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Essential Gear for HDR Photography

To capture great HDR images, you need some essential equipment. Most of it you probably already own, but may not aways bring with you on a shoot. It’s important to think of HDR photography as a tool, not a subject. Here’s what I mean…when you’re a portrait photographer, you go out and shoot photos of a model. A wedding photographer goes out and shoots photos of a wedding. A travel photographer shoots photos while traveling. You don’t go out to shoot HDR photography. Rather, HDR is a tool you can use to create images with more dynamic range than your camera can capture.

Just like long exposure or tilt-shift photos, you need the right gear to shoot an HDR image.

Camera in Bracketing Mode

When shooting HDR photos, we’re capturing a series of images with varying brightness. To do this, the bracketing mode on your camera will adjust the shutter speed based on a given increment that you set. This increment is usually anywhere from 1/3rd of a stop to 2 stops. If you don’t have bracketing on your camera (or are not sure how to use it), you can always switch the camera into manual mode and set the exposures yourself…keeping in mind that at the minimum we are looking for one proper exposure, one darker exposure, and one lighter exposure.

Sturdy Tripod

We need to be able to align the images in post-production in order to create the HDR tone-mapped image. A sturdy tripod will ensure your camera doesn’t move or shake in-between images, making it really easy to align the images in post. HDR software like Photomatix can auto-align the images, but the more movement between shots, the more “ghosting” will appear in the images. You don’t need an expensive tripod though… The trick to using a travel tripod is weighing it down. Usually the center post of the tripod has a hook that you can hang your camera bag on. This extra weight keeps the tripod nice and steady.

Of course, if you’re walking around all day and don’t want to carry a tripod, you can always use a Platypod Pro. I was in New York City last year and definitely didn’t want to carry a tripod, but I got a beautiful image of the World Trade Center with just a Platypod Pro set up on a lamp post.

Remote Shutter Release

Did you know when you press the camera shutter button, the camera shakes ever so slightly? To prevent this, we’ll need a remote shutter release for your camera. This lets you trigger the camera without touching it and keeps the camera still. You don’t need a brand-name trigger for this…you can easily find inexpensive triggers at camera stores or on Amazon for your specific model camera.

Software to Process the Images

One thing that deters a lot of photographers from shooting HDR photos is the post-production of the images. We need to merge the series of images we shot into one image. To do this, we’ll need tone-mapping software like Photomatix Pro by HDRSoft. Lightroom also comes with a built-in HDR tool, but it doesn’t offer much flexibility. One of the nice features of Photomatix Pro is the way it interacts with Lightroom. With a simple right-click, you can export and merge the images to Photomatix Pro, tone-map the images in Photomatix, then save the file and it is re-imported into your Lightroom catalog. Super easy!

What lenses should I use?

While every photographer has their own style, some of the most popular HDR images are shot with wide-angle lenses. Be sure to bring a few different lenses with you and experiment to see which angle you prefer. The image of the World Trade Center was shot with a 24-70mm lens at 70mm because I was shooting down a street.

That about wraps up the essential gear for shooting HDR photos. It really isn’t anything other than a tripod and a remote shutter release, plus good software to process the images. And one last thing… Make sure you go out with a fully-charged battery and a good size memory card. HDR photos shoot around 3 or 5 images per one image you’d shoot normally.

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