When to (not) use HDR in your photography

I love HDR (High Dynamic Range) and most of my landscape work used to be, and sometimes still is HDR based.

I use(d) HDR to take out the details in the over/underexposed areas of my photo.

Cameras have evolved in the last few years and with that the sensor quality.

This is to say that nowadays the dynamic range of the new sensors is pretty awesome, especially when a full sensor, even at a higher ISO

If you decide to shoot in HDR keep in mind that there are few cases when it just does not work and other cases when the end result is awesome

Interior pictures of buildings

Great results in close environments, even more, if lots of light is coming through the windows.

This is a typical case when the photo has substantial areas underexposed, with shadows that will be black and without details.

The window area will be most certainly overexposed, with an annoying white halo.

With at least 3 photos we will be able to collect information about all areas, to have details not only in the shadow areas but also on the exterior, this could be a tree or a nice sky with clouds.

Sunset and sunrise

This is a great time to make photos generally speaking.

If it is your goal to have details in both the shadows and the bright areas, like the sun and the sky, than HDR is one solution.

Plan to take 5 photos with different exposure (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2 EV, Exposure Value), or at least 3 exposure (-2,0,+2 EV).

In these hours of the days, HDR gives great result however it is not essential as the single exposure can be as awesome, if not more, than HDR.

St Kilda Pier
St Kilda Pier

Forest and gardens

I have personally mixed results with HDR in an environment with a predominance of trees and grass.

The amount of details is sometime overkilling the photo and the green colour becomes too artificial.

Post-production takes a long time and I tend to avoid using HDR at all in forest and gardens

Action photos

Just forget about it.

Do not use HDR, just use the right exposure for one unique shot.

In case you still want to give the dreamy, Harry Potter, effect, you can always process it later on as a single HDR picture or increase the contrast to a steep value, although the results may be not great, and it depends on the quality of the camera you are using.

People portraits

They do not come out great unless you want your friend to look like Terminator in a futuristic film.

It works actually the other way around.

You want to smooth the skin, and software as Lightroom have a brush to do just that.

My last comment here is that there is a time for HDR and there is a time for other photography techniques.

Plan the photo in advance and never hope for the best.

And most important, enjoy your photography time 😀

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6 facts about HDR Photography

Reference guide to travel photography

These are all small things I have learnt through my HDR life full of reading, watching tutorials and mostly making photos and post-processing them, with lots, really, lots of experiments.

Same Aperture, different shutter speed

This is the main rule when shooting HDR. The depth of field is a personal decision based on your composition. Just remember to keep the aperture (F-Stop) consistent, meanwhile the shutter speed can change to capture the pictures with higher and lower exposition.

To make life easier keep the AV(Canon) or A(Nikon) value constant (decide your F-Stop) and leave the camera selecting the right shutter speed when bracketing. Alternatively you can do all Manual.

How to use lead-in lines in landscape photography

AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing)

This is the first thing you want to learn in your setup, when starting shooting HDR. This allows you to make three or more photos, one with the decided exposure value (EV) and the others with an higher/lower EV.

The combination of these photos will give a much higher range of brightness levels and details that the single measured exposure would probably miss.

HDR may help with better photos during the day

This is true, the over and under exposed (-2EV, +2EV as an example) photos will give you more details in the final picture than a single exposure photo. This comes more evident during the day, when the sun is high in the sky and the shadows are really dark.


Said that, the sunset and sunrise is still the time where you can have the best shots, no question about it. And remember that photography is not only HDR, and during these first and last hours of the day you can make non-HDR photos that can be really fantastic.

HDR from a single photo

Yes you can do it, however the end result depends on the camera you are using. By experience, the full sensor cameras give the best result. The main reason is that the bigger sensor can capture more information in the dark and light areas of your image. This information is stored in the RAW file, another good reason to shoot in RAW.

The HDR software takes this information to process the single photo as it would do with three different photos.  Does it mean that 1 photo is enough? Not really. Try to process an HDR photo using a single shot or 3 shots and you will see the result.

The photography guide to the ancient Khmer Thailand-Cambodia highway : Lopburi & Khao Yai NP

Tripod is not essential

It is not essential, although highly suggested. If you think you have a great HDR composition in front of you, than try to take the 3+ photos keeping your camera as steady as possible.

Always look around, you may use a pole to help, or a fence. In any case the tripod, of course, make your life easier, but do not stop making photos just because you do not have 100% of your gear.

Windy day

The Windy day is always an enemy when shooting. With HDR is even worst. You organise your tripod, you are than able to take 2 pictures, but a gust moves your tripod slightly, what a shame. Back, another try, same result.

Try to put your body between the coming wind and the camera if possible. The tripod quality plays a big role here. If still no good results, you can sometime work it out in post production. Use one of the photo, create a copy and increase/decrease the EV.

