Capture Hidden Detail with High Dynamic Range Photography

By David D. Busch

High dynamic range (HDR) photography is one of those techniques you either love or hate. So, if you’ve never thought of experimenting with HDR to capture detail hidden in your images with your dSLR, now is the time to give it a try.

HDR photography is a way of combining two or more images taken at separate exposures to produce a single image that has a rich range of detail in both shadows and highlights. The magic derives from overexposing some images, so that shadow information is captured fully (top left), while incrementally underexposing other versions of the same scene.


The underexposed version ensures that highlight information is not washed out, even if shadows fall into inky blackness (top right). Then the best parts of each version are combined to produce a dramatic image that contains an increased dynamic range of tones (bottom).

An increasing number of digital SLRs have high dynamic range photography built in. When HDR is activated, the camera takes two or more images and processes them to come up with a final photo with an extended tonal range.

However, you can achieve the same effect (and often do a better job) using a software tool like Nik HDR Effects Pro or Photomatix — or even manually by combining separate photos in your image editor.

Just mount your camera on a tripod to ensure that there is no movement between shots. Use manual exposure or Aperture Priority to ensure that the f/stop doesn’t change between shots (altering focus and depth-of-field). Then take a series of images at different exposures using, say, 1∕60-, 1∕30-, 1∕15-, and 1∕8-second shutter speeds.

You can combine them in your image editor. Both Photoshop and Photoshop Elements include Combine to HDR commands that will do the job for you and even align slightly skewed images if you shoot hand-held.