Navigating the HDR Tutorial
What Photo Are We Working On Today?
I took this photo down in Milford Sound, New Zealand, which is very close to my new home in Queenstown. I love to go down to this place. It always feels epic and wonderful, but as you can see, the original photo was not all that exciting. I’ll share the before and after, then we’ll go through all the steps together.
Before, right out of the camera
After going through this tutorial
This took me about five minutes to make, but I am very fast now. It might take you 15-20 mins the first few times.
Step 2: Buy a camera, but be sneaky so your spouse does not know
Or you can just tell your spouse about it. You never know how these things will go — it’s a wildcard.
90% of cameras sold today can make these kinds of photos. To make an HDR image, get a camera that fits any of the following:
- Take multiple photos in something called “Auto-bracketing mode” or “Auto-exposure mode” or “Exposure Bracketing” — they are all the same thing.
- Allows you to shoot in Aperture and adjust the exposure to +1 or +2 for example. If this is confusing to you, no worries, we will get to this.
- Shoot a single RAW photo. Yes, you can make a beautiful HDR image out of a single RAW!
See my recommended camera reviews page for more info. I rank them as Good, Better, Best, so you’ll be able to find something that fits your budget!
Even though you can make a good HDR photo from a single RAW, I often prefer to use Autobracketing. Autobracketing allows your camera to take multiple photos (say 3) in rapid sequence. Each one of those photos will be at a different shutter speed. If you are poking around your camera now, just like for the letters “BKT” for Bracket, and then maybe you can see how you can set it for three exposures at -2, 0, and +2. But more on this soon.
What equipment do I have? I started with a very low-end camera, and I have continued to upgrade over time. Currently, I’m using a Nikon D800. You can see my Nikon D800 Review here on the site. It’s really overkill, but that’s okay sometimes! Somehow I can justify spending a lot of money for only minor improvements in the shots.
I also use a tripod. You might want to also if you are planning on low-light photos like sunsets and these sorts of things. You can do everything handheld, but using a tripod is actually a lot of fun! I hate to keep pointing you to the Reviews section, but I don’t want to clutter up this tutorial too much! You can find out more about my tripod there.
Step 3 – See the world in HDR
The more you do this, the more you will begin to appreciate all the light that flies around you.
Experience the scene fully!
The human eye can see about 11 “stops” of light. A stop is a measurable amount of light. The camera can see about 3 stops, or sometimes a bit more if it is a good sensor that can produce a good RAW file. Anyway, the point is that the camera currently cannot see everything the human retina can experience. So, to get around that, we need to use the camera to sweep through all the available light that the retina can see. Then, we’ll use software to bring it all together. Make sense?
I think the more you do this, the more you’ll be in a situation and you’ll think – wow – this would make an amazing HDR! This is a great feeling! And even better, you’ll be able to do it.
And maybe you do see the world the way I do. Rich, vibrant, romantic — like a movie! Look, not everyone sees it like we do. I know this for sure. Some people literally see the world differently, but not you and I. We see the world in terms of color, light, and saturation. And our memory may even make some of these more intense and cinematic. That’s why this style of photography really appeals to me.
Step 4 – Take the photos
Put your camera into Aperture Priority mode and turn on Autobracketing. Set up your autobracketing to take three photos at -2, 0, and +2. Some cameras can do more, some less. Do what you can with your camera. For example, on my Nikon D800, it can take 9 photos, stepping by 1, so I could do -4, -3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, +3, +4. But that is crazy. I so rarely do that. 95% of the time, I take 5 photos from -2 to +2. There is no discernible advantage in stepping by 1, by the way. I’m just letting you know that most cameras are different, and don’t fret if yours does it differently.
Other best practices:
- Be sure you are shooting in RAW instead of JPG. This will give you more flexibility and range in your shooting.
- If you happen to be shooting into the sun, you may want to take a “-3″ shot as well because it will be so bright.
- If in low light, use a tripod so you have a more steady shot. No tripod? Don’t worry. Photomatix can align them.
- If you are on a tripod, set your ISO as low as it will go. This will help you get rid of noise.
Don’t Have Photos ready? Download mine!
You can download my 5 RAW files as well that I used to make this shot. Enjoy!
