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Setting Up Your Digital Camera For HDR Shooting

Today we begin a 3 part series – a Beginners Guide to HDR Photography by looking at how to set your digital camera up for shooting HDR images. .

Part 2: HDR from the Field to the Computer
Part 3: HDR Post Processing



You’ve probably heard of High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography, it’s made quite an entrance into the world of digital photography.

If you haven’t, the HDR process is accomplished by taking multiple exposures of a high contrast scene (usually a landscape or cityscape), at different levels of brightness, and then combining the best light from each exposure into one image.

The end result is a stunning image that very closely resembles how the human eye views a scene. This process of digital manipulation has caused a bit of controversy and debate in the world of photography, especially with images that are “over-cooked.” One thing is for sure though, HDR is here to stay. When done right, this unique and in depth processing technique can produce beautiful works of art that mimic the way we view and remember a landscape or scene.

The above image is an example of what HDR processing can produce. This image, taken from the Big Island of Hawaii, would not be possible without HDR processing. It was taken around noon, the harshest light of the day. The first image is the best image my camera could produce given the situation. While still beautiful, there are obvious problems. Get ready, this article is going to show you how to take your digital camera and turn it into an HDR shooting machine!

Step 1: Locate Your Camera Manual

I know, we all hate manuals. But if you want to become the best photographer you can be, you need to become best friends with your cameras manual. Spend time with it, take it with you on trips, read it in the airplane, memorize every setting on your camera so you know it inside and out, make your significant other jealous of it. And for this lesson, have it handy as a decoder in case you have a different camera model. If you don’t have your manual, simply do a Google search for: (your camera model) manual. You should be able to easily find a pdf version to download.

Step 2: Discover Auto Exposure Bracketing

Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) is the main component in creating an HDR image. Bracketing is the term used to describe taking multiple exposures of a scene, the key element to capturing all of that wonderful light in a scene.
Why is this necessary? Well, take for example your typical post card from Hawaii, with a silhouetted palm tree hanging in from the side of the frame, and a beautiful sunrise as a backdrop. While beautiful, the silhouette is actually caused by the failure of the camera to produce the full dynamic range of light in that scene. The sunrise is simply too bright and there is too much of a contrast between the sky and tree. Therefore, the tree is reduced to pure black.

Your cameras AEB setting will take an exposure for the sky in the background, an average exposure of the entire scene, and finally an exposure for the palm tree in the foreground. Or in technical terms, a bracketed sequence of exposures listed like this: -2, 0, +2. This sequence simply means one exposure that is two stops of light underexposed, a proper exposure according to the cameras light meter, and one exposure that is two stops over exposed. Depending on your camera model, you may only be able to do 3 exposures in AEB at the most. Others will allow 5, 7, 9 and up. The more exposures you can get, the better, because the potential for capturing all the light in the scene increases. A bracketed sequence of 7 exposures would look like this: -3,-2,-1,0,+1,+2,+3.

Go into your cameras menu settings and find the option for AEB. On a Canon 5D Mark II for example, AEB is located under the second menu screen, and is labeled “Expo.comp./AEB.” To change from one exposure to three, highlight the menu setting, click the SET button, then turn the dial on top of the camera to the right.

Step 3: Set Your Camera to Av Mode and Determine an Aperture


Aperture Value (Av) Mode is really the only setting that will work for HDR shooting. This setting lets you determine the aperture of the exposure, and the camera determines the shutter speed. When shooting multiple exposures, you have to consider what needs to stay the same during the brackets.

If you set the camera to Time Value, the camera will make sure the shutter speed stays the same through all the exposures. Therefore, in order to create dark to light images, the camera will adjust the aperture, and that is no bueno. The aperture controls depth of field, or how much of your scene will be in focus. If that value is different in every frame, combining them later just won’t work.

While using the Manual setting will work, using the Av setting is the easiest and most convenient setting to start with. If you already fully understand shooting in Manual, by all means go for it. But make sure that you never change your aperture during your bracketed exposures! If you don’t fully understand Manual mode, start with Av and work your way up to it. Av mode simply saves time over having to dial in the exposures manually, and saving time is always a plus.

