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Cheat Sheet

High Dynamic Range Digital Photography For Dummies

High dynamic range (HDR) digital photography is an exciting new way to take and process photographs. First, shoot bracketed photos to capture as large an exposure range of the scene as possible. Second, generate an HDR image from the bracketed photos to then tone map. Finally, edit the photo to the degree you wish to solve problems and accentuate the positives.

As you can tell, there’s a lot to this. HDR photography is a multi-discipline sport! This cheat sheet of helpful (and wide-ranging) reference information makes discovering HDR a breeze. Find out what gear you need to capture and create HDR photographs, understand the technical terms, find out the best workflow, and explore links to software you can use to create HDR.

Necessary Equipment for Shooting High Dynamic Range Digital Photography

Here is a list of the minimum equipment and software that you need to start shooting high dynamic range (HDR) digital photography and creating high dynamic range images:

  • Digital camera: You need a digital camera with a form of exposure control that allows you to shoot brackets. This can be manual controls, AEB, or exposure compensation.

  • HDR software: You also need software capable of turning the bracketed photos into an HDR image and tone mapping it. Photomatix Pro and Photoshop are great examples.

That’s it. Really. However, you might want to pick up a few other items to make it easier to shoot HDR photos:

  • Tripod: Depending on your camera, you may not need a tripod for every HDR shot. However, using a tripod will stabilize your camera and make the brackets easier to align. For most people, a tripod is a necessity.

  • Raw converter: Raw converters give you better Raw-to-TIFF conversion quality than HDR software.

  • Image editor: Although you can take the tone mapped image and put it directly on the Web, having an image editor like Photoshop Elements helps you create a much better final product, convert photos to black and white, or create panoramas.

High Dynamic Range Digital Photography Terminology

High dynamic range (HDR) digital photography throws around a lot of vocabulary, which can be pretty confusing at times. Here is a handy list of terms you can use to help you get over the hump:

  • Bracket: A single photo in a bracketed set. The word “bracket” can also be used as a verb, as in “to bracket,” which means to take bracketed photos.

  • Bracketing: Taking two or more photos with different exposures of the same scene. Also known as exposure bracketing.

  • Bracketed set, or brackets: A group of bracketed photos of the same scene.

  • High dynamic range (HDR): HDR is a relative term used to compare one system’s ability to capture or represent an overall exposure range to that of another. In other words, HDR has no meaning without the comparison to a low dynamic range system, whether it is a camera, an image format, or a monitor.

  • HDR image: An image (most often having 32 bits of data per pixel) created from two or more bracketed photos.

  • HDR photography: A photographic technique used to capture a greater exposure range than a single photograph by shooting bracketed photos, and then generating and tone mapping the HDR image.

  • Low dynamic range (LDR): A normal photograph, JPEG, or TIFF. Clipping occurs when the actual range is greater than the format used to store or display it.

  • Single-exposure HDR: Using a single Raw exposure for HDR instead of brackets. Also known as single-shot HDR or pseudo-HDR.

  • Tone mapping: Creating a low dynamic range image from high dynamic range data. You often have a choice of what data to use and how to process it, which allows you to vary the appearance of the image.

A High Dynamic Range Digital Photography Workflow

High dynamic range (HDR) digital photography is a twofold process. You take pictures. You process pictures. Everything revolves around these two activities. Here is a general workflow of how to shoot and process HDR:

  1. Take exposure bracketed photos.

    Shoot bracketed photos to capture as large an exposure range of the scene as possible. Most of the time, you’ll set up your camera on a tripod. The exception to bracketing is when you take one Raw photo for use in single-exposure HDR. Raw photos are best to work with, but JPEGs can also produce good results.

  2. Pre-process Raw photos.

    For the highest quality, convert Raw images to TIFFs before proceeding with HDR.

  3. Generate a high dynamic range image in HDR software.

    HDR software merges the bracketed photos into a single high dynamic range image that serves no practical purpose other than to tone map.

  4. Tone map the HDR image in HDR software.

    This is where you get to create a low dynamic range image from the HDR image. The result appears to have a higher dynamic range (and thus looks better) but doesn’t (which means that it’s compatible with normal systems).

  5. Finish with post-HDR processing.

    The image you just tone mapped often needs further attention. It may have noise problems, or need straightened, cropped, or otherwise fixed. You may also wish to convert your image to black and white or otherwise embellish it.

High Dynamic Range Digital Photography Software Links

Many capable software applications can convert Raw photos, create and tone map high dynamic range (HDR) image, and edit photos. Download them and try them out!

Raw editors:

Dedicated HDR applications or plug-ins:

Image editors and other software:

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