When to use HDR + Equipment needed + Handheld HDR tips

When is HDR applicable?  Where?

Tower Bridge at sunset - London

While I tend to fire brackets just about every time that I go shoot, I don’t always process them all.  If the light is evenly distributed across the image, I may just use a single exposure to create my image.  It really depends on what I see when I have brought the RAW files into Lightroom.

Generally speaking, HDR works really well when there is a fairly big discrepancy between the light and dark areas of your shot.  If it is a bright day and everything is pretty evenly lit, you don’t really need to create an HDR.  If it’s sunrise, sunset or blue hour and there is some detail lurking in the shadows that you might want to accentuate, you're more likely going to benefit from it.  

Interior architecture is a great use for HDR (in a church or museum, for example), often due to the constrained lighting inside.  Landscapes and cityscapes are personal favorites of mine, especially at the edges of the day in fading light - and they look GREAT in HDR.    

As you are out shooting, take note of the light in your scene and if you want to be cautious, take a set of brackets just in case (I pretty much do this all the time anyways).  You may not want or need to create an HDR from them, but at least you have them, should you decide to do so.

Sunset in Copenhagen, Denmark

Blue hour over the skyline of Nashville, TN

What equipment do I need?

The basic tools that I use for shooting and creating HDR images:

  • a camera that has auto-bracketing (most mid-range and higher cameras have auto-bracketing these days) and that will allow you to shoot in RAW format
  • a tripod - it is vitally important that your images line up so that you can avoid blurs etc -  I have shot plenty of handheld HDR shots, but it's not always easy so a tripod should be your 2nd best friend (after your camera of course!)
  • a cable release of some sort, so you can fire the shutter without touching the camera (this helps eliminate the risk of slightly shaking or moving the camera during the exposure)
  • software that will allow you to create the HDR images from your files - I highly recommend that you use Aurora HDR
  • Lightroom or a similar product to manage your library and make basic edits

Handheld vs Tripod shooting

I highly recommend that you have a tripod when you are shooting HDR.  (You can read my review of the MeFOTO Roadtrip tripod that I use on this page.)  You need the images to line up perfectly in order for you to be able to blend them.  Now, Aurora does a great job of aligning them, should you need to shoot handheld, but I always prefer to use the tripod if possible so I don’t have to worry about it.  Also, because a set of brackets will include some longer exposures, the tripod helps you make sure you capture them without any blur.

Should you find yourself in a situation where handheld is the only option, then here are some tips to help you get the most out of your shots:

  • Slow down.  If you hurried to get to a spot you may be short of breath.  Relax for a couple of minutes before shooting so that your breathing and heart rate can return to normal levels.  This will help you keep the camera still.
  • Increase your ISO.  This will help to reduce your shutter speed for a quicker shot, thus giving you a better chance of getting minimal movement between frames.  Note that this will also generate more digital noise in your photo, so try various test shots as you increase it.
  • High-Speed Burst mode.  Firing your shots in continuous high speed mode will help to reduce any chance of movement between them.
  • Tuck your elbows into your sides and remain as still as possible.   Take a couple of full, deep breaths before you take the shot - this relaxes you and helps you focus better.  Cradle the camera and exhale slowly.  It’s good to press the shutter button at the end of the exhale and before the next inhale.  It feels like that is when we are most still.  
  • Sit or lean against something for an added boost to your stability (but keep your elbows tucked against your sides).  You can use a column or a pew if you are in a church.  Put your back up against a wall.  Sit down on the floor.  Try to find a stable position. 
  • Consider your Aperture setting.  If you always shoot at tight apertures (f/11, f/13, f/16, etc), consider shooting a bit more wide open (f/9, f/8, f/7.1, etc) which will allow the light in more quickly and thus help you take a quicker set of brackets.  Experiment and see what works for you.
  • Take the first set of brackets and then shoot again, noting any adjustments you may need to make (further increase ISO, for example).  Having a set of spare shots is always a great idea.

I have taken many sets of brackets handheld over the years, and these are the tips I use, and they definitely help.  Of course, it’s better to have a tripod, but sometimes you either aren’t allowed, or you just weren’t able to bring it.  It happens.  Get the shots anyway!

Next up - some tips for getting the most out of your HDR shooting.  

Take me to the next page, Jim!

Sunset at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, CA - shot handheld using these tips!