People as Subjects of HDR Photography - dummies

People as Subjects of HDR Photography

Most people think of landscapes and other photos of inanimate objects when they think of high dynamic range images, but HDR photography works just as well with people as your subject(s).

It’s not the same as traditional HDR photography because you don’t capture a series of photos. You shoot a single Raw photo. This is because it is impractical or impossible to get people to sit motionless. My kids barely stay in one spot for 1/500 of a second without moving!

What makes this possible are Raw photos and a little bit of trickery. Take a good photo in Raw (not JPEG) and send that through your HDR software as if it were a bracketed set and then tone map the result. You can create your own brackets from the single Raw photo and send those to your HDR application if you like.

In the end, you’re not increasing the dynamic range of your camera by shooting multiple shots. However, you do end up with something that looks very close to HDR.

This process has alternatively been called pseudo-HDR, single-exposure HDR, or simply tone mapping a low dynamic range image. Whatever you call it, here’s an example. The left side of the figure illustrates a reasonably good JPEG of a boy, straight out of the camera. It’s a good portrait, but the sun is shining on his face from the left side. It’s a classic case of the dreaded face shadow.


The original Raw exposure was processed through the Sony Image Data Converter five times to create five images with different exposures, from dark to light. A Raw converter enables you to save Sony Raw photos as JPEGs or TIFFs after you make adjustments to lighting, contrast, color, sharpness, and noise. This process squeezes every bit of dynamic range in the photo to the surface.

Converting single exposures to brackets doesn’t increase the dynamic range of the original, but it does bring out the entire range of exposure information more for you to see it better.

Those images were processed as HDR and tone mapped. The result is shown in the right side of the figure. Apart from the entire photo looking better and more vibrant, the shadows on the face are less distracting.

This example illustrates

  • People problems: Cameras often have a hard time photographing people without a flash or additional lighting. This normally results in backlit subjects or shadows that cross the face. If you use a flash, you pay for it with harsh shadows and blazingly bright foreheads such as in this figure.


  • HDR and people: HDR can work with people. If you let the tone mapping controls like Strength and Smoothing get out of hand, the person may look horrible. A fine touch, however, will reward you with a more vibrant photo than the original.

  • Single-exposure HDR: Although not technically HDR (because you’re only shooting one limited dynamic range photo), you can use single Raw exposures as source images for pseudo-HDR.