Now, in the shot below, you can see my five images I took in Milford Sound from -2 to +2.
Step 5 – Combine the Photos using Photomatix Pro
This is where it gets fun. We’re gonna get all crunk up in here. Okay, that sounded stupid, and I immediately regret it.
Open up Photomatix and load in all the bracketed images. To do this, I dragged the five images from Lightroom onto the Photomatix Icon, but there are many ways to do it. You can select the images from a folder or use Photomatix to load them in.
After that, you’ll see this delightful dialog. It looks scary, but it is not. You are welcome to experiment with all of these areas, but the only one I usually check is the bottom option. If I did handheld shots without a tripod, then I would also select the first one there to auto-align.
- If there was movement or “ghosting”, chose “Reduce ghosting artifacts”. I prefer to fix this later in Photoshop, but you can do everything here if you wish.
- If you shot at a high ISO or anticipate a lot of noise, chose “Reduce noise”
There are not many wrong choices you can make on this dialog, so don’t panic.
Want to make an HDR out of a Single RAW? No problem!
Just drag the single RAW photo (or open) into Photomatix. You can go through the exact same process as below. It doesn’t always work out perfectly, but for 70% of shots, you can still use a single RAW. It fails often in very extreme lighting situations.
Click Preprocess and your computer will churn away, doing magical and mysterious things. And then you will see… this!
Let’s go through what you see above. On the left are a series of sliders that let me change the way the photo looks. On the right are the My Photomatix Presets. Whenever I click on a preset, it dramatically moves around the sliders and dropdowns on the left.
Every photo is unique, and you’ll never get the same results between different kinds of photos. Sunsets, middle of the day, interiors, etc. It’s wild!
So, I usually come into Photomatix and just click around on many of my different presets. Some are horrible for one situation but awesome for others! It always changes. In the example above, I started with the preset “Quaint Hobbit Holes” and then modified some sliders from there.
Okay, this is where it can get confusing for new people, but I will explain. Do you see at the top how it says “Tone Mapping” and that is selected? And then underneath that it has the “Details Enhancer” selected? Well, depending on what you choose in those top two areas, it dramatically changes the sliders and options beneath! Don’t let that confuse you.
Little reminder – see the whole process on video!
Download now if you learn better by watching! You can see me set up for this shot and watch a detailed process of where I click and what I do to produce the final image. The free text tutorial continues with all the details, but I know some people want to actually watch me do it… anyway, that option is there for you!
I often do use this Tone Mapping / Details Enhancer combination because it is quite powerful. But I use many of the other combinations as well. For now, I will go over the most important sliders for this combination:
- Strength – I keep this at 100% because I can always dial it back a bit later in Photoshop.
- Color Saturation – This changes a lot for every photo. This was a low-color environment, so I brought it up pretty high. But, in other photos, I may not go above 50%.
- Luminosity – This gives you the “painterly” effect. You may notice that some HDR photos look like paintings. The more you go to the right, the stronger this effect.
- Detail Contrast – This gives you more intense blacks and more texture.
- Lighting Adjustments – Let’s just call this the “druggie slider” — the more to the left, the more “on-drugs” it is!
- White Point & Black Point – These are very important! Adjust that white point so nothing is blown out. Adjust the black point so you have some inky dark spots. I think a good HDR photo always has some nice dark bits in it.
- Smooth Highlights – This will fix those daytime areas. Remember that you want everything above the horizon to be a little lighter than what is below the horizon. Well, except in this example where there is a reflection.
- Micro-smoothing – This is also a great slider for adding micro-texture.
After you have fun playing with the sliders, click Process and then you are ready for Finishing Touches. Finishing touches allow you to make a few more final changes in Photomatix before you save the image.
Inside the finishing touches, you can adjust the contrast, color, or sharpening. I have put two screenshots below with captions.
After you have made some final decisions, click Done and save it off!
You are Done! (or are you???)
Look, let’s just say you are done now. You’re probably very happy with your shot, or at least a bit surprised how fun it was, yes?
Personally, I do not stop here. I have a few more steps that I go through using different tools. If you want to join me, pop on over to Page 3 of the tutorial!.
Advanced Steps – Detailed tricks and tips