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How to Take HDR Photos (Part 2 of 3)

Updated on August 28, 2012

Part 1 of What is HDR photography?

If you're reading this and you haven't read part 1 yet, you'll want to do so. Part one will teach you about contrast, histograms and what type of scenes works best for HDR photography. It's a great place to start when learning HDR.

A Quick Overview

Part two of "What is HDR Photography?" is going to cover how to capture the photos needed for HDR photography. Unlike traditional photography methods, you will need to take more than one picture to get the final result. When taking photos for HDR you will need to take the same exact photo at different exposure levels, later you will merge them together to get a single HDR photo.

What You Need

  1. You'll need a digital camera that allows you to control exposure and aperture. A camera with exposure bracketing is ideal, but not necessary.
  2. A tripod is a must have for HDR photography. If you don't have a tripod you'll need to rest your camera on a sturdy surface for every photo which is quite limiting
  3. If you would like you can get a shutter release cable. This is optional, but it will help prevent camera shake which in the end will improve the quality of your photos.

Setting Up Your Camera for HDR

In this hub I am going to explain how to take source photos for your final HDR photo using the manual mode. It is possible to use the bracketing feature found on some cameras, but the setup for this feature varies from camera to camera. You will need to consult your camera's user manual if you would like to take advantage of that feature. Below, is how you set up your camera for HDR using the manual mode.

  1. Set your camera to manual mode.
  2. Use the lowest ISO setting possible.
  3. Turn off auto focus.
  4. Turn off your flash.
  5. Adjust the white balance to suit your photo.
  6. Add a 2 second delay to your shutter.
  7. Determine what size aperture you want to use.
  8. Adjust the shutter speed so that your exposure is set to 0.
  9. Manually focus your shot.

Your camera is now set-up to start taking photos for HDR. The steps 2, 3, 6 and 8 that are mentioned above can be skipped, but they should be followed if you are looking to achieve the highest quality HDR photos.

Example Source Photos

Photo 1 --  Normal Exposure 0
Photo 1 -- Normal Exposure 0
Photo 2 --  Under Exposed -2
Photo 2 -- Under Exposed -2
Photo 3  -- Over Exposed +2
Photo 3 -- Over Exposed +2

Taking the Source Photos

This is the easy part. As I mentioned earlier for HDR photography you will need to take several photos. Below are the descriptions of each photo that you will need to take. Be sure to not move the camera between each shot.

Photo 1 (0): This should be the best exposure which means your camera's exposure meter should read 0. This will be your starting point.

Photo 2 (-2): Now adjust your shutter speed so that it is shorter. Do this until the exposure meter reads -2. Do not adjust the aperture when doing this! This photo should look dark.

Photo 3 (+2): For your third photo you will need to adjust your exposure so that it is longer. Adjust the shutter speed so that your exposure meter reads +2. This should create a photo that looks too bright.

To the right you can see an example of what your photos should look like. You should always have a photo that is properly exposed and a minimum of one photo over and under exposed. You can always take additional photos that are over exposed and under exposed if you are dealing with a scene with extreme contrast. If you want you can also take photos that are closer together on the exposure meter. You should never have more that 2 stops between your photos though.

Histogram Examples

An example of a -2 histogram that doesn't call for an additional photo to be taken.
An example of a -2 histogram that doesn't call for an additional photo to be taken. | Source
An example of a +2 histogram that calls for an additional photo to be taken.
An example of a +2 histogram that calls for an additional photo to be taken. | Source

How Many Photos are Needed?

In most cases taking 3 photos with exposures of -2, 0 and +2 will do the job. However, you may run into some extreme cases that will call for additional photos. How will you know when you're dealing with a situation like this? Easy, you will be able to tell by looking at the histograms of your photos. Here is what you want to see on your histograms:

Your 0 Exposure: This photo isn't as important as the others, but you should see a somewhat even histogram that is probably cut off on the left and right side.

Your -2 Exposure: This histogram should be shifted to the left. If you see that some of the graph is cut off on the right you should take another exposure at -4.

Your +2 Exposure: This histogram should be shifted to the far right. If a portion of the graph is cut off on the left you will need to take another photo at +4.

Recap of HDR Photography

In part one of "What is High Dynamic Range Photography?" you learned how to determine a low contrast scene and a high contrast scene. You learned that high contrast scenes work best for HDR photography. You also learned how to use a histogram and how it can be applied to HDR photography.

In part two, I hope I was able to explain what you'll need to start shooting HDR and how to set up your camera. You should also know how to take your 3 photos at each exposure level and know how to use the histogram to determine if additional photos are needed.

In part 3 of "What is High Dynamic Range Photography?" I will explain what you'll be doing with the photos that you captured using this tutorial. You'll learn about HDR software and how it manages to merge your 3 photos into a single, stunning photo!

A Word From Me

All the HDR photos on this page were taken while on vacation in Sleeping Bear Dunes or from my travels to Scotland. If you you would like to learn more about high dynamic range photography, but can't wait for the next hub I suggest you check out my website. Below I have added a few photos of Sleeping Bear Dunes, located near Traverse City, MI. All the photos shown are HDR photographs.

HDR Photos

Click thumbnail to view full-size


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    • kgala0405 profile image

      Kevin Galarneau 6 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks for the nice comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. Have you tried HDR photography before?

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 6 years ago from the short journey

      Beautiful photography. Thanks for more info on HDR photography.

    • Dale Hyde profile image

      Dale Hyde 6 years ago from Tropical Paradise on Planet X

      A well done and defined hub full of great information! Easy to follow advice and tips. I would guess with practice, these steps would become "habit". Thanks for the hub!