Dynamic range in photography. What is an HDR photo? An HDR photography beginner’s guide


You may feel unfamiliar with high dynamic range photography, but chances are you have seen HDR photos many times and not realised that they were taken using the HDR photography process. Windows users that see those beautiful, brightly coloured, luminous photographs that feature on the Bing wallpaper slideshow – they don’t look that way just because they were taken on a DSLR. These photos were created using a special imaging process to look so highly contrasted and colourful.  And the great news is, you can achieve this look too. It looks particularly great when used for landscape photos.

As a photographer, once you have tried the HDR imaging process, it’s like your photos have been taken from the black-and-white world of Kansas, to the Technicolor world of Oz. If you’re interested in learning more, in this post we will look at all things HDR, including high dynamic range photography examples and HDR photo editing. In this post we will go over:

    • What is HDR photography?
    • How it works
    • HDR photography gear
    • How to take HDR photos
    • HDR photo editing

What is HDR photography?

So, what is HDR photography? HDR photography stands for ‘high dynamic range photography’. The term ‘dynamic range’ refers to the difference between the lightest areas and darkest areas in your photography. As a photographer, you’ve likely experienced the disappointing moment of taking a photo to find it doesn’t always accurately reflect real-life – even with the correct exposure. 

HDR photography is the solution for correcting photos with a standard dynamic range. It is very difficult to take a photo without flat shadows and blown-out highlights, but it is possible to rectify this with high dynamic range photography techniques.


Dynamic range in photography


How it works

Simply put, HDR photography is created using exposure bracketing. The photographer will take photos of varying luminosity, by using different shutter speeds to vary the amount of light that is let into the camera. They will then take this series of bracketed images, that capture both shadows and highlights, and stitch them together using post-processing software to create a single image with a high dynamic range.


HDR photography gear


Of course, you will need a camera. Many cameras come equipped with an Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) function which makes HDR photography easier. If your camera doesn’t have this capability, you can still practise HDR photography, but you will need to adjust your shutter speed manually. 

Some cameras also come with an HDR mode, where the camera captures multiple exposures of a scene are combines them according to user-selected parameters, resulting in an HDR photo. The HDR image processing is all done in-camera so you don’t need to edit your photo afterwards.



A tripod is essential for HDR photography, especially when you are changing the shutter speed manually. A tripod will ensure stability so that the bracketed images stitch together seamlessly.


Photo-editing software

There are several options of photo-editing software for HDR photography. Many photographers will already have Adobe Lightroom and/or Adobe Photoshop which offer basic editing tools for HDR photography. Luminance HDR is an excellent free photo-editing software program for HDR photography. 

Another popular program is Photomatix Pro which is available as a standalone program and as a plugin for Lightroom. The great thing about Photomatix Pro is that it can make an HDR-style photo from a single image if you’re not pleased with its dynamic range. The free version can be used indefinitely, but the program watermarks your photos. 

Many photographers looking to invest in HDR processing software opt for Aurora HDR.


How to take HDR photos

    1. When it comes to taking HDR photos, we would recommend setting your camera to Aperture Priority Mode. Aperture Priority Mode is beneficial in this instance as you are going to be keeping your aperture the same, but change the shutter speed. 
    2. Using your camera’s histogram comes in handy here as it will show you the base exposure of your image. Your histogram will give you a good idea of the highlights and shadows so you can adjust the ISO and aperture.
    3. Now you can decide on your bracket. This could be anywhere from three shots to seven shots, depending on the tonal detail of the scene. Using Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) on your camera you can set the steps for the bracket and the camera will take the series of photos. Set the auto bracket for how many shots you want to take. If you are taking three shots, set the base exposure at 0 and then +1, +2, and -1 for the shots. 
    4. If your camera does not have AEB, you can check the manual to see how to set brackets. If your camera does not have AEB provisions, you can make your bracket manually using the exposure compensation dial.

HDR photography


HDR photo editing

Your photo editing software will create a file that stitches your images together, for a photo with detailed highlights and shadow. And then you can tone-map the file to adjust contrast, highlights, shadows, and colours per your preferences. 



In Lightroom, you can use the ‘Photo Merge’ tool to merge your shots. All you have to do is select the images you want to combine and select the dropdown menu ‘Photo’. Choose ‘Photo Merge’, and then ‘HDR’ and it will create an HDR photo for you.



In Photoshop you can use the ‘HDR Pro’ tool to edit your pictures. Click on the ‘File’ dropdown menu, then select ‘Automate’, and then ‘Merge to HDR Pro’. This will merge your photos to create a high dynamic range. Photoshop’s HDR Pro tool is more sophisticated than Lightroom, as you have the option to adjust colour and tones to your liking.


Luminance HDR

Luminance HDR has a very straightforward user interface, which is often updated. To merge your photos, you should take your multiple exposures, align them, and then combine them. After you have merged them, you can tone map your photo to your preference.


Photomatix Pro

Like Luminance HDR, Photomatix Pro has a user-friendly interface and even has a batch editing tool for photographers who have a lot of photos to process. Photomatix has a variety of presets and offers colour adjustment and tone mapping. 


Now that you know all the basics of HDR photography, you can create some dazzling high-dynamic range photos to impress everyone. We hope you found our guide useful!

If you require an HDR photographer, book with Splento. At Splento we provide you with experienced, professional, and reliable photographers, on-demand. Contact us today to speak with a member of the team about your photography requirements.

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