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HDR 101: How Do You Know When To Use HDR?

Like black and white, HDR photography is a terrific tool. It can both save the day technically and also allow us to be creative in unique ways. But how do you know when you might need to use HDR to make you photograph look it’s best?

The Name Says It All

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and in photography, that means there’s a big difference between the proper exposure in the dark areas and in the highlight areas. An example of a scene with low dynamic range would be a picture of a pen sitting on my desk. The light shining on my desk from overhead lights doesn’t vary and even the shady side of my pen is not very dark–there’s not a great range of difference in the light.

Here’s an example with a lot of difference. Look at these three exposures of the Empire State Building. The sun is just rising at the bottom left so that part of the sky is very bright, and it’s behind the building I’m looking at, so the near side of the building is much darker than the sky. The difference between the lightest areas and the darkest areas of this picture is very great. So, we can say it has a High Dynamic Range.

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That’s why I made several pictures at once with different shutter speeds. I activated automatic exposure bracketing, which changes the shutter speed automatically to make brighter and darker pictures. The left-hand picture is dark enough that the sky shows details, while the right-hand picture is bright enough to show detail on the shady side of the building.

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Lumix GX8, Leica 15mm f/1.7 lens, f/8, 5 frame HDR, ISO 200.

Use HDR When ‘Correct’ Is Not Right

In the middle picture above, the sky at bottom left has no detail, and the dark shadow areas also have no detail. This is the picture the camera said was the ‘right’ exposure with the light meter in the middle. But it’s both too light and too dark; it’s just bad and uninteresting. A couple of common times you’ll have this trouble is when the sun is behind your subject, and also when you’re making pictures indoors when it’s daylight outside (HDR is perfect for real estate photography). If you make a picture and it looks like this–with areas too bright and too dark–then it’s a great time to make an HDR.

Use Software to Compile

So, you’ve made pictures at multiple exposures, now what? Now you use HDR software to put the pictures together and interpret what the scene actually looks like. I used Photomatix to make this picture at right from the exposures above. We’ve got the HDR Learning Center with loads of free resources here on Photofocus to help you get going with your HDR practice.

The wonderful thing about using HDR is that it allows you to realize a vision more like what you saw when you were there. This was my first time walking by the Empire State Building and enjoying sunrise in New York. With my eyes, I could see the warmth of the sunrise and the shine of the building. I used Photomatix to compile my exposures together, and then put a few finishing touches on in Lightroom. This picture represents what I saw and how I felt that morning, and HDR was the perfect tool for realizing my memory.

 

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