High dynamic range (HDR) processing opens a whole world of photographic possibilities. There are several outstanding HDR creation tools available today including Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. The question to answer is “when does one shoot HDR brackets?”
The “pro” answer
Shoot HDR brackets — one normal exposure, one two stops under normal exposure and the last one two stops over normal exposure — in high contrast situations. An example is a building painted a light color in sunlight with foliage in the shadows. Greenery requires a lot of light. When it’s in the shade and the building is in direct sun, there is no way a single photo can capture the range of tones to produce detail in the shadows and in the highlights too.
That answer is correct and only with a great big “ish” at the end. Now, along with all of the other stuff a photographer has to think about, add remembering when to shoot HDR brackets for contrasty scenes. What are the chances anyone will remember to put the camera in auto bracket mode and high-speed motor drive for a possibly too contrasty shot? Then there are other situations …
Other than contrast
Cloudy skies or even overcast days can benefit from being captured in HDR brackets. Lurking in that layer of clouds that looks like a flat cover of vapor is a lot of texture that HDR processing can reveal.
Indoor views with window are a great opportunity to work with photo-realistic HDR captures. Bright scenes outdoors beaming in through windows properly exposed leaves the rest of the room in very dark shadows. Shooting HDR brackets tames the brightness and opens up the shadows.
HDR brackets also offer the opportunity to explore the subject as it appears in different exposures. Ohhhhh! That 2-stop underexposure isolates the highlights and looks super dramatic! Cool! This one is two stops overexposed so the highlights are pure white and the shadows dance with soft detail. Maybe there is even some lens flare that a normal setting would not reveal.
My answer is …
Always shoot HDR, especially outdoors. I do this on my interiors for clients without question for every single setup. Outside, for my personal work, I have three exposures of the same subject to consider before even opening the brackets in my favorite HDR software Aurora HDR just in case you’re curious.