5 Tips for Successful HDR Photos

5 Tips for Successful HDR Photos


How do you create successful HDR photos? It’s a question that I’ve gotten from time to time, and before we get started with this post I do want to make clear that there’s no question that HDR photography is one of those never ending battle grounds in the photography world. Much like the Windows vs Apple battle of the PC world, HDR vs non-HDR is a battle that continues to stir the pot.

Five tips for successful HDR photos – for those that wish to do it!

While it’s always fun to add fuel to the fire from time to time, let’s put the argument of whether or not it’s a valid form of photography aside for a minute, and simply focus on trying to get those who wish to learn a new technique on the right track from the start.

Tip #1 – use a tripod

HDR Photography Tip - Use a Tripod

Using a tripod to photograph HDR brackets helps keep the frames from shifting between shots. (This image was taken with my iPhone using an Olloclip fisheye lens and processed using Snapseed)

This should be a no brainer and I really didn’t even want to put it into this article, but alas, here it is.

A tripod will not only allow you to stabilize each individual image (some of which may be fairly long shutter speeds), but in order to capture the full dynamic range of the scene you will need to take multiple exposures with your camera and it’s vital that these frames line up perfectly. A tripod will ensure that each frame you capture is identical to the previous one, with the only exception being the exposure times.

Tip #2 – don’t tone map a single exposure and call it HDR

I see this all the time, and while I understand it’s a great way to get more out of a single exposure, it’s not really an HDR image. Yes you can create an underexposed, neutral, and over exposed image in Lightroom from the same RAW file, and then merge those three images into one HDR photo, but it’s really not the same as capturing individual images.

Why you ask? Simple. When you capture one exposure at a given set of settings (Exposure Values) on the exposure triangle you are recording data within that given range. No matter what you do to that file in post production the data captured by the camera doesn’t change – you’re only changing the way in which that data is output into an image.

When you capture three or more images at different exposures (EV), then those three images are all going to have different levels of data from which you can pull; allowing for a truly high dynamic range photograph. The more images you capture the more data you’ll have at your disposal. That being said there’s the law of diminishing returns, which basically means that there comes a point when adding more data to the pile doesn’t help improve the photograph.

Tip #3 – know when you need it and when you don’t


Use HDR only when you need it (IE: when the light range of your scene is too large to capture in a single exposure)

Some people use HDR for every photograph they take. In fact it’s step two on this list of 10 Steps Every HDR Photographer Goes Through. You do not have to do this.

HDR stands for ‘high dynamic range’ so if you’re photographing a scene where the lighting is fairly even from shadows to highlights (the scene fits nicely on the histogram, with nothing clipped at either end of the scale) you don’t need to do HDR. Your camera is capable of pulling out enough detail from the highlights and shadows to cover the scene in its entirety with one exposure. It’s also probably not worth it to try capturing moving objects or people in HDR as they typically don’t look right when they get tonemapped.

So when should you use HDR?

Use it during sunrise or sunset, especially when you are photographing into the sun. Use it to photograph during the middle of the day. Use it to photograph architecture or man-made objects, as HDR has a way of really bringing out the detail of craftsmanship.

Tip #4 – invest in a good tone mapping program

Once you capture your bracketed set of photos you’re going to want to put them together in the best way possible. There are a ton of great programs out there to do this, but I recommend using either HDR Soft’s Photomatix Pro or Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro. There are free alternatives out there, but I find that they don’t do as good of a job at tone mapping. Remember the tone mapping process is done algorithmically so the more powerful the software’s algorithms, the better the end results.

Tip #5 – control the urge to go big

HDR Tip - Avoid Going Too Big

Avoid the urge to create surrealistic photos (unless this is truly the style you wish to go in).

This is where HDR really becomes a touchy subject. Some people say that it’s their style to create over the top, surrealistic style, HDR photography and other’s say that they are destroying the world of photography by creating these highly saturated and oddly lit photographs.

It’s easy to get carried away with tone mapping your images, but if your goal is to recreate what you saw, the best way to do this is to remember to tone it down a bit before you press that process button. It’s also a good idea to watch out for haloing which takes place typically along tree lines (as you see in the photo above above the dark trees on the left side of the image).


