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HTG Explains: What is HDR Photography, And How Can I Use It?

HDR head

You might have heard the enigmatic acronym “HDR” in reference to photography. It stands for “High Dynamic Range” and it creates photos with gorgeous, impossible detail and clarity. Keep reading to learn more, and see how you can use it.

Today we’ll learn about the different types of HDR imaging, demystify some confusing terminology, and look at the the various reasons that why HDR even exists in the first place. If you’re ready to expand your knowledge of photography, dive right in.

Why Would I Even Need HDR?

HDRI-Example

Cameras are limited to the amount of image detail they can record when the sensor is exposed to light. Whether you’re using the auto settings or are taking pics using skillfully tuned manual settings, your goal is trying to take advantage of the available light to maximize the detail in the result image. The problem is, when you’re shooting heavy shadows and bright lights, you are forced into losing detail in one range or the other.

A skilled photographer can tune her elements of exposure to achieve great detail in shadows or highlights, or choose the middle of the road, “proper” exposure solution, and lose some detail in both. Lots of detail in the shadows can give you thin, washed out highlights, while good detail in those same highlight areas will result in all shadows immediately jumping to a solid, dark black. Ordinarily, you’d want the “goldilocks” exposure that is somewhere in the middle.

Using this sort of “normal” exposure, where a photographer has to make these sorts of tough decisions, is sometimes called “Standard” or “Low” Dynamic Range imaging. This is what ordinary cameras shoot, including what nearly 100% of How-To Geek readers are likely to be using.

What is High Dynamic Range Imaging?

Old_saint_pauls_1

In order to avoid any confusion, it’s worth noting that there are many different methods of creating images that are all referred to as HDR, or High Dynamic Range Imaging. Many of these methods are very different, so it can be helpful to briefly look at our terminology, and explain away these confusing terms that all seem to overlap each other. Keep the following in mind when thinking of HDR:

  • Ordinary methods of creating images have less range than the human eye can see. These are called “Standard” or “Low Dynamic Range.”
  • There are methods and hacks to work around these image limits, and these methods are sometimes called HDR imaging methods. These specific methods are usually older and predate digital combination of images.
  • There are also High Dynamic Range image formats and color spaces that have greater ranges of values than standard range formats, capable of capturing rich detail in shadows and highlights at once. These are also correctly called HDR, and are not the same thing as the previously mentioned methods. Normally these are captured natively, with HDR equipment.
  • What most modern digital photographers refer to as HDR Imaging is what we shall be focusing on today—a method of combining image data from multiple digital exposures to create one photograph with detail normally not possible.

What Goes Into an HDR Image?

Exposure

Stepping around the problems of typical standard range photography, we can think of HDR Imaging as techniques that combine the image information from multiple exposures into one image with detail beyond the limitations of single exposures. Resourceful photographers know to use image bracketing when photographing a scene, or stopping up or stopping down the exposure in order to increase the chances of finding that proper “goldilocks” exposure. Even though your light meter or auto setting might say that the proper exposure has been selected, taking the same composition multiple times with multiple aperture or shutter speed settings will greatly boost your chances of getting that “best” image out of your shot.

800px-Grand_Canyon_HDR_imaging

HDR Imaging also uses bracketing, but in a different way. Instead of shooting multiple exposures to create the best image, HDR wants to capture the maximum possible detail throughout the whole range of light. Photographers normally faced with the choice of losing detail in highlights and shadows can choose to bracket multiple exposures, shooting first for detail in the shadows, then for detail in the highlights, and a “goldilocks” exposure somewhere in the middle. By bracketing this way, professionals create the building blocks for their perfect image.

Tonal Mapping, and Creating Rich Detail in Images

Adams_The_Tetons_and_the_Snake_River

The basic idea of creating a combination image with multiple exposures is not new to photography. As long as cameras have had the limitation of standard ranges, clever photographers have been hacking ways to create the best possible image. Brilliant photographer Ansel Adams used dodging and burning techniques to selectively expose his prints and create amazing rich detail in images, like the one illustrated above. When digital photography was finally viable enough to address this problem, the first HDR filetypes were created. However, the HDR filetypes used by most photographers today do not use this method (i.e. capturing multiple exposures into single file, beyond the range of ordinary imaging). Most so-called “HDR” images are actually multiple exposures combined into an HDR image, and then Tone mapped into a single standard range image.

