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.
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.
The manual setting won’t work either, as the camera will still possibly change the aperture through the bracketed sequence. Set your camera to Av Mode and forget the others.
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.
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