Final word

While this is not an exhaustive list of HDR tips, it is a good start to get you on the right track to capture your first high dynamic range photos. That said, if you’re a bit more experienced with HDR and are looking to take your HDR photography to the next level, check out this post Creating HDR Panoramic Photographs written by one of my buddies on his HDR workflow process for creating massive HDR Panoramic images.

Do you have some tips to add to the list? Leave one in the comments below!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

John Davenport is the creator of PhoGro an online community that aims to help you grow your photography through engagement with other photographers. Join today! John also offers a free email course 6 Weeks to Better Photos. This course covers the most important techniques you need to learn when getting started with photography.

  • Monsoonking

    Good advice. I used to use HDR more frequently, but I’ve found that 4 out of 5 times, just playing with the highlights and shadows sliders in Lightroom will create a more pleasing and natural image.

  • Eddie

    Those are some of the worst HDR photos I think I’ve ever seen thanks loads from perpetuating this scourge upon the photographic world

  • Stephen Hoppe

    Good article of tips, I’ve never understood why there is such a debate about the use of HDR. If cameras could only record 2 or 3 EV steps in a single image everyone would use it to expand the exposure. So what if your camera can “see” 12-14 steps, use HDR when a scene exceeds this and you can capture all the values that were present when you recorded the image. I try to limit how many shots I create this way, but it can’t be beat for making a “correct” exposure of a difficult natural lighting setup. This shot (http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_hoppe/10737195483/in/set-72157637361767143) wouldn’t have been possible without it, but I tried to maintain a realistic appearance of my memory of the scene.

  • MrMLK

    Good article, but I wish people would stop perpetuating the myth that in good light a tripod is a must have. Its not. Software has gotten so good that minor movements can be compensated for.

    The shot below is a set of 11 different brackets of 3 photos stitched together. This was taken handheld and standing on a bridge with no tripod.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    The beginning of the article did say this isn’t for everyone. Please keep that in mind. If you do not like HDR, perhaps just skip articles on this topic.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    nicely done!

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    Nice. Seems a bit dark to me overall though.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    I would have to agree that now with LR5 you can pull some amazing stuff out of most scenes. However I still shoot sunrise and sunset with bracketed shots, and any time I shoot an interior with windows. The range is too great for a single image which is what John has said in the article.

  • Stephen Hoppe

    Thank you for the feedback Darlene. I really wanted to pull focus to the last bit of sunlight left in the day, the clouds and wide angle lens helped to bring the perspective there, but upping the exposure blew out the detail in those clouds.

  • Doug

    Not to mention, he says “don’t do this” when he is talking about the surreal picture. I think these photos are great.
    I love HDR when you NEED HDR, but most of the time, I can get away with a few edits in photoshop and get the look I want without having to merge multiple frames together.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    I see. Maybe the edge vignette you have on is just a bit heavy? Your eye will naturally go to the brightest area of the image.

  • Dung Vu

    Good article !

    I think if want to create wonderful photos ,we need a guide with skills and technical to follows. Try it ! http://abb2u.com/trickphotoAB

  • Hugh J

    “Avoid the urge to create surrealistic photos (unless this is truly the style you wish to go in).”

    Came close here but decided it was what I wanted.

  • Michael Owens

    I would suggest using masks then, as you could have had a higher EV on the buildings, and using masks, painting in the light as required.

    As Darlene said, it’s a bit too dark.

    EDIT: Assuming you have Photoshop or Elements!

  • Anil

    Its a good read. I really liked the section “know when you need it and when you don’t”.

    I am not a big fan of HDR photography. However use it for few architectural photographs to enhance the tones a little bit.

  • Stephen Hoppe

    I actually use Aperture and Nik Collection, but that allows brushing in too. I looked back through my original files and the vignette was actually SOOC, probably from such a wide lens and low light.

  • Raghavendra K Pande

    Avery good article on HDR.

  • mma173

    I would add one more advice

    Learn how to manually blend exposures to create HDRs. I mean by stacking the photos and using different types of masks especially the luminosity mask.

