There are two parts to shooting HDR (high dynamic range) photography: part one takes place behind the camera — part two, behind the computer. Many tutorials focus on processing HDR images. But in this article I’m going to tell you how to shoot for HDR in five easy steps.
1. Clean your equipment
HDR brings out a lot of detail, which is great… except when that detail is the dust on your lens or camera sensor. While most dust spots can be fixed in post-processing, you can save yourself a lot of time by cleaning your gear before you head out for your shoot.
2. Check your settings
Pre-setting your camera for HDR will give you the best possible results.
- Shoot in RAW format (or RAW + JPEG if you have to)
- Set the Opening and keep it consistent across frames (I like f/11-f/16 for great depth of field)
- Use ISO100. Increasing the ISO will introduce noise/grain that will be emphasized during HDR processing.
Set the white balance to something other than auto to keep white balance/color consistent for your shots between series.
Automatic versus manual bracketing
Most modern cameras have the ability to automatically bracket shots, but some older/entry-level cameras limit the number of auto-bracketed shots to three. This can work in some lighting situations, but often it takes 5-7 (or more) to get all the detail out of the highlight and shadow areas.
If three is the maximum number of frames your camera can automatically bracket, you may need to bracket manually to fully capture details in the highlights and shadows.
- Set the camera to Aperture Priority (your shutter speed is set automatically as you bracket the photos)
- Enable automatic bracketing and select the number of frames you want to capture
- Enable continuous shooting
- Set the camera to manual mode
- Use your camera’s internal light meter to get a “0” exposure and adjust your shutter speed (not aperture) to get brighter and darker exposures.
- Use single shot (not continuous)
3. Focus on your subject (or a third in the scene)
Maintaining consistent focus through every exposure is critical when shooting for HDR. If your point of focus differs between exposures, you can get a ghost image during processing that can make your merged HDR photo look out of focus.
I usually use Live View and autofocus to focus on my subject. Then I turn the autofocus off and be careful not to shift the focal length of the lens.
4. Take your photos
Activate the shutter for each exposure. If you’re using auto bracketing, you can use the continuous shooting mode to quickly fire off your bracketed set. If you use manual bracketing, a pause between each frame is necessary to change your shutter speed.
5. Check your histogram
Check the histogram to make sure that your darkest shot doesn’t clip highlights (ie hit the right side of the graph) and that your brightest shot doesn’t clip shadows (ie hit the left side of the graph).
A few bonus tips
- Whenever possible, use a tripod and a cable release (or the camera’s self-timer) to minimize camera shake between exposures.
- See the light! Evaluate the contrast range in the scene to determine the number of exposures needed (3, 5, 7 or more).
- Too few exposures leave gaps in the dynamic range.
- Too many exposures increase the chance of noise and chromatic aberrations in processing.
- Pay attention to anything in your frame that may move between exposures (wind, clouds, water, trees, grass, etc.). Any movement will affect how you process the image. Deghosting technology for handling motion in HDR has come a long way, but it can affect the amount of flexibility you have in processing as well as the quality of the final image.