

HDR, which stands for High Dynamic Range, is a photography technique that allows you to capture a greater range of detail and light in your photos by using multiple exposures and then blending them together into a single HDR photo - sort of like taking the best from each exposure to make the final result.

It’s a rather hot topic in photography circles, and not always for the right reasons.  I love it and find that many folks do too, though probably an equal amount do not.  That is ok - to each his own.  I fully understand that this can be a divisive topic among photographers, because many HDR photos over the years have been associated with extreme, almost cartoonish levels of detail and color.  It’s pretty easy to push the sliders too far, and then push them some more.  Everyone has tried it at some point, including me.  The key is to know when you have gone too far, and to be able to restrain your application of the technique.  

Sunset over Lake Travis, in Austin TX - subtle application of HDR

However, many photographers are very subtle in their application of HDR, and the results speak for themselves in my opinion.  Those photos are just beautiful.  It really doesn't matter which side of that fence you are on, because it's up to you how you want to handle your own photos.  But I bring this up because the cartoonish results are the ones that people tend to use to define the entirety of HDR photography.  It's not that, but that's what people pick on.  

With careful use, I feel that HDR brings interesting elements to the photo and certainly accentuates a greater level of detail than you can capture in a single image.  You can create exceptionally dynamic, exciting photos, and frankly, it's just plain fun to do so.

It also more clearly represents what you can see with the human eye.  We are capable of seeing a significant amount of detail in a subject, regardless of available light, but when you see a normal photo it often seems flat.  I think HDR makes a photo come alive.  It’s almost like being there!

HDR photo captured early one morning at The Temple Bar in Dublin, Ireland

So, how does HDR work?

HDR is a process whereby you take multiple shots of the same subject, but at different shutter speeds (this is called bracketing your images, and most cameras can do it automatically once you set it up). The slower shutter speeds allow in more light (because the shutter is open longer), making that image much brighter - which is especially important because it brightens up the otherwise dark shadow areas. The faster shutter speeds allow in less light (because the shutter is open a shorter amount of time) and result in darker images, which is especially important because it darkens the otherwise too bright highlight areas. 

I usually take 3 images per subject at various light levels (one lighter, one sort of medium, and one darker) and then combine them in Aurora HDR Pro.  When you combine them, it evens out the distribution of light in the image.  The dark areas get brightened, and the bright areas get darkened, so it all looks a bit more even.   You can also combine them in other products too, such as Lightroom, Photomatix, HDR Efex Pro and more.  I have used all of these but I am a firm believer that Aurora HDR Pro is the best one out there.   

For example, if you took a single shot you often end up with parts of the photo that are “blown out”, meaning way over-exposed (too bright) and other areas that are way too dark.  It is often difficult if not impossible to capture the best of both worlds in a single image.  So, along comes HDR.  By taking all these shots and combining them into a single image, you get the best elements of all the shots.  It basically blends the images together and allows you to create an image with a more balanced distribution of light across it.

A stunning sunset in Cannon Beach, Oregon

Aurora HDR simplifies the HDR creation process

Now, within Aurora HDR Pro you can do a WHOLE LOT of stuff to the photo, and you don’t even have to leave Aurora to complete your work.  In my Photomatix days, I built the base HDR in Photomatix, but then had to make several additional roundtrips to other programs to get my final photo looking the way that I wanted it to look.  

But not anymore.  After merging the photos together in Aurora to create my base HDR image, I begin to apply presets and new layers with brush adjustments to do some creative editing.  That’s part of the power of Aurora - layers.  Here's a video showing how I do that in Aurora HDR:

In my Photomatix days, I would create the base HDR there, and then return to Lightroom.  Then, I would head off to Color Efex Pro or Topaz Adjust (and sometimes, both) to apply some filters and enhance colors, details, or whatever.  Then I returned to Lightroom again.  Then, I would head over to Topaz DeNoise to remove noise from the photo, and then return to Lightroom.

See all these roundtrips I was making?  It consumed a fair amount of my time, and it was pretty inefficient.  Well, those days are gone because I can do all of that in Aurora HDR.  I create the HDR in Aurora, then add Presets to get the look that I envision, and then I can remove noise - all in Aurora!  My process is streamlined and efficient, and now I really only have to know my way around a single product, instead of a handful of products.  Life is easier!  Plus, it honestly helps my editing skills because I have time to get deeper with Aurora, since I don't need anything else.  Its a life-saver, seriously.

The harbor in Stonehaven, Scotland

While each photo is different, on average I spend 15-20 minutes creating a complete HDR photo in Aurora.  Sometimes more, sometimes less, but that’s usually about it.  I don't want to spend too long on any single shot, because I always want to create more.  To be clear, this is not me rushing through things, either.  It may involve multiple layers (usually 5+ layers per photo) with various presets applied, as well as noise reduction and anything else.  It’s the complete photo creation process, end to end, in a single program.  It’s lovely.  I HIGHLY recommend you give it a try, if you haven't yet.

Ok, next up is a discussion about when HDR is applicable, what gear you need, and tips for those moments when you don’t have a tripod. 

Take me to the next page, Jim!

Friday Harbor, Washington at sunset - HDR created in Aurora