Last time I mentioned that I started using bracketing mode for shooting. In bracketing mode, one snap of the button will take several photos over a range of exposures. The range and number of photos taken varies, but the more natural contrast the lighting in the scene, the more range you will need.

I started using bracket shooting because sometimes shooting under or over-exposed will allow you to edit the photo closer. But a much cooler use for bracket mode is creating HDR photos.


Before I go onto HDR and the project du jour, I needed to post a PSA. When I started this post, I originally had the perfect shoot in mind to use for it. While out on a run, I got some well-lit images of this retro storefront with awesome signage. I took a bunch of shots and went on my way.

Fail (1 of 1)

This photo turned out bad, and the others weren’t better. It’s at a strange angle, my reflection is in the image, and the framing cuts off awkwardly. This may be salvageable with lots of cropping and view distortion, but these effects never look as good as just doing it right on location.

The message of the PSA is to take photos consciously, and then go through them before leaving the scene. There are lots of excuses, but the fact is that I wasn’t comfortable shooting.

There’s still that awkwardness of shooting, where I’m more worried about my surroundings and my appearance rather than focusing on the shot. I knew at the time that things didn’t feel right, but my checklist of settings was all met. Proper ISO, proper shutter ect…

In the end I was rushing. I didn’t think about the image in the lens, just wanted to take photos and move on. Anyways hopefully this will remind you guys to double check before leaving a scene.

HDR Haters

Anyways back to HDR. HDR photos are those great screensavers and desktop backgrounds that you know are Photoshoped, but they look awesome anyways. They get a bad rep among photographers and critics probably because they aren’t very commercially viable – yet. An HDR image looks great as a screensaver or background, but the amount of attention they command makes it difficult to use them for ads. Plus, any resort using an HDR image will get tons of complaints from customers about how the pool didn’t look anything like the picture online. Plus HDR photography is not great for shooting people. Human skin is not full of contrast and takes up a limited exposure range, so putting us against an HDR background will obscure the models.

There’s no denying that HDR photos are insanely eye-catching, to the point of gaudiness. Neon lights never became widely commercially viable, but dammit, fluorescent office lighting is not what the Vegas skyline is made up of.

What is it?

HDR stands for high dynamic range. Photos you take will not display the full exposure range by default, even though there always exists a full exposure range in every scene. A camera image processor has to choose whether to have an exposure that allows the sky to not be too bright or one that shows all of the details in the shadows. The reason you shoot in RAW is so that you can manipulate what the stock image output will be afterwards, and get proper exposures. This is vague, but in order to save space, that’s about all I’ll go into exposure for this post.

Now normal photo editing is about getting an image  as close as to what the eye can see. But HDR photography is about extracting all of the detail possible from a scene, as if shadows did not exist, yet still maintaining perfect lighting. The reason HDR photos are so striking is because this range of exposures does not exist to the natural eye.

The very over the top images will then bump up the saturation and vividness of the colors to create a surreal effect, like I did, but HDR can include some very natural looking images.

Methods to Madness

There are lots of ways to create an HDR image with a variety of software. HDR effects can be accomplished using one image, like some of my shots in the past, by playing with contrast and graduated or selective exposure filters. This can be messy if you have complicated light patterns or if the image doesn’t have a natural light to dark flow. The easiest way to accomplish HDR is by shooting with brackets, and combining the range of photos. See how this all tied together? This is best done with a tripod to reduce “ghosting,” which is when slight movements between the bracket shots cause the images in the series to not overlay perfectly, creating hazy profiles.

There’s a variety of software that can be used to merge bracket images. The stock Photoshop and Lightroom have this functionality. The recently released-for-free Nik photography pack also has an HDR processor. I used a program called Photomatix for the featured image, which is composed of these three bracket images.

1 (1 of 1) 2 (1 of 1) 3 (1 of 1)

Like I said, I then cranked up the surrealness to max, cause why not. It also hides some of the ghosting in the output, since I don’t use tripods.

Photomatix is a free-to-try software, so go ahead and give it a shot with the link above or here. Anyways since this post is already a novel I’ll end here, but I’ll be going over a few other software options, as well as hitting some of these topics more in depth in future posts.