HDR Imaging Tutorial

As promised, I have put together what I hope will be an easy to understand and follow tutorial of creating HDR (High Dynamic Range) Images.

I think it is only fair to give you a basic understanding of what HDR Imaging/Photography is, and confess – they say that you learn something new every day of your life, and whilst putting this tutorial together I have actually learned something new.

What is HDR Imaging/Photography?

HDR or High Dynamic Range Imaging is a technique of using several differently exposed images, either digitally, or using several negatives when processing a single image.

Using this method allows for a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image.  If you were to simply take a single photograph, not everything will be visible in the resulting image.  For example, if you were to take a photograph of a sea-scape, you would either have an image with greater detail in the sky, or greater detail in the foreground, but not both.

To get both, you need at least two (three is better) separate images, an image which shows the detail in the sky, and a second showing the detail in the foreground and combine the two on the computer (or expose the two negatives together).

History of HDR Imaging/Photography

(This is where I have actually learned something new…)

Who knew (I certainly didn’t) that the idea of using several exposure photographs was thought of as early as the 1850’s by Gustave Le Gray to render seascapes showing both the sky and the sea.  It was possible at the time to use one negative (remember those?) for the exposure of the sky, and one for an exposure of the sea, and combined the two when processing them.

The 1930’s and 1940’s saw Charles Wyckoff use the technique of combining differently exposed film layers to create detailed pictures of nuclear explosions.

The use of HDR has been seen for a number of years, but it has only been used more widely recently.  The first practical application of HDR Imaging was actually by the movie industry in the late 1980’s and in 1985 Gregory Ward created the Radiance RGBE Image File Format which was the first and still is the most used HDR Imaging File Format.

With the advent of consumer digital cameras, produced a completely new demand for HDR Imaging.  It was in 1997 that the technique of combining several differently exposed images to produce a single HDR Image was presented to the public by Paul Debevec.


I am going to stop rambling on and get right to the tutorial…

…we will start off by taking the photographs we are going to use:

What you will need?

  • Tripod or some form of securing the camera to a fixed point.
    This is the most important piece of equipment you will need for producing HDR Images.  You might be able to hand hold the camera, but you are going to get some movement and it would be harder to align the images later on.
    It would be ideal to have either a wired/wireless remote, but you can use the camera’s timer switch to make sure you have no contact with the camera.
  • Digital Camera capable of Bracketting the Exposures – Known as Automatic Exposure Bracketting (AEB), you can use an SLR Camera, I will be using a Canon 30d SLR but quite a lot of the point-and-shoot cameras have a manual mode allowing you to bracket your exposures.  You will need to consult your instruction manual on how to change the settings on your particular camera, but the priniciple is the same.
  • Something to shoot – an obvious requirement I hear you say, but for HDR Imaging you need to take into account some things:Having details like the grain in woodern structures, make a much more interesting image.Consider the colors, even a blue sky is enough (try to get a few clouds too) but consider the colors of the leaves on the trees, even photographing an old metal structure with rust would give a great image at the end.

    A scene with a greater depth of field and little movement is always best.

That’s it, three criteria, doesn’t seem like much does it, but this is just the start…

Taking the Photograph’s

Once you have selected a location or subject for your photograph, we need to set up the camera.  Normally I would have the camera on the manual setting to give me a much broader scope of settings to play with, but for the purpose of this tutorial, I am simply going to leave it in Program Mode (P).

As previously mentioned this is based on the Canon EOS 30d SLR so please consult your manual on how to change your particular camera’s settings.

  1. First step is to mount you camera on the tripod.
  2. Set your camera to Program (P) Mode – most camera’s have this option, but the essential part is not to use the Flash, if your camera does not have a program mode, then switch off automatic flash.  The Program (P) Mode will automatically set the Exposure and Shutter Priorities based on the internal light-meter of the camera of the scene you are shooting.
  3. You want to try and set your Camera’s ISO Setting to 100 (again depending on the camera, some will only go to 200) – the lower you can get this setting the sharper your images are going to be.
  4. We now need to set your camera to bracket the exposure setting.  To do this on the Canon EOS 30d, it is under the setting for Automatic Exposure Bracketting (AEB) – this particular camera can bracket your exposures up to -/+ 2-stops which is the setting I normally use for this type of imaging.  However, if you camera can go beyond this, I would recommend not going past more than 3-stops.
    Having the AEB Set, the camera will automatically fire three shots when the shutter-release is pressed.
  5. If you do not have a Wired/Wireless Shutter Release then we also need to set the camera’s timer function on.
  6. Aim and Focus on the scene you are going shooting, press the shutter release halfway down and this will Auto-Focus the scene for you.
  7. Now press the shutter-release all the way down, the timer will count down (if set) or the camera will take three shots of your subject and store them for you.

That’s the first bit out of the way, now we need to go to the computer.  I am not going to insult your intelligence by telling you how to connect your camera to the computer or use a card reader, I am going to assume you are able to get the three images we have just taken on to the computer in to a directory by themselves.

Processing your Images into a HDR Image.

