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HDR: Is a Three Step Process

The biggest mistake HDR shooters make is trying to rush 
the process. Some think its as simple as shooting the photos and running them through a merging application. Others try to save even more time and use in-camera HDR solutions. 
While both of these options can make a better photo 
than just a traditional exposure, they don’t really embrace the full capabilities of HDR imaging. For that, you need to truly 
take a three-step process.


Using the bracketing option on your camera (or manually adjusting exposure), you’ll successfully capture two or more shots. The most common number of exposures taken is three, in which a base exposure is used and then an under- and overexposed image are acquired to preserve the highlights and shadows. Typically these multiple exposures are taken from a tripod to ensure that there is no movement between each exposure.  However some users do shoot handheld and rely upon the software to help them align the images.

The base image plus an overexposed and underexposed frame are used to create the HDR image.

You can use any combination of exposures to properly show the scene. The wider the dynamic range of the scene, the higher the number of exposures you’ll need. If the light source is directly in the frame, you may need as many as seven exposures. Alternately, some photographers choose to just increase the amount of exposure compensation between the shots.

Don’t forget that all the old photographic rules apply. You need to use good judgment. There’s no substitute for great light, a great subject, great composition, picking the right angle and lens, etc. Simply applying HDR techniques to a bad photo just makes it into a bad HDR photo (that you spent more time on).



The next task you’ll perform is merging. This process can be handled using tools built right into Photoshop or using dedicated stand-alone applications. There are also a wealth of third-party tools to choose from (which we’ll explore a little later).  Many of the software tools can compensate for ghosting (caused by slight camera or subject movements) as well as resolve alignment issues.

There are two major approaches to creating a HDR image:

  • Merge-only. If you shot JPEG or TIFF, you may choose to bypass preprocessing your photos. Some photographers also bypass developing their raw files and just pass the default values from their camera to their processing app. This is less desirable than taking the time to tweak the photo.
  • Develop and Merge. By processing the individual panels (especially if they are raw photos), you can improve the end results. This approach takes extra work but can produce dramatically better results. Don’t develop all the files manually. Just use the base exposure (the one with 0 EV) and then sync its settings to the other exposures.



Once the source images are merged, you’ll be able to adjust the new image to refine its appearance. There are several ways to approach this task and they all depend upon your personal goals. The same source photos can be used to create a photorealistic image with improved dynamic range, a surrealistic painting, or a dramatic black and white photo.

In most HDR software, you’ll find useful presets that can get you close. It’s then possible to refine the image using a few tweaks of available presets. Some programs use simple sliders that you can adjust to get the result you want. Properties like Glow, Detail, and Saturation are some of the most frequently adjusted. But the fun doesn’t have to stop there.

You can continue to work on the photo using your photo editing software. Basic transformations like cropping and straightening can be undertaken to improve composition. Additional tonal and color correction can also be performed for corrective or even stylistic outcomes.


To lean more, be sure to visit our HDR Learning Center.


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