Once you are in Av mode, it’s now time to determine what aperture you want to shoot at. Again, aperture controls depth of field. So for a landscape, you will most likely want the entire image to be in focus, with no blur in the background. When determining your aperture, remember this: The higher the aperture, the greater the depth of field. Want to know a little trick you can use to determine aperture (although it isn’t 100% accurate)? Imagine you have 20 people in a line, and the line is going away from your camera.

The people are staggered so that you can see each of them, but each person is further and further away. If you want just the first person in the line to be in focus and all the rest to be blury, set your aperture to 1. If you want the first 10 people in focus, set your aperture to 10. If you want all 20 people in focus, set your aperture to 20. Pretty simple concept right? With that said, just about any aperture value above 11 will have your entire frame in focus (most of the time). Start at f/11, and experiment your way up and down from there.

Step 4: Determine Your Metering Mode


Metering is one of the more complicated settings on your camera, and one that I get a lot of questions on from new photographers. In a nutshell, your metering mode is simply how your camera samples light to determine the proper exposure for the image. The camera has to see the scene before it, analyze the light in the scene, and determine what your camera settings should be.

If you are new to photography, you should know that in most cases, Evaluative Metering will work just fine. But don’t take that bit of knowledge and forget about metering. There is also partial, spot, and center weighted metering. Each of which have their time and place where using them will drastically improve your image. Make sure you take the time to understand each setting, but for now, set your metering to Evaluative.

Step 5: Set your white balance


Again, this is a topic that confuses some people. It’s also a topic that some photographers get lazy with. White balance is incredibly important to your images color balance. If your white balance is off, your entire image will be off. Auto White Balance (just like Evaluative Metering) will work most of the time. Cameras are smarter and smarter these days, and the automatic settings work more often than not. But just like the metering modes, you need to know the different white balance settings.

If your camera fails to capture the colors in the scene like you see them, it’s time to change the setting. The quickest and easiest way to correct white balance is using Custom White Balance. Simply find something in the scene that is pure white (a white wall, a piece of paper, a white shirt, etc) and take a close up picture of it so that the color white completely fills the frame.

On a Canon 5D Mark II, go to your menu, scroll to the second list of settings, select Custom WB, and follow the prompts to select the last image taken on the card. Your camera will then take that image and use it to create a color balance where that image is pure white. Your next picture of that object should look as white as snow. Remember, white is your foundation in color balance. Get white set, and the other colors will fall into place.

Step 6: Determine your ISO Setting


Your ISO setting is simply your cameras sensitivity to light. The higher the number, the more sensitive it becomes. The best way I know to figure out ISO is to imagine them as worker bees. Therefore, at ISO 100, you have 100 worker bees that go out and gather light for you when you take a picture. At a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second, you have 100 worker bees to go gather as much light as possible in 1/100th of a second.

So what if those little bees can’t get enough light in that amount of time? Just send more bees! At ISO 200 you will have twice as many bees to gather light for you, at ISO 400 the number doubles again, and so on.

The downside to ISO is that the higher the number, the lower the quality of your image. High ISO values produce what’s called noise, and unfortunately, the process of combining exposures in HDR will already bring in lots of it. Because of this problem, you need to set your ISO as low as possible. ISO 100 is usually your best bet, unless you absolutely can’t take all your brackets at this number. Some cameras will even go down to ISO 50, but there is debate as to whether or not this makes the image less sharp.

Step 7: Get a Tripod!

With a high aperture and a low ISO setting, your shutter speeds are going to become slower and slower. This is going to make it very hard to hand hold your camera. When shooting with HDR in mind, you want there to be as little movement as possible during the multiple exposures. Anything you can do to eliminate the possibility of movement is worth it.

