Header

CapturEarth

Published on 4th November 2013

HDR Landscapes 1 - Theory and Exposure Bracketing

If you’re reading this then you are obviously interested in HDR photos and have experimented with it. HDR is one of the most hotly debated topics in photography and there are a lot of opinions on it.  Chances are that you have a good idea of what HDR involves, but I will go into it shortly to avoid confusion.

Before I begin, I want to bust a popular myth from the very beginning. Many people believe HDR is a post-processing effect you apply to any image to make it look grungy. This is total nonsense and the root cause of so much of the bad “HDR” images floating around the Internet.

HDR stands for high dynamic range and the dynamic range of an image is just another word for the range of tones, from darkest to lightest. All scenes have a dynamic range, but some contain a wider range of tones than others. A camera’s sensor also has a dynamic range, meaning it can only capture a limited range of tones from darkest to lightest.

On a sunny day like in the image below, there is an abundance of light. Apart from a few shadows everything should be well illuminated and there shouldn’t be much of a difference in exposure between the darkest and brightest parts of the scene. In such a scene the DR is within the DR of the camera, thus the camera will be able to record all the detail from the darkest shadows to the lightest highlights. This is clearly shown in the histogram, in which the tones don’t touch either side.

In case you don’t know by now, a histogram is a graph that represents the tonal data of an image in an easy to understand format. The horizontal axis shows where the image data is located and the vertical axis shows how much of it is located in that area. Left is shadows, middle is midtones and the right is highlights. If the graph in the histogram doesn’t touch either side, then the DR of the scene is within the DR the camera can capture. If it touches the right then there are blown highlights in the image that are beyond the camera’s DR. IF the graph touches the left side then the scene contains shadows that are beyond the camera’s DR. This means that the DR of the scene is greater than the DR that the camera can capture.

Simple Example

Go outside and hold your hand in front of the sun; you will be able to see all the detail in your arm and hand as well as all the detail in the sky around the sun. Now take a photo of your arm against the sun and expose the image for the bright sky. You’ll see in the photo that your arm comes out black or almost black. Take the same photo, but now expose for your arm. In that photo, you’ll see that all the detail in your arm will be there, but there will be a massive white blown area in the sky. As you can now presume, the dynamic range of the scene is much greater than the camera can capture.

This seems a very obvious and reasonable explanation, so why doesn’t everyone know about this problem of dynamic range in everyday scenery? You might think that your brand new $3000 camera is a very advanced imaging device, but compared to a human brain and two eyes it’s as primitive as a spear. Human vision has a gigantic dynamic range compared to even the best cameras, so if you’re not into photography or videography you won’t be aware of this limitation of the tools with which we capture the visual world.

During the daytime we see the full spectrum of colours, like in the image of the beach huts. This is what we’re used to seeing every day of our lives and we’re thus quite bored with. Another problem with daytime shooting is that when the sun is high in the sky there are very little shadows around that help define the shape of things in a 2-D photograph. So although daytime scenery makes it easy to get scenes well exposed, it’s very boring for depth and colour in photos.

The Golden Hour

Landscapes are mostly at their best in what we call the golden hour. The exact times vary depending on the weather, season and latitude, but generally it is the 30 minutes before sunset and the 30 minutes after. It is of course also the 30 minutes before sunrise and the 30 minutes after that. The closer the sun is to the horizon, the more atmosphere the light has to pass through and because of the scattering of shorter wavelengths of light, the light takes on a variety of warmer colours. Combined with the right clouds, this warm light can result in amazing displays of colour that makes great photographs. When light hits a subject at a lower angle it also creates more depth due to the shadow and light differences in lines, textures and forms. Our 3D vision is excellent at identifying the shape of things, but a camera only sees in two dimensions. Using shadow and light is an essential tool for creating depth and dimension in photographs, like in the one below where the brilliant ripples are created by the warm horizontal light falling only on the ridges. 

What does the golden hour have to do with HDR? As the sun sets, the amount of light falling on the land gets weaker. The amount of light in the sky also gets weaker, but not as quickly as the land. The result is that the difference between the sky and the land creates a DR that usually exceeds the DR of the camera. Once the sun has set that DR becomes even wider. I can say from experience that in the colourful and dramatic light that makes great landscape photos, the DR of the scene almost always exceeds the DR of the camera. You can clearly see below that as the sun sets lower, the foreground gets darker and darker relative to the sky and the light gets warmer. 

*In case the thumb sheets like the one below are too small, I've uploaded all of them to the mini gallery at the bottom in double the size they are in the blog body. 

*There are countless other factors that come into play like the direction you’re shooting in, the luminance of your subject and how much light the clouds reflect.  Clouds and strong shadows can also give daytime scenes a wider DR than the camera can capture, but lets focus on general golden hour for explanation’s sake.

