Free HDR tutorial

You may have seen beautiful HDR photos and would like to try out HDR photography for yourself or you may have tried out a few things, but not been able to get a really good result. If you need to start from scratch to learn what the concept is, I would recommend that you read this page before continuing.

If you feel like buying Photomatrix, why not buy it with a 15% discount. Just use the discount code “caughtinpixels” and you get 15% discount on Photomatix Pro.

If you already know what HDR is, just not how make them, you should start by learning how to setup up your camera for HDR.

And if you know how shoot your HDR photos, but still lack the skill to make them into perfectly beautiful HDR photos, then you should read how to make a great HDR photos. The finalizing of an HDR photo includes some work in Photoshop (or Gimp). In the section Blending layers in Photoshop I will teach you how to make a flawless HDR photo.

But if everything is new or you are unsure of HDR, I recommend that you read the rest of this page before continuing to the next steps.

What is HDR photography?

Sometimes when you take photos, there is a very big difference between the darkest parts and the brightest parts of the scenery that you would like to take a photo of. You know the situation, where you want to take somebody’s picture, and she is standing in the shadow of a tree on a bright sunny day. You know that if you take such a photo you either end up with a perfectly exposed person under the tree, but everything else will be very bright and overexposed and the sky will probably be completely white and blown out. Or you will get a perfectly exposed sky and surrounding, and a very dark and underexposed shadows. There is no way you can get both perfect in just one shot. But what if you took two photos? One with a perfectly exposed sky and one with perfectly exposed shadows and combined the two photos, then you would get an image that is perfectly exposed everywhere. This is goal of HDR photography.

Below follows an overview of the process of taking and making an HDR photo. You can go directly to the Free HDR Tutorial as well, by clicking here.

Morning Glow in Milford Sound

Or a more extreme HDR

The spider at the gates of the old Citadel

Why is it called HDR photos?

HDR is an abbreviation for High Dynamic Range. When you have a scenery, with very dark and bright parts you say that it has a high dynamic range. Even modern high-end professional digital cameras can’t capture everything in one shot. Either you will have blown out parts (ugly white splashes) or black parts with no or little texture in it. If you don’t have an option, the black parts in general is more pleasing for the eye than the white blown out parts. You must for everything in the world, avoid blown outs and HDR is a technique where that is possible.

How to take an HDR photo

If you have a scene with a high dynamic range that you want to shoot, then you have to shoot two or more shots with different exposures. Most DSLR and mirrorless system cameras can take 3 different exposures in an Auto Bracketing Exposure (AEB) mode. If you have got a really high end professional DSLR you can take more than 3 exposures. When set in Auto Bracketing Exposure mode, the camera takes the next 3 shots, with different exposures. One that is underexposed (dark), one that what you would normally get and at last an over exposed one (bright). You then put these three into a piece of software to combine them into one HDR photo, sometimes also called HDRi (High Dynamic Range Image).

As you probably realize; if you take 3 shots and combine them into one image, you have to hold the camera steady. If you move the camera around you will not be able to combine, your 3 shots into one HDR image. The same applies to moving parts. If you have got moving parts, cars driving by, waves moving, people walking, wind blowing in the trees etc, then they will be ghosted in the final photo. By ghosted I mean that a person walking by, will be semi-present three times in various degrees. You will get the person once from the dark exposure, once from the normal exposure and once from the bright exposure, but in various degrees, because the three photos are not identically exposed. There are several ways to handle moving objects when shooting HDR photos. Some are done in the post-processing of the HDR. The simplest way is to avoid any moving objects. This will limit what you can take pictures of quite a bit. You will not be able take photos of trees if there is the slightest wind, neither can you include people, unless they are staying (very!) still. So often it is not really an option. In one of the more advanced topics I will show how to un-ghost.

What to do with your bracketed photos?

Now that you have taken 3 or more of bracketed photos, with different exposures, you are ready to merge them into an HDR photo. For this you need some software, and there are many vendors out there offering HDR processing software. The merging is a two step process. One is selecting the photos and merging them, the other step is called tone mapping. It is the tone mapping that makes the HDR photo look like an HDR photo. I’ll talk a lot more about tone mapping later. For now it is enough to know, that it is a matter of having good tone mapping software, to get the best result.

These HDR products are among the more known products:

Photomatix is the King of HDR. It is absolutely the best tool for making HDR photos and by best I mean that you can do the most with it and get the best results. You can buy Photomatix here, but you can also try it out for free, but it leaves watermarks on your photos.

HDR Efex Pro by Nik Software. Not bad at all and is improving.

Photoshop CS 6. There is the option of using HDR Pro in Photoshop, but to be honest I don’t like the results very much and I won’t recommend using it.

Once you have merged your photos you will need to do the tone mapping of the photo. My HDR tutorial will alone focus on Photomatix, because it is the tool that I use.

How to do the tone mapping?

When you start tone mapping your photo you start to shape the charisma, style and mood of your photo. There are a number of presets in Photomatix, but because every single photo is unique, every single photo will need to be processed in a unique way. You do not get the best result, by just pressing a button. I’’ll say that again, to emphasize the importance of that: You do not get the best result, just by pressing a button! What you really need is to learn how your tool works and depending on, how much time you have and are prepared to spend, you can work the sliders in Photomatix more or less.

When you are done with the sliders in Photomatix, you press ‘Process’ and your tone mapped image is created. You get the option to do a few final contrast, color and sharpness adjustments to your photo, before you save it to your hard drive.

You’re not done yet! You need to blend layers.

The tone mapped image is never the final image. Usually you end up with some parts that doesn’t look too great or maybe even horrible, while other parts are great. The sky may be more gray than blue, the clouds have turned way to black and dramatic or you have ghosted objects. Or maybe you have got nasty ugly halos (which is kind of shining light around objects). You need to fix that.

If you had 3 bracketed photos originally, you now have 4 images, the 4th being the tone mapped image. All 4 of these images you load into one Adobe Photoshop file as layers on top of each other. And if you shot handheld you need to align them. You make sure, that the tone mapped image is on top. What you need to do now is take the best part from each of the layers, and blend it all together into the final image. This step requires some skill and a lot of practice, but it is a very important step.

Getting started with HDR photography

There are basically three steps in making a perfect HDR photo.

  1. First you need to shoot your bracketed photos and if you don’t know how to do that, you should read about how to setup up your camera for HDR.
  2. You must then merge your bracketed photos into one to make a tone mapped HDR photo.
  3. At last you must make your HDR photo perfect. You do that by blending layers in Photoshop.

4 thoughts on “Free HDR tutorial

  1. Hej Jakob,

    i’ve been trying to find time and interest to follow this tutorial. Great tutorial and very easy to follow. i would be also interested in a tutorial on how to do the photoshop layering part. Starting with a simple picture. a building downtown or something.

    I am looking forward to get better at HDR photography and show off with some cool pics.

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