Toronto Yonge-Dundas Square

Much of the true High Dynamic Range levels of detail are out of range of monitors, CMYK printers, and cameras—these ordinary mediums simply can’t create images that can compare to the amount of image data the human eye can capture. Tone mapping is a technique to translate color and values from a HDR medium (for instance, a Photoshop creation of multiple SDR exposures) and map them back into a standard medium (like an ordinary image file). Because it is a translation, tone mapped images are a sort of simulation of the rich range of values in HDR file formats, despite the fact that they can create amazing detail in lights and darks simultaneously. Despite this, tone mapped images fall under the blanket of HDR techniques, and get the confusing blanket label of HDR.

It is this technique that most photographers call HDR Imaging, or even HDR photography. The reason it is more significant is because modern photo editing tools and digital cameras make it easer than ever for home and hobby photographers to create these images.

Creating Images with HDR Levels of Detail

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Many modern image editing apps have tone mapping routines for combining multiple images and creating the best possible image out of their combination, in addition to hacks and clever ways to combine images to create rich photographs with excellent detail. These methods, some of which HTG will cover in future photography articles, are possible with Photoshop, and even with free software like GIMP or Paint.NET. You can create multiple exposure, high-detail photography by:

  • Combining multiple exposures with software like Photomatrix or Photoshop’s HDR Pro, and tone mapping the image.
  • Combining multiple exposures using combinations of blending methods in multiple layers in powerful image editors like GIMP.
  • Manually merging high detail areas of images with layer masks, erasers, and dodging and burning in programs like Photoshop or Paint.NET.

Still hungry to learn more about HDR Imaging? Stay tuned to Photography with How-To Geek, where we’ll cover how to expose for HDR and create rich HDR images from those exposures in future articles.

Image Credits: St Louis Arch Tone Mapped by Kevin McCoy and Darxus, available under Creative Commons. HDRI and St Pauls by Dean S. Pemberton, available under Creative Commons. Exposure by Nevit Dilmen, available under Creative Commons. Grand Canyon HDR Imaging by Diliff, available under Creative Commons. Ansel Adams image in public domain. Dundus Square by Marmoulak, available under Creative Commons.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 05/23/11

Comments (14)

  1. thenonhacker

    I like this article. In your upcoming articles please promote more about Realistic HDR instead of Haloey HDR (it’s the InstaGram of photography, you know).

  2. Eric Z Goodnight

    Hah! I sort of agree, and I actually like the stylized look of HDR. It’s one of those things like AutoTune that everybody sort of overuses because it’s new and because people can. Regardless, I think it has its place.

  3. Scott S

    I found out about HDR a couple of years ago and love it. I read “High Dynamic Range Digital Photography for Dummies”, which I checked out from my local library. The book gives good advice on what type camera to buy and the best shareware and freeware programs to use with HDR.

  4. Hatryst

    There have been quite a lot of questions, since a couple of HDR wallpapers were posted on HTG a few days ago. This really helped. And I would agree, at lease one more article explaining step-by-step on ‘how to’ do it would be great ;)

  5. Josh B.

    Lets not forget our friend Trey Ratcliff over at http://www.stuckincustoms.com. Arguably the world’s most renowned HDR photographer.

  6. Carol B-W

    I would love to be able to implement HDR techniques for my product photography so I will be waiting in anticipation for the next article!

  7. NPJ

    This sounds like what I am trying to do in astrophotography, not realising it is HDR!

    Looking forward to the next bit.

  8. janni

    Yes!!!! Please more……

  9. hazelwize

    Thank u for this article. Explains setting on my new iPhone. With in depth info. Geeks are the best!

  10. Rajneesh Gadge

    Thanks Eric I’m eager to learn HDR toning techniques.

    Looking forward for the next article!!

  11. Nevit Dilmen

    Thank u Eric for this nice article.

  12. Ray

    Were do I get to down load the program from for I phone and pc

  13. MiriamB

    I would like to make a ghost image of my laptop. Is there an easy way to make a boot disk of my Windows 7 64-bit laptop without being a programmer?

    Thanks for all your help.

  14. harvey

    Ansel Adams and other “zone system” practioners would expose the film for shadow detail and develop each sheet of film for the appropriate time to bring out details in the highlights.

    Multiple-eposure HDR was common in the early days of silver emulsion photography before panchromatic film was developed. Early film was sensitive only to high-energy blue light, so skies were especially overexposed. A second shorter exposure was sometimes used to retain sky detail.

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