The problem that this causes is that regardless of how you expose, there will be blown highlights or black shadows if you try to capture a beautiful sunset/sunrise. If you expose for the bright part then the dark parts will have no detail and vice versa. The camera’s DR simply isn’t wide enough to capture all the tones in the scene. In specific situations a silhouette or blown highlight can work wonders for a photograph, but in most cases we want to capture all the detail in a scene.

 

Solving The Problem

Artificial Light

There are various ways of solving this problem and the most obvious one is to use a flash. You expose to get all the detail in the highlights of the scene and let the flash fill in enough light to reveal the detail in the shadows.  This method is practical for many genres of photography, but seldom for landscapes.

Graduated Neutral Density Filters

Graduated ND filters are sheets of transparent resin of which the top half is dyed a dark, colour-neutral gray. The filter is fitted to the front of the lens and the dark half is then positioned over the sky so that it darkens the brighter part of the image.  These filters come in various degrees of darkness and also ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ transitions for different situations. They do a very good job in landscapes with a straight and relatively uniform horizon, like the one below. I deliberately held it to filter only one side of the image so that it clearly shows the effect of the filter. As soon as the horizon starts taking on an uneven shape or things protrude above it, then graduated filters don’t work so well. The grad filters will darken whatever protrudes above the horizon, which doesn’t look great in a photo. In an image like the one at the bottom it doesn't work well due to the uneven horizon. I used a soft grad and positioned it just below where the clouds end and the result is that those hills on the side are too dark. 

Proper ND filters (Lee) are very expensive and it incurs quite a bit of effort to use. It does however cut the time you will have to spend behind the computer and it lengthens exposure times which is great for shooting water scenes. 

HDR Imaging

Contrary to popular belief, HDR did not come along with the digital age. The concept and practice comes from the film days, but back then it was a very labour-intensive process. Only the masters of the darkroom had the skill to do it.  Nowadays manual HDR blending in Photoshop can be learnt in hours if the will and understanding are present.

The concept is very simple; capture an ideal exposure for each major part of a scene, then combine those ideal areas into one final image. Combining the dynamic range of the differently exposed images results in one high-dynamic-range photo.

Unluckily executing and mastering HDR isn’t as simple as the concept. Both the shooting and the processing take TONS of practice. Getting the basic stuff like ISO, aperture and shutterspeed right when a sunset is peaking can be hard enough for a single image. Having to get it right for sets of 2-5 images makes it even more difficult. Then taking those sets of exposures into Photoshop and deciding which parts of which ones to use is a challenge on it’s own. Pulling it all off to create a single image that doesn’t have any telltale sign of HDR isn’t something you’ll learn in a day. 

 

Getting the Shots

Theory

The first and most important step is of course getting the differently exposed shots. People always focus too much on the processing side because they think it’s the processing that makes the photo. It’s still absolutely critical that you have a good landscape, good light and good composition. Some practice is always better than no practice; so doing some HDR of your backyard will provide some insight into the mechanics of exposure bracketing, but ideally you should be practicing in an actual landscape.

Practice

Deciding when you need to capture a set of different exposures for creating an HDR image is the first challenge. This can be very easily determined by looking at any photo and it’s histogram. It is crucial that you simply use the screen to get an idea and then double check the result on the histogram. Cameras’ screens are being engineered more and more to impress consumer class users and less to provide a reliable representation of the data in the image. It is thus becoming more difficult to determine what you have or haven’t captured by looking at the photo on the back of the camera. Luckily the histogram doesn’t lie.

I will now again refer to the three categories of exposures that I defined in the RAW editing tutorial in order to help you decide when you need to take multiple exposures.

Category 1

Images that contain the entire dynamic range of the scene in a well-balanced exposure. E.g. no part is too bright or too dark in relation to any other part.

I think it’s fairly obvious that for category one images you do not need to capture multiple exposures. The image contains all the detail in the scene and it is well balanced; so capturing brighter or darker exposures of the same scene is just a waste of time, memory and your camera’s shutter life.

Category 2

Images that contain the entire dynamic range of the scene in a badly balanced exposure. E.g. certain parts are too bright or too dark to really see the detail, despite the fact that the histogram doesn’t touch either side.

Category two images can be tricky, as they don’t always require multiple exposures. Even though some of the detail may be too dark or bright to appreciate it can often be easily recovered from the RAW file as explained in the RAW editing tutorial. You need to keep in mind that any adjustment made to a RAW file degrades the image quality thereof. So even though the RAW file may contain the necessary detail, recovering it may sometimes do too much damage.

What makes it even trickier is that all cameras don’t have the same dynamic range and image quality. A simple example is that you can easily recover 2 stops of shadow detail from a D800 file and the image quality will still be great. If you try the same with a file from a 3-year-old crop sensor camera, the resulting IQ will be a lot worse. So the safe option is that if a certain area of an image is too dark or too bright, rather play it safe and capture another exposure that is ideal for that area.

