Welcome to part two of the Beginners Guide to HDR Photography (links to Part 1). Part one was a huge success, and I can’t thank Digital Photography School enough for giving me the opportunity to do this three part series here. The feedback has been amazing, and I can’t wait to dig in to part two. I’m currently on a plane heading across the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida. I’m going on week long trip to Disney World in search of incredible HDR images. By the time I’m done with this article, I should have some of those images processed, so I’ll be sure to include a couple at the end of this post!
In part one, we learned just about everything there is to know about how to set up your camera to shoot for HDR. We went over auto exposure bracketing, aperture, ISO, shutter speeds, white balance, metering, et cetera. Hopefully, some of you got the chance to try these settings out on your own whether in the field or just around the house. Today, we are going to hone your HDR skills in the field. What gear should you take with you into the field? What about composition and light? How do you know when you nailed the shot? All of these topics will be touched on in the coming paragraphs. Finally, we will go over a nice workflow of what to do with your images once you get back home to your computer. This is known as “image or file management.” Be prepared, there is going to be a LOT of information today. If you love HDR as much as I do, you will love every minute of it. Let’s take the jump.
HDR Photography Field Guide
There are two ways to approach a photo shoot or photo walk. You can do no planning at all and just see what you can find, or you can plan every shot and place out beforehand. I think each option has its place. Either way, there a few things you need to always do before going out. I went over most of the gear you’ll need in the previous section, so I won’t get too in depth there. Here is a checklist of things you’ll need, and I’ll also include the equipment I use for reference.
Recommended Gear Checklist
Camera with AEB feature
Backup camera body if you have one
At least one lens (preferably 28mm or wider)
Extra lenses if you have them. It’s good to have a variety of lenses to cover multiple situations you may find yourself in. Here’s a list of lenses I ALWAYS carry with me no matter what.
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 (see it on Amazon)
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 (see it on Amazon)
- Canon EF 50mm prime f/1.4 (see it on Amazon)
- Canon EF 15mm Fisheye f/2.8 (see it on Amazon)
A sturdy tripod to keep your camera still
- I use the Manfrotto 055XPROB Legs
A good tripod head that allows you to level the camera easily and quickly
- I use the Manfrotto 322RC2 Grip Action Ball Head
A hot shoe level to make your images straight and pretty
- I suggest the LensCoat 3 Axis Hot Shoe Bubble Level. The Optika ones are cheap and inaccurate from my experience.
Plenty of memory cards to fill up
- I have plenty of 16 and 32 GB CF and SD cards. I always have a 16GB CF card and a 32GB SD card in my camera. I’ve never been able to fill them both up in one day.
- I use Lexar 16GB UDMA 300x CF Cards and have never had a problem or issue with them. From my understanding (and correct me if I’m wrong), it’s pointless to purchase the 600x cards because cameras aren’t fast enough to take advantage of them yet. You may get faster upload times to your computer, but is that really worth it for almost twice the price?
Apps to Help You Plan
There are plenty of times where I just grab my gear and see what I can find (the first option). But when I have a trip planned, like Disney World, there are so many resources at my disposal that can drastically increase my chance of getting great shots.
This is probably my single most valuable resource for planning my photo shoots. Google Earth has been around for a while now, but it keeps getting better and better. With the addition of 3D building at popular destination, and the ability to get in close with higher and higher resolution images, Google Earth is taking us closer and closer to feeling like we are actually there!
If you have an iPhone, SoLuna is a great resource for planning when to head out. This app tells you the exact times (based on your location) for sunrise and sunset. It also gives you times for civil, nautical, and astro twilight. If you ever go and shoot a sunset with a bunch of photographers, you’ll notice something interesting: As soon as the sun dips below the horizon, everyone leaves! The truth is, that’s just the beginning to getting some amazing travel and landscape images.
If you have the iPhone 3Gs or later, this app will use the built in compass of your phone to tell you exactly where in the sky the sun will rise or set. How cool is that!? Just hold the phone and pivot around until the sun on the phone is directly between you and the horizon. This can be used to pre-visualize your scene and determine how you want to frame it. It can also be used to determine what time the sun will rise and set.
