We Simplify The Technical!

Peggy Farren talks with photographer and technical specialist Joe Fitzpatrick.  Joe explains how and when to use HDR photography and bracketing.  Thanks for tuning into episode #86 of The Understand Photography Show!


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HDR and Bracketing Basics with Joe Fitzpatrick


HDR – High Dynamic Range

Dynamic Range – The difference between the darkest object/area and the lightest object/area in a scene.


– Photographers measure that difference in STOPS.


A typical camera sensor can see about 12 stops.

Negative Film had a range of about 10 stops.

A VERY contrasty scene could have as many as 15 stops. (Dark woods with a bright sky)


 – High Dynamic Range Image – range is too great for the sensors to capture the whole range.

  • Photographers typically give up the darker shadows so that the light isn’t blown out.


HDR Photography is a way to capture high dynamic range. (HDR Blog Article link)


“The histogram is the greatest thing about a digital camera.”


– If your histogram is climbing the left hand wall there’s a lot of dead black in the image with no detail.

– If your histogram is climbing the right hand wall there’s a lot of pure white in the image with no detail.   (ex.- white bird feathers, white wedding dress)

– If the histogram is not climbing either wall – the dynamic range is within the capabilities of the sensors.

  • If it’s climbing one wall, but not the other, change the exposure to shift the range until the whole image is covered.

** If the histogram is climbing BOTH walls, there is too much range for the sensors to capture in one image. **

– you need to take more than one shot

– typically 3 shots, 2 stops apart, SHOOT IN RAW to capture as much data as possible!

– 1 to capture deep shadows – meter at +2

– 1 to capture mid-tones – meter at 0

– 1 to capture highlights – meter at -2

– if the dynamic range is very wide, or if you have an older Nikon camera, you may need 5 shots 1 stop apart:  -2, -1, 0, 1, 2



– change the SHUTTER SPEED
if you change aperture – depth of field changes for all 3 shots
if you change ISO there will be different noise levels for all 3 shots

– Shoot in Aperture Priority mode or Manual.

  • Usually suggest a tripod – but you CAN handhold if your shutter speed is fast enough.
  • Can bracket manually or dial in exposure compensation.
  • Use the bracketing function on the camera.
    – Menu – select Exposure Bracketing (Canon)
    – Move slider for # stops apart (2)
    – More advanced cameras can select # shots (3 to 5)
    – ** Remember to hit the SET button!**
    – This function will remain set up until you change it through the menu.
    – Set up camera for Continuous Drive Mode – depressing the shutter will take all 3 (or 5) shots and stop.
    – Newer Nikons have Bracketing button – usually on front left side of camera.
    – This must be TURNED OFF – it will not reset on its own, even if the camera is turned off.
    – Hold the Bracketing button down while setting dials.
    – 1 wheel determines #stops in between
    – 2nd wheel determines #shots

LOOK at your 3 images while the camera is still set on the tripod.

  • 1 will be underexposed and very dark.  Look at the brightest areas to see if you captured the details.  The histogram for this image should NOT be climbing the right hand wall.
  • 1 will be overexposed and very light.  Look at the darkest areas to see if you captured the details.  The histogram for this image should NOT be climbing the left hand wall.
  • If either histogram is still climbing a wall, you may need to compensate and take one more shot to capture the part you’re still missing. – This scenario is not encountered often.


  • IF you can only shoot in JPEG – you may need to take more images because of restrictions in data capacity.



Who Uses HDR?

  • Real Estate Photographers
    • bright light coming from windows leaves dark shadows in the corners
  • Any photographer shooting in an environment with both bright and dark areas.


Many cameras – including those on cell phones, have an HDR feature.

– Most are nice and can do the job.

– Not all have true HDR with 3 shots.

– No manual control by the user.

– A lot use JPEG format.

– Some only give you the combined shot, not all 3.  DSLR’s will give the combined shot PLUS the 3 originals to play with.


Post-Processing Programs for Bracketed Images

  • You can manually combine images using layers in Photoshop:  masks/luminosity masks used to cut out the parts you want to combine together, but this is a difficult and tedious process.
  • HDR Software – automates the process of combining 3 images into 1


1.  Photomatix:  Photomatix Light ($39) or Photomatix Pro ($99)
(Find Our Affiliate Discount Here)

– early versions made a cartoonish look to the image

– current version (v6) looks much more realistic

– used as a stand-alone program OR as a plug-in with Photoshop, Lightroom, or Elements

– This program has a somewhat clunky interface with lots of floating windows.

– Take 3 RAW images and place into the program to combine. It gives a VERY HIGH RES image.

A long list of available pre-sets gives everything from very realistic to artistically bizarre or even monotone.

You can play with everything from global adjustments and masks to localized adjustments and layers.

Usually creates a huge .tif file


*TIP* – create what you like, then back it off a little.


2.  Aurora HDR 2018 ($99)

– Used as a stand-alone program OR as a plug-in.

– Cleaner, more modern interface – similar to Lightroom.

– Allows targeted application of effects in layers.

– Has many pre-sets

– End result is very similar to Photomatix.


3.  EasyHDR 3 ($39)

– Simpler than the other 2.

– Not as many pre-sets or controls.


4.  Nik Efex HDR

-Plug-in for Photoshop

– Currently available (limited time?) for FREE at DXO.com

– About the same level and capacity as Photomatix v4


5.  Built-in HDR in Photoshop/Lightroom/Elements

*Favorite is Lightroom:  start with RAW file, merge 3 images together, end result is also a RAW file that an be processed like any other image.

– Lightroom – in Develop module – highlight 3 images, right click, select “Merge to HDR” from menu and hit “OK”.  So EASY!

– Photoshop – from the menu:  File, Automate, Merge to HDR Pro


Common Mistakes in HDR Photography

  1. Overprocessed image – gives a cartoonish look or van create halos.  Back off the contrast to get rid of halos.
  2. Overlightening shadows – gives an odd, dulled image that is not realistic without much contrast.
  3. Software fail because of movement – HDR works best for still photography or images taken with a high shutter speed.  You need an image without blur.

– “Ghosting” is created when there is movement between the three images.  If the subject/object moves, it can be in three different places when the images are merged, creating a blurred outline, or ghost.

– Photomatix Pro is the best at getting rid of ghosts with a “de-ghost” feature.



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