You will need a piece of software similar to PhotoMatix Pro by HDRSoft – you can download a trial version of this software from their Downloads Page – there is a version for Windows users and a Version for Mac OSx users.  Please be aware though, using a trial version of this software will have PhotoMatix watermarks on your final images.

The Standalone program and Lightroom Plug-in sells currently for $99.00 Buy It Here – they do have other options available.

This is the software we are going to use today, but there are other products such as:

  • Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro
  • HDR Darkroom
  • HDR Express

HDR Software have a great review of these and more, including PhotoMatix Pro.  There are some free versions of HDR Software but it is always best to get something that is specifically written to do HDR Imaging, some plug-in’s for Photoshop and Lightroom are not the best.

At the time of writing, you can get PhotoMatix 4 Pro for 15% off:

BONUS: Get 15% off if you buy Photomatix today and use coupon code HDRsoftware15 on the Photomatix Order Page.

Not sure how long this will last so get it while you can.

Anyways, back to the tutorial…

You are welcome to use the images used in this tutorial to practice using the HDR Software.

From left to right, The Under-Exposed Image at -2-stops from the original, Normal Exposed Image, and the Overexposed Image at +2-stops.

With PhotoMatix Pro (for this tutorial I am using Version 3.2.9) open…

  1. Click on ‘Generate HDR Image’ and click on ‘Browse’ and select your images you downloaded from your camera.  (I think it is ‘Load Images’ or something to that effect in version 4 of the software).
  2. Click ‘OK’
  3. You will be asked, at what level was the exposure bracket at.  In this example I used -/+ 2-stops.  To change this change the ‘Specify the E.V. spacing option’ to 2.
  4. Click ‘OK’
  5. The next screen, you only need to select the ‘Align source images’ if any of the images you are using have any type of movement.  If you have used a tripod, and your source images are something similar to what I have used, with no movement, you don’t need to align the images, so you can de-select this option before proceeding.
  6. The resulting image will not show much change, now you need to click on ‘Tone Mapping’
  7. Within the Details Enhancer, have a play around with the settings and see what it does to your photograph.
  8. If you like it… Hit Process!

Personal photography, that is, not for a commercial purposes, is all about if you like the photograph, not what others think.  Sure it is always nice to get compliments from others about your photography, but at the end of the day, if you like it, then that is all that matters.

In this photograph, I used the following settings:

  • Strength = 100
  • Color Saturation = 70
  • Luminosity = +4.0
  • Microcontrast = +6.0
  • Smoothing = 0

It is a subtle change, but you can see the difference it makes, there is much more saturation in the sky, and much more detail in the foreground.  The one thing, processing your images in this way, certainly accentuates any imperfections within your photographs, processing this photograph I certainly saw that I really do need to clean the sensor on my camera, I used Adobe Photoshop’s ‘Spot Healing Brush’ to get rid of the blemishes.


Resulting Image

That is it, have a go, you can get some really great images from using this technique.  Here are some examples from around the Internet.  You only need to put the word HDR in Google and in the Images section there are literally thousands.  These examples show you that, you can use this technique for all types of subjects.

This technique can also be used for night type photography.


8 thoughts on “HDR Imaging Tutorial”

    1. Thank you Setiaji, I hope it is of use to people. I really like the effect you get from using that technique.


  1. Hi aiWeb2.0 🙂

    Tim, try QTPFSGUI: an Open Source Workflow for HDR Imaging
    and GIMP: GNU Image Manipulation Program

    …both are available for free and for Windows, Mac and Linux

    …they’re not as polished as a very expensive CS software, but the results achieved are exactly the same 🙂 Ike

    1. Thank you Ike Kozik, I had heard of the QTPFSGUI program, but I have not tried it yet. As for the other (GIMP) I wasn’t aware it had that function. I thank you for the suggestions, and this information will be of use to my other readers.

      Thanks JT

  2. I’m no professional but I’ve played around enough with photography to think I would have heard of this before. I hadn’t. The only issue is I can only justify the cost for Photoshop Elements, never mind paying for CS5 with optional software.

    I wonder if there is a way of achieving the same or similar effect using layers. Doubtful but now I know where to start.

    1. Hi Tim,
      Thank you for the comment. I have always used Photoshop Creative Suite and not that familar with the workings of Photoshop Elements, so I am unsure if the plug-in’s available for CS4/5 will work or whether there is another plug-in available for Elements that will achieve the same effect.

      Then again, PhotoMatix Pro 4 is $99 which is considerably cheaper than CS5 and well worth it.

      I have never tried to do it in layers, but I think there is a way you can do it…

      Say you have the same type of photograph I used in the tutorial, 1 photograph you exposed for the sky, and the second for the beach…

      In Photoshop CS5, I would take the first layer (sky), and then place the second layer on top (beach), and put a layer mask on to the top layer, and then you can paint in first layer (sky), I think this would work for Elements too.

      This would give you a similar technique, where the photograph is exposed for both areas but not the various effects you would get combining them in HDR Software.

      Hope that helps.

    1. Hi Matt, You should get some great effects using this technique on bike colors. I look forward to seeing your photos. JT

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