HDR Primer

Copyright Scott Bourne 2008 - All Rights Reserved

While many people view HDR differently, this primer is intended to help you get started making basic HDR images from a still photographer’s point of view.

I personally don’t ever shoot a landscape or a cityscape without at least also shooting it in HDR. It solves so many problems. My personal approach is far more reserved than some photographers. I personally prefer HDR photos that are closer to what my eye sees at the moment of the shot. Others prefer a more aggressive HDR look. Wherever you are on that spectrum, it’s a fun way to capture a scene and a new way to capture detail in shots we used to just give up on back in the film days.

In this post I want to list a few of the tips, tools and tricks I use to make HDR images with the hope that it will help those of you who are intimidated to make the attempt for yourself.


The first thing you need to make an HDR image is a camera. Just about any camera will do. More important than the camera (in my opinion) is the tripod. Having a steady tripod is a must for serious HDR shooters. The ghosting problems caused by misaligned photos is the ugly side of HDR. The images made on a tripod tend to avoid most ghosting so buy, borrow or rent a great tripod before trying to make an HDR image.

On the software side, you want Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Aperture or Lightroom, or a combination of some or all of these to do your basic processing. You’ll also want to add another piece of software or two. Photomatix and Nik HDR Efex Pro are my favorite two HDR programs. Photomatix Pro is the least expensive of the two but is generally considered the best tool for this job. The Nik product is however, possibly a better choice for amateurs who are just putting their toes into the HDR pool. Nik’s tool has lots of cool presets. It’s slower than Photomatix and costs more, but it’s a bit easier to use for beginners. Power users may want to use both tools due to Nik’s U Point (control point selective editing) technology.


You want to use HDR when the dynamic range (a fancy way of saying the difference between the brightest white and the darkest black in a scene) is wider than the camera’s ability to capture data. For most digital cameras, the built-in dynamic range is between four and five stops. Our eyes can capture between 11 and 14 stops of light, depending on which expert you believe. So look for scenes that have wider latitude than the camera. These are scenes that make good HDR shots.

Don’t forget that all the old photographic rules apply. You need to use good judgment. Great composition, picking the right angle and lens, etc., these all will impact the photo you make. If I had any critique of Trey’s approach (and I really don’t – this is a nit) I’d like to hear him talk a bit more about the photographic skill side of making a great HDR.

After you pick a candidate for an HDR shot, set your camera to Aperture Priority or Manual Mode. Keep the same F-stop for each image. Make five to seven shots, all starting anywhere from two to three stops below the exposure your camera meter suggests. Start three stops below for scenes that contain a bright light source like the sun and two stops below for most other HDR scenes. The shooting sequence goes like this for me….

1. Minus 3 stops
2. Minus 2 stops
3. Minus 1 stop
4. Even – standard meter reading
5. Plus 1 stop
6. Plus 2 stops
7. Plus 3 stops

You can shoot from plus to minus or minus to plus. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you keep the camera as still as possible. Use a self-timer or remote shutter release and a tripod. Don’t vary your F-stop.


Sometimes when I am out in the field, I am shooting a mixture of both HDR and “normal” images. To help me remember later that I was shooting for HDR, I stick my hand in front of my camera lens and make an exposure. This reminds me later that when I am looking at the images in my browser, the sequence immediately following my hand shot was intended for HDR.


When I get back to the studio, I consider it a best practice to convert my RAW images to TIFFs or JPEGS before sending them to the HDR software. (Trey likes to make JPGS because this dramatically speeds up the HDR software. I prefer larger uncompressed files, but to each his/her own.) While most of the major HDR programs will do the RAW conversion for you, doing it manually in ACR or Aperture, etc., gives you more control. I usually do the zero-image (the camera’s base exposure) and then batch apply the RAW conversion to the rest of the pictures in the sequence.

I then import into Photomatix Pro. (Or Nik HDR Efex Pro if you prefer) I don’t do the HDR conversion in Photoshop. Although Photoshop has gotten better at HDR over the years, it still can’t touch what you can do in some post-capture plugins that are dedicated to HDR.

In either program I start with a preset that gets me close, then I tweak the sliders here and there to adjust the image to taste. I’m not able to tell you where to set these sliders, but generally use common sense. If you see a slider that says “Saturation” it’s a good bet it will impact the colors in your photograph. Use it to make the colors more or less saturated depending on your goals.

Once I have the image the way I like it, I import it into Photoshop or Aperture (my preferences) and you can import that image into any post-processing software you like. I also import most of the original files into Photoshop so I can mask in or out things that the HDR plug-in didn’t do well. I put the finished HDR product on top and align all the other images below. (In photoshop – Select all layers by SHIFT-clicking them, then use Auto-Align under Photoshop’s Edit Menu. If you have another preferred method of aligning the photos use that.)

If you have moving objects like people running or cars driving, they are going to be “ghosts” in the HDR image so I mask them out in the HDR photo and put back in the best single shot of the moving object via a layer in Photoshop so that the finished product isn’t blurred. I also tweak things like bright lights and skies in this final composite using the best image from my original five or seven shot HDR raw material gathering.

Once I get everything the way I want it, I apply some basic noise reduction and minor edge sharpening. When I export the image for print or publication, I may fine-tune the sharpening depending on the output.

You may also want to further tweak the image creatively. You can apply any additional filters, adjustments or plugins you like at this point to further improve the image to taste.


This is a very brief and NOT thorough introduction to HDR. It’s meant to get your feet wet. If you really want to learn HDR in-depth, I have some recommended resources for you.

1. Run – don’t walk to the bookstore and buy Trey’s book A World in HDR. I was shooting and converting HDR images before I met Trey or read his book. But I can honestly say that I didn’t know WHY I was doing some of the things I was doing, but Trey’s book helped me figure all that out. It’s a basic starting point for anyone who’s serious about HDR.

2. Try Matt Kloskowski’s HDR training over at the Kelby Training Site

3. Look at Colin Smith’s great tutorial called HDR and Photoshop

HDR is a controversial subject in the photo community. Just as the jump from B&W to color was controversial; Just as the jump from film to digital was controversial; Just as the use of filters and plugins was controversial; So is HDR – but note I said IN THE PHOTO COMMUNITY. Outside the photo community, there is no controversy. People LOVE looking at HDR photos. So if you think you’d like to try your hand at it, don’t be put off by the controversy. Go for it and have fun. HDR is a great way to retune your eye and your photography.