Switching from hand held to a tripod is a sure fire way to keep your camera still during multiple exposures. The type of tripod you need will simply depend on you and your shooting style. If you don’t do a lot of traveling, and simply drive to a location and set up, you may want to invest in a strong, heavy, aluminum set of tripod legs. If you love to travel, hike, and really get out there, you will need something that isn’t going to bog you down on your journey.

For those people, I would suggest a smaller, more compact set of carbon fiber tripod legs, or even a light weight version of aluminum legs. Your tripod head is just as important. You need something that will support the weight of your camera easily. Ball heads are all the rage right now, and for good reason. They allow smooth, easy movements of your camera, without the use of long rods that stick out everywhere.

Step 8: Use Your Cameras Self-Timer


Another way to take movement out of the equation is to use a self timer. This gets rid of the possible movement from holding down the shutter with your finger. On most cameras, there is a setting where you can start a timer when the shutter release is pressed. If you don’t have this setting, you will need to purchase a shutter release cord.

My preference is to use the 2 second timer in camera, not having to use a shutter release cord is just one less thing to carry around, and the 10 second option just takes too long. With the self timer setting, you simply press the shutter release down and then step away from the camera. Two seconds later, your camera fires off all 3, 5, 7, or 9 exposures in sequence. Hearing the sound of all these exposures may cause a sudden feeling of satisfaction and anticipation to come over you, but don’t be alarmed.

Step 9: Choose the right lens for the shot

HDR photography can be used for any image with a high level of contrast, but most often it is used for landscapes and cityscapes. These subjects are often large and overwhelming, and having the right equipment can make all the difference in the world. For most situations, the best option is going to be a wide angle lens.

That is, any lens that can zoom out to about 28mm or wider. The 24-70mm lens is my absolute favorite lens for shooting landscapes, and I highly recommend it. Anything under the 28mm range is going to start getting pretty wide, so get a lens that you can afford that falls into this category. Now, one of the downsides to using wide angle lenses is distortion, but that is for another article!

Step 10: Switch to Manual Focus

Now that you have your lens ready to go, it’s time to get used to the world of manual focus. Auto focus is an amazing bit of technology, but it isn’t so great for landscapes. If you really want to get everything in your frame in focus, you have to go manual. Auto focus will pick a certain spot in the frame, usually the center, and make sure it is as sharp as possible. With manual focus, you will want to set your focus point to infinity (the little sideways figure 8 on your lens) and forget about it. The infinity setting will average out the entire frame and bring it all into focus.

This isn’t always the best thing to do though. Sometimes there is a subject that has supreme importance over the rest of the frame, but I would still suggest manual focus. When this is the case, switch your camera over to the live view setting if you have it. This is where the screen on the back reflects what you would normally see by looking through the view finder. With this selected, you should be able to zoom in on your subject. After zooming in on the screen (not with the lens), you can begin to turn the focus knob on your lens, getting the focus to that perfect sweet spot. This will ensure that your subject is tack sharp, but don’t be surprised if other parts are slightly softer.

Step 11: Purchase a Bubble Level

Having a level frame is so important! If you simply go out and eyeball your frame for straightness, you will almost always be off. That means that in post, you will have to straighten the image, losing sometimes valuable and crucial pixels in the process. Purchasing a cube level for your cameras hot shoe is the easiest, and cheapest way to ensure straight images. Try and get used to the mindset of getting as much done in camera as possible. Don’t rely on post processing to correct laziness in the field.


There you go! Your camera should be all ready to go. Now get out there and shoot some brackets! In the next installment of this three part series, we will go over a step by step guide for shooting in the field.

Composition, what to look for in your images, the wonderful world of histograms and more. In closing, here is a large version of the image you saw at the beginning. If you’d like to see it full size, click the image to be redirected to flickr. There you can click full size and scroll around in it. Happy shooting!


Stay tuned for two more posts in this series – ‘Beginners Guide to HDR Photography’. The next post will be on shooting in the field and getting the images back to the computer. The final post will cover post processing techniques.

Note: post updated for accuracy.

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James Brandon
James Brandon

is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code “DPS25” for an exclusive discount!

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