In doing that many times you will have lots of noise. Try to reduce that in the source photos with software as Dfine or Lightroom. Run your HDR software again. If still not happy with the result, try once more the process….or go back to the same site for another shot, if possible 😀 Unfortunately there are limits also to photography

HDR : What, Why, When, How

I always love to go down to the point and use the What, Why, When, How information flow. These were the question we learnt to ask when we were children, because we wanted to understand, just that, no other reasons. Somehow we evolved using the conditional tense and the political vocabulary which means everything and nothing, no directions every directions, very confusing. 

Why HDR?

That is one of the most common question, isn’t it. HDR is very popular nowadays, for many reasons. You can even have Iphone and Android App to take HDR pictures, with average results, that look ok on the phone screen anyway, a bit less on a standard PC screen.

I love shooting HDR because I consider it a technology made to replicate what we really see when we make photos. In a cloudy day, as it happens quite often in Melbourne, most of my old pictures came out with a nice exposure on the subject, but a white overexposed sky, or, even worst, a nice cloudy sky but, sadly, an under exposed, dark, subject. I had to shoot without sky, so the exposure could be more balanced. Always a workaround

Another disappointing situation was the sunset or sunrise. Always with the sun overexposed to have a nice colour on the beach, or a fantastic sun, but a black beach….just silhouette.

I worked a lot with the brush to fix this issues, to over or under exposed part of my photo, to make the overall more exciting, till …………I started shooting HDR, with the clear benefit to have a “what you see is what you get” picture.

Add more contrast, luminosity, colour, shadow and you come out with a fantasy style picture, what I like to call Harry Potter style. This is clearly not the photo that describes 100% what you saw, but a dreamy version, that works great with so many subjects, like old 40s, 50s car, or motorbikes or push bikes or Victorian houses, but not as great with people.

What HDR?

HDR, or High Dynamic Range, “is a set of techniques that allows a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than current standard digital imaging techniques or photographic methods. This wide dynamic range allows HDR images to more accurately represent the range of intensity levels found in real scenes, ranging from direct sunlight to faint starlight, and is often captured by way of a plurality of differently exposed pictures of the same subject matter“. This is a copy&paste from Wikipedia, and it does give a good description of this technique. the picture in Wikipedia are probably not a good representation of the technique though.

Also, very important, tone-mapping techniques, which reduce overall contrast to facilitate display of HDR images on devices with lower dynamic range, can be applied to produce images with preserve (or exaggerated) local contrast for artistic effect.

I underlined the word exaggerated because it happens more and more often that people assume that HDR is a technique to create fantasy picture, which is not the case. This does happen only with exaggerated local contrast, that is ok if this is what the photographer/artist wants, although the end result is not any more a photo, I believe.

How HDR?

It is relatively easy to make HDR photos. It is quite difficult to have a good result, I always find something I want to go back and change, but that’s probably not HDR related, but just looking for a better result. I consider a photo never ended, I consider my photo alive. And it happens quite often that I go back, with a different mood…and experience, and I find a better end result for the photo. I love thinking to live with a changing and alive world of photos around me.

The first step for HDR is to have the right composition; well, that’s photography basic, isn’t it? HDR is not going to improve your photo if what you see does not interest you in the first place.

The second step is to take more pictures of the same subject with different exposure. Ideally go for 9 exposures, 5 is also a good number and 3 is the minimum, although you can have some interesting results also with one exposure (in raw format). You will find that the overexposed shot will show quite well what you have in the shadows areas, meanwhile the underexposed will allow the photo to pick the areas that otherwise would be white in a one-exposure photo, like sometime the sky, the sun or, in case of interior, the window exterior. Even if you have 9 exposures, during the post-processing, you can discard some of them if they do not bring any information; they actually have the opposite effect.

The third step is post-processing. There are different software for that, although the most popular is Photomatix.  This review is quite interesting and a good starting point. You can also download a month trial version of most of the software to test the end result. Even in Lightroom you can use the brush to over or under expose part of your photo, to give more or less light, and technically this is already expanding the Dynamic Range of your photo, a sort of manual HDR.

The fourth step is…..make the photo public, print it, or post it on a web ….share it!!

When HDR?

Not all the pictures have to be HDR. There are actually cases where HDR is not great at all. If you are making a photo of a sunset, with palms in front of you, probably the HDR technique would make the photo somehow flat, compared with just the silhouette of the trees that would give a nice dreamy effect.

Portrait HDR does not look great either. The high contrast on the skin make people weird. HDR may although help for everything else but the skin. In this case you may need to use Photoshop more extensively, and the result can be fantastic.

HDR has great results on sunset and sunrise, no question about. Also landscape look fantastic. Attention with the green side, for grass or the trees, the colour may come out too bright, and therefore to unreal.