Taking Your First Set of Brackets
You’ve learned all about the camera settings needed for HDR. You’ve prepared your gear and even picked a place to go out and shoot. You’ve researched the place and have at least an idea of the shots you’d like to get and where to get them. Now it’s time to actually take your first set of brackets. The term “brackets” simply refers to your set of auto bracketed exposures. As we discussed earlier, this can be 3, 5, 7 or even 9 or more depending on your camera and set up. When you set up your first shot, pay attention to the way you frame it. Unless the symmetry of the scene absolutely calls for it, try and avoid centering your subject in the middle of the frame. Placing your subject off center is visually pleasing to the eye. Some cameras will have “rule of thirds” grids built in. Use these guides to line up your subject. This also applies to your horizon line. Instead of having your horizon shoot straight through the middle of the frame, line it up on one of the “rule of thirds” lines. If you really want to get scientific about how you frame your scene, study and learn the “Golden Ratio,” Fibonacci’s ratio of 1 to 1.618. I am a full believer that this ratio produces even more interesting compositions for the viewer in a sub-conscious sort of way.
When you have your scene composed perfectly, it’s time to shoot off some brackets! If time permits, I always like to do a little pre-shot checklist of my camera settings. First, I check my white balance. There was a little debate on the last post on the importance of getting white balance correct in camera. I think this really just comes down to preference and your approach towards post processing. In most situations, you can correct white balance in post if it’s off a bit. But I think relying on post is a dangerous mindset. There are occasions where your white balance can be so far off that it can’t be recovered or corrected. Or in order to correct it you must sacrifice the quality of the pixels. My approach is to get as much done in camera as possible so I don’t have to worry about it as much in post. The more images you process on a daily basis, the more important this topic becomes. If I nail my white balance in camera, that means I don’t have to worry about changing my white balance on 2,000 images from a trip or event. This is simply my approach towards it and you are welcome to embrace or ignore it. To get my white balance, I turn on my live view screen on the camera. From there, I can flip through each white balance setting to get the one that is the most accurate. Most of the time, I simply switch to the Kelvin setting and dial in the correct temperature when the colors on screen match what I see with my eye.
After my white balance is set, I’m free to take as many images as I can under those lighting conditions. Next, I double check to make sure my self timer is on so I don’t have to have my hands on the camera. I set my timer to two seconds which is perfect for me. Some cameras only have an option for ten seconds though. Next I determine the aperture I want to use. This just depends on the scene before me. If I want everything in focus I usually start around f/13 or so. Setting the focus ring on the lens to infinity will ensure everything is in focus most of the time. If I want to freeze action in the frame (like water or waves) or if I’m in low light I may choose a lower aperture. Or if I want to create some blur in the background. Now it’s time to determine where and how I’m going to meter the scene. Personally, I use spot metering about 90% of the time. This means that I can set a precise point in my frame to meter off of, and the camera will determine the correct middle exposure (0) for that given point. With that said, I will spot meter off the most important or evenly lit part of the frame. Next, I check to make sure my ISO is as low as possible for the shot I’m taking and that my shutter speed is within the 30 second limit. If I’m taking five exposures and my meter reads that my first frame is going to be 2 seconds or less, I know I’m safe. Why is this? Well, if my first frame is 2 seconds, it’s going to double with each frame if I’m shooting in 1EV intervals (-2,-1,0,+1,+2). So my sequence will be 2 seconds, 4 seconds, 8 seconds, 15 seconds, and 30 seconds. Anything more than 2 seconds on my first bracket means that my later brackets will be off. Finally, it’s time to ensure tack sharp focus. I use my live view screen for this as well. If I’m in a hurry or the situation calls for it, I will just set my focus ring to infinity which makes everything pretty much in focus. But the trick is getting the focus ring set to exactly infinity. I like to zoom in on the my subject to 10x on my live view screen and use the focus ring to micro adjust the scene into tack sharp focus. Ok, am I missing anything? I don’t think so. Now it’s time to shoot. With everything ready to go, I simply press the shutter down once to start my timer and then step back from the camera. Two seconds later I hear the glorious click, click, click, click, click sound of the brackets firing off.