Robert Schall
Robert Schall

Robert has become an all-rounder, competent in the diverse photographic disciplines from portraits through to star trails.

Introduction to High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography

April 05, 2016

Most likely, if you are passionate about photography (and I assume you are because you are reading the Canon Digital Learning Center’s blog), you have come across High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography.

Tour group on the streets of New Orleans, LA. Using HDR allows us to get an image that captures correctly exposed details in the dark, mid-tone and lit areas. (Photo by Robert Schall)


HDR photography is the process of taking multiple exposures of the same high-contrast scene at different levels of brightness, then combining them into one image. This single image with a wider range of detail, from the darkest to the brightest areas, is typically impossible with a single exposure.

3 exposure bracketed shot at -2, 0, and +2. -2 allows you to expose correctly for the lights and any lit up areas, 0 for the correct mood setting exposure of the tour group, and +2 pull more details hidden in the shadowy areas. (Photo by Robert Schall)


HDR photography is most often used to produce photos that mimic what the human eye is able to see. Now, I say “most often” because there is also a fun and creative side to HDR photography that allows for a lot interesting experimentation, something worth trying out.

Back to the actual purpose of this blog entry: to help you get started with HDR photography. So what do you need, besides a camera and a lens, you might ask?

  • Tripod: Tripods are not absolutely necessary, but when you are starting off, it will make your life a lot easier. With small lens apertures (high f-numbers) and low ISO settings, there is a good likelihood that you will use slow shutter speeds, which will make handholding very tough and may result in blurry photos. Tripods are also great at making sure that your camera does not move between several exposures.
  • A Contrast Rich Scene: What you photograph is totally up to you. If I may, I would suggest that when you start off in HDR photography, you should find a landscape scene that has a strong contrast between its shadows and highlight areas. This will allow you to better see the effects HDR can achieve.
  • Your Camera Manual: Find your camera’s manual. There, I said it. Find your camera manual! I know we all hate manuals, but they are the best way to get the most out of your camera. You should know where your manual is and read it -- or even better, study it. This will teach you a ton about your camera as well as how to use its different features, some of which we will explore now.
    Quick note: look up HDR in your camera manual. Many cameras now offer an in-camera HDR function. If yours does, find the section in your manual and follow the instructions. Then read through below for additional tips and directions. In-camera HDR settings will normally incorporate an exposure bracketing function and then process multiple source images into one final High Dynamic Range finished image file. If your camera doesn't have built-in HDR, or if you prefer to use 3rd-party computer software to produce HDR images, you'll need to set Auto Exposure Bracketing and other features independently.
Find the Auto Exposure Bracketing Function

Exercise number one with your newfound camera manual is to discover your Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) mode. Why is this necessary, you might ask? AEB is the main component in creating an HDR photo. Let me try and explain why.

A bracketing sequence will shoot a series of images that will be over and under exposed, compared to the shot you have set up in your camera. Together, these images will give you a series of photos that are correctly exposed for the brightest, darkest and for the mid-tone areas.

Depending on your camera the AEB mode will either shoot 3, 5, 7, or 9 shots. The more images you can get, the better because the potential of capturing all the light in your scene increases. Follow your manual’s instruction on how to turn on and set your AEB mode.

Camera Settings
  • Aperture Priority Mode: If you do not regularly shoot in Manual mode, I would highly suggest setting your camera to Aperture Priority mode (Av on Canon EOS cameras). This mode gives priority to the aperture setting (allowing you to pick it and lock it in) and let the camera determine shutter speed for you. Remember that aperture controls depth of field, so the higher the aperture, the greater the depth of field. In the case of landscape photography, just about any aperture value over f/11 will have your entire frame in focus. Start at f/11 and experiment your way up from there.
  • Metering Mode: In a nutshell, metering mode is simply how your camera samples light to determine the proper exposure. For the purpose here, it suffices to say that Evaluative Metering will work just fine for you.
  • White Balance: White balance is incredibly important in photography and getting it wrong can throw an entire image off. Again, for what we are learning here, we can go with Auto White Balance (AWB). But I do highly suggest you look into and learn more about how to use White Balance.
  • ISO: ISO determines how sensitive your camera is to light. The higher the number, the more sensitive it becomes. There is a downside to ISO though -- the higher the number, the lower your image quality can become. This drop in quality comes from what is referred to as "noise" or the graininess in images. So set your ISO as low as possible. In this case, go with ISO 100.
  • Self-Timer: Learn how to use the self-timer feature on your camera (another great use of your camera’s manual). The self-timer will get rid of any possible movement caused by holding down the shutter with your finger because you won't be touching it when it snaps. Personally, I prefer to use the 2-second timer. With this setting, you simply press the shutter release, let go of your cameras and 2 seconds later, the camera will take the 3, 5, 7, or 9 exposures in sequence.
Shoot in Manual Mode

As you compose your shot, switch your lens to manual focus. While Auto Focus (AF) is an amazing technology, it is not always the best for landscapes. Using manual focus, set your focus point to infinity on the lens. This setting will average out the entire framed scene and bring all into focus.

If you have a very important subject within your scene, at this point, my suggestion would be to switch your camera over to “Live View” and use the display’s zoom feature (do not zoom with the lens; zoom with the magnifying button) and zoom all the way in on your subject and focus manually. This will allow you to make sure that your subject is tack sharp (please note that there is a possibility that some of the image might be a little softer).

If your lens does not have a "focusing index," which will allow you to manually focus your lens to infinity, I would suggest using your AF to focus, then switching the lens to manual focus and preventing the camera to refocus with each shot.

3 exposure bracketed shot at -2, 0, and +2. -2 allows you the correct exposure for the blue sky, 0 for the correct sun highlights on the trees, and +2 to correctly expose the details in the shadowed areas. (Photo by Robert Schall)


Bracketed shots

Now that you have your shots, what's next? If your camera can do in-camera HDR and you followed your manual, then you should now have a finished HDR JPEG image. If your camera does not offer in-camera HDR or you chose not to use that feature, then you will have 3, 5, 7, or 9 images that need to be combined. A solid choice would be to use Adobe Photoshop, which has a robust and easy to use HDR feature. There are also plenty of other programs out there that will help you put these images together into an HDR photograph. Definitely plan ahead and look into what you will use to process all the images into HDR composites before going out to shoot.

Combined, through an HDR program, these three images create a composite that provides the right details and colors throughout the image that the human eye would see, but not the camera with a single shot. (Photo by Robert Schall)


Have fun, experiment and try different setting combinations and processing techniques. There's more detail to see than you thought.

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