A Complete Beginner’s Guide on How to Take HDR Photos

how to take hdr photos

When you’re scrolling through Instagram, you may feel an intense sense of envy. How do photographers take these amazing images that balance light so well?

After all, you’re competing with over a billion users. You need to find a way to make your images stand out.

The secret to many of these stunning shots is HDR photography. You can recognize an HDR landscape shot by its perfect balance between sky and foreground.

How do you create these images? What do you need?

Don’t worry, we have you covered. We’re going to walk you through how to take HDR photos. Let’s get started.

What is HDR Photography?

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. That just means that the photography displays light across the whole spectrum in the photograph.

For example, you might see a beautiful landscape and decide to take a photograph. To the human eye, you can see a wide range of light at once.

When you try to take the photograph, you find one of two things happens. Either the sky is blown out and over-exposed, or the sky is perfect and the land is dark and under-exposed.

That’s because your camera can’t ‘see’ the same range of light that you do.

HDR photography lets you overcome this problem. You’ll take a series of photographs at different exposures and combine them using software.

This kind of photography works well with images that have a lot of contrast in the exposure. It also works well with backlit subjects where you don’t want to (or can’t) use an in-fill flash.

What You’ll Need

You’ll need a camera that has an ‘auto-bracketing’ or ‘exposure bracketing’ mode.

If you don’t have that, you should be able to shoot in Aperture priority mode so you can adjust the exposure.

Or you need to be able to shoot in RAW format. This preserves the widest possible amount of image data, unlike JPEG which discards information as it compresses the file.

A tripod is a must unless you want to spend time trying to manually align images.

You can create HDR photographs with different types of software, including Photoshop, Photomatix Pro, and Nik. We’ll focus on Photoshop and Photomatix Pro.

Alternatively, use your smartphone. More on that later.

Taking HDR Photos with a DSLR

On the day of shooting, take your DSLR and tripod to your chosen location. Take a series of images of your scene. The tripod lets you avoid the need to align the images later.

You’ll need photos that are overexposed, underexposed, and correctly exposed. If your DSLR has auto bracketing, use this feature.

The camera will take a sequence of photos at different shutter speeds. At the least, you need images taken a +2, 0, and -2. This will give you image information across a broader spectrum of lighting conditions.

Don’t worry if your camera doesn’t have this feature. You can manually take the images by changing the exposure between each shot.

Do this by using Aperture priority so the shutter speed is the only thing to change between shots. If you change the aperture, you will affect the depth of field. This will ruin the finished image.

If you’re new to aperture settings, check out our complete guide to aperture photography.

Set your DSLR to RAW to give you more editing options during post-processing. Then take your photos!

Processing HDR Photos in Photomatix Pro

Open Photomatix Pro and load your images. Choose the option ‘Merge for HDR processing’. The good news is you can load RAW images as they are, without developing them first.

If you’re worried about having a lot of noise in the finished image, turn your RAW images into TIF files first.

There’s a checkbox called ‘Attempt to reduce ghosting artifacts’. Tick this box because the slightest breeze might have disturbed leaves or even grass between exposures.

The software runs its algorithms and creates its initial result based on the images you selected. Drag the sliders on the left of the screen to tweak how the merged image looks.

Be careful not to push the sliders too far. Otherwise, you end up with an unattractive halo around any edges within the image. This can make your photograph look fake and obviously edited.

Like Lightroom, Photomatix Pro features a range of presets to give images specific looks. These are helpful if you find you shoot in similar conditions and want to save time using the same settings.

When you’re finished adjusting the sliders, click Process. Photomatix Pro gives you the option to tweak a few more settings before you can save the final image.

The software creates this image by selecting details and lighting based on information present in each of your exposures.

At this point, you can open the image in another program like Lightroom or Photoshop to continue editing. Or leave the image as it is, fresh from Photomatix Pro.

Turn One RAW Image into an HDR Photograph

This one isn’t strictly HDR photography because it only uses one RAW image. Instead, it relies on the light range captured in that single image.

This method won’t give you the same high dynamic range available with multiple images. That said, it’s still helpful if you don’t have a tripod handy or you can’t figure out auto-bracketing.

It’s also a good choice if you want to create an HDR photograph of a moving subject.

Choose your scene and take a single shot using the best settings you can. It’s probably better to slightly underexpose the foreground to fully capture the sky.

In Lightroom, make your initial edits to the image, as you would if it was a correct exposure. In effect, it is. Develop the image and export it as your first exposure.

Keeping the RAW open, move the exposure to +2. Export this version as your over-exposed image.

Next, move the exposure to -2. Export this version at the under-exposed image.

Now you have your three files from a single RAW image. You can run these through Photomatix Pro or use the following HDR method in Photoshop.

Creating HDR Photographs in Photoshop

There is one way to make a true HDR photograph in Photoshop. In addition, there’s a way to simulate the effect using layer masks and blending modes. We’ll focus on the former in this article since you’re here to find out how to take HDR photos.

With Photoshop’s HDR function, you need a different number of photos according to the exposure settings. If you have an image that was photographed at -1.5 and +1.5, you only need those two images.

This Adobe guide will give you more information if you want to experiment with camera bracket settings.

Open Photoshop. Go to the File menu, and scroll down to Automate > Merge to HDR Pro.

Browse to wherever your files are. If you took the photograph with a handheld camera, you can select the box marked ‘Attempt To Automatically Align Source Images’.

Click OK. A second box will appear. You can change the bit depth for the final image.

Photoshop merges these images into a final HDR image. You can carry out any further tweaks and edits in the software.

Taking HDR Photographs on a Smartphone

Using an Android or an iPhone HDR photography becomes even easier. The devices blend the camera and software portions of the process to create stunning HDR images.

Regardless of which device you use, check the native camera app. You should see an HDR option. It’ll automatically take a series of images at different exposures and blend them together.

Newer devices like the iPhone XR have a function called Smart HDR. This leaves HDR available to the camera, and its artificial intelligence decides when it would improve the image.

When Not To Use HDR

HDR doesn’t work on every type of image. Sometimes you’ll want to create a silhouette against a beautiful sky or sunset. Other dramatic lighting effects don’t work with HDR.

You may also struggle using HDR with moving subjects. HDR relies on the blending of multiple images. As you can imagine, this works better when your subject is static.

People know HDR for its vivid, saturated colors. Imagine using HDR on a scene already filled with color!

Take it from us – this is one time you don’t want to use HDR. It’ll wash out any color and leave your scene looking bland.

Aside from these examples, HDR is a great type of photography to try!

That’s How to Take HDR Photos!

Now you know how to take HDR photos by taking the right photographs and using software. If you already have Photoshop and don’t want to buy a Photomatix Pro license, try using Adobe’s product.

Diehard Lightroom users will be pleased to know Photomatix Pro offers a Lightroom plugin for extra editing options.

Or if you’d like to try the style without committing too much time, try it out on your smartphone first. This will give you an idea of whether you like the look.

Are you keen to try out HDR but you don’t have Photoshop? Check out our guide to more budget-friendly alternative software.