    ..Yes, this picture is an HDR. One of the best shots I have taken so far IMO.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    No problem. Looking at the image again there’s definitely something making the edges darker. Look at the sky in the blue areas. It’s way darker on the edge of the frame – that doesn’t naturally occur. If it is the lens you can correct that in software. But I’m wondering if maybe it’s either a color space issue, or monitor calibration? What color space do you output to?

  • Tanya Burnett

    great tips, now can these apply to those who have cameras that take 35 mm film, not the original digital cameras but the ones that i have that take the 35 mm film ?

  • MESK

    I love it!

  • MESK

    Very Nice!

  • MESK

    Very interesting picture with allot going on. I like it. The only advice I would give is pull the brightness down just a little, unless this is what you were looking for. You got many different points of interest tho, and it holds one’s attention.

  • kartikjayaraman

    I think you can get great results even by skipping the tone mapping part. Here is a shot of multiple exposures overlapped (no tone mapping) to create a (HDR?) image: Not sure if it qualifies as a HDR if the tone mapping is a mandatory step. Any opinions?


  • Anil

    Thanks Mesk

  • mma173


    As for the brightness, I adjusted the picture to my screen; it might be just a matter of screen calibration 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Thanks John. I think tip #2 is more of an opinion rather than a fact. If you ask me, when we say HDR, it CAN also mean the visible high dynamic range seen by the human eye when looking at a picture.

    For some, HDR is a technical term relating to DATA captured by the camera’s image sensor. If HDR is based solely upon the science of DATA CAPTURED by the camera’s IMAGE SENSOR, then technically, if you just merely and simply stack all the bracketed photos using photoshop layers (we’re not tonemapping) and the opacity of the bottom layer is 100%, and then you save that file, then technically, the image can be called HDR even though the human eye will only see one of the bracketed photos (the bottom layer in photoshop), because the file contains all the data, but it’s just not outputted in a way the human eye can appreciate.

    But, HDR means ‘high dynamic range’. It is taken for granted that this range is perceived. If we include “human perception” within this concept, then tonemapping a single image, or raising the shadow slider considerably (without blowing out the shadows) should be officially regarded as high dynamic range from an optical perspecitve.

    -Just thinking….

    Thanks for the good article 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Oh… my second paragraph depends on how the software is coded 🙂

    (Sorry im not signed up – I don’t habitually comment)

  • ageorgina

    So beautiful, I would love to learn how to shot and process this kind of picture. thanks for sharing.

  • Phogropathy

    First a big thanks to Darlene for answering a lot of the comments as I’ve been out of the country for the last week and was unable to respond.

    I knew this was going to be a hot button topic and I appreciate that for the most part people kept things civil. Happy to see that so many of you got something out of this post!

  • Phogropathy

    Nice job – and you’re absolutely right HDR can work very well in situations like the one you’ve shown here.

  • Phogropathy

    Yeah I would very much agree with you on this.

    In fact I previously wrote an article on DPS (https://digital-photography-school.com/master-these-five-lightroom-sliders-and-your-photos-will-pop) where I showcase the power of just playing around with a handful of sliders in Lightroom to create some very pleasing results.

    Adobe has turned LR into a great tool for pulling detail out of an image. This combined with the increases in dynamic range of digital sensors are certainly reducing the need for HDR. Will it go away? Probably not, but it is certainly not as necessary as it was even just a few years ago.

    Thanks for the comment.

  • Anonymous

    Would be nice if you can teach me post processing in photoshop…. You really know alot. If only I had the time for it….

  • Dhy Strike

    Dubai Metro.

  • Anil

    Yes Dhy. Its Dubai Metro, World Trade Center station.

  • Rob August

    This is far better than the examples provided.

  • Guest

    This is far better than all the examples in this post.

  • Dhy Strike

    Clean shot bro. What lens and body did you use?

  • Anil

    Taken using Canon Rebel T2i with the 18-55 basic kit lens

  • Darlene Hildebrandt

    No that’s the issue with film is that there is a limited range of contrast the film will hold. When I was in photography school we did a VERY complex masking exercise where we had to shoot something high contrast and then make a b/w negative of it to overlay with it when printing to hold back certain areas. So HDR is not impossible with film, just a LOT more work.

  • ?????? ??????

    Thank you for this nice post

  • Davide Ventura

    Good job.
    if you want hdr photos free go to:

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