If you’re a minimalistic shooter like I am and you don’t want to take any unnecessary exposures, make sure you know your camera’s files very well. If you take a photo and a certain area is too dark or bright, be sure that you know from experience that you can recover that detail from the RAW file without doing any serious damage to the image quality. It is critical that you always use the histogram to confirm that an image is category 2 and not 3. I have shot plenty of times where a shadow or highlight looked okay to me, but then the histogram was touching the sides. Always remember that the screen is a traitor.

Category 3

Images that have blown highlights or black shadows.

Category three is easy to decide, but it can be difficult to execute. If the histogram touches either side then there are areas without detail in the image and you will have to capture multiple exposure to capture all the detail. Determining how wide a range you have to capture is the difficult part.

There is an exception that places some category three images in category 1 or 2. This is when a blown highlight or shadow is intended or beyond recovery. Some classic examples are silhouettes and images taken into the sun or city lights. In such cases you don’t need to bracket because regardless of what you do you can’t recover the detail. Even if you do somehow manage to recover it, the final result wont look natural.

 

Exposure Bracketing

The practice of capturing multiple exposures of the same scene is called exposure bracketing. It involves changing only the shutter speed of the camera, while maintaining all other settings. This results in a set of exposures that apart from their brightness are identical.

Explaining how to bracket has always been a very big challenge to me. It’s one of those things that can be done a million different ways if you understand it. Every time I’ve written a tutorial on a certain method, I find I write as if that is the one and only way. Understanding bracketing can often take a lot of practice so I have to lay down some laws, guidelines and parameters that beginners can adhere to when first attempting to bracket exposures. I have googled over the yonder of the internet and failed to find a single article on bracketing that really goes into detail. I don’t know if this is because people are hesitant to give away knowledge or if they faced the same writers block that I have. Either way, bracketing is difficult to teach because of the differences in camera brands, people’s shooting preferences and their understanding of exposure. Please keep an open mind, apply what you learn to see if it makes sense and if it doesn’t feel free to contact me on the via the contact page. 

The most important law is the following.

Make sure that your primary exposure is perfect, the brightest exposure contains no black shadow and the darkest exposure no blown highlight.

As long as you adhere to the above rule, you are free to bracket however you please. Please remember that the exceptions to the rule are where a silhouette or blown highlight is intended or unrecoverable. The two images show such situations. In the forest scene the highlights are blown and in the Namibian tree image there are a lot of black shadows. In both cases recovering that detail wouldn't do much good as it would just look unnatural. 

Almost all cameras have an AEB (Auto-Exposure-Bracketing) function, which automatically changes the shutter speed between exposures to capture a set of differently exposed photos. You can of course also bracket manually, but doing so can be time consuming and it has one or two other small niggles.

The Primary Exposure

Whether you shoot 2,3 or 4 different exposures, there will always be one exposure that contains more correctly exposed detail than any other. We can call this the primary exposure and your top priority should be to get it ideally exposed. It will be the foundation for your HDR image and all other images will be blended into this one. When doing the HDR blend you will paint only selective amounts of the other exposures into the primary exposure. Due to this selective use of the other exposures, it isn’t as critical to get the other exposures as ideally exposed as the primary one. As long as you collectively capture the entire dynamic range with the other exposures, they can be a stop too dark or too bright.

The primary exposure will usually be the one that is ideally exposed for the foreground/land. It is also virtually always the one that contains any critical movement like a wave in a seascape. We can call the other exposures, which contain the highlight and/or shadow detail the secondary exposures. Can you guess which one is the primary exposure in the bracketed set below?

The Easy Method (for AV shooters)

In my experience almost any RAW file can in almost any situation be pushed one stop darker or brighter. I have come across situations in which it was not possible, but it occurs so seldom that we can rule it out. So based on this assumption we can say that it is pointless to bracket 1 stop to either side as you can just push the primary exposure one stop to either side. What I have also found is that if you blend two images together that are more than 2 stops apart then it looks unnatural very quickly. So I say purely out of my own experience that the ideal range to bracket is 2 stops darker and brighter than the primary exposure. If you bracket 2 stops to either side, then you can always push the bright exposure a stop brighter and the dark exposure a stop darker. This effectively means that by bracketing -2, 0, +2 you cover the entire 4-stop range in between as well as the 2 stops outside it. So if AV mode is your comfort zone and you don’t bracket regularly enough to practice a certain method, then simply capturing -2, 0. +2 will be sufficient in 80-90% of cases. Set your bracketing to cover a 4 stop range, shoot and review the result. You can then compensate in order to improve the exposure for your primary exposure if necessary.

If you think that things are getting complicated, it gets a lot more complicated thanks to the differences between Canon and Nikon’s AEB functionality.

The Precise Method (Manual Mode Only)

Now I’m not a brand-whore; I will support and use whatever does a job the best, but I have to be honest and say that Nikon’s AEB is very backwards compared to Canon’s.  The AEB function of the latest high-end Canons like the 5D3 and 1Dx is highly customizable which allows the user to shoot as efficiently as possible. The more you can customize it, the better you are able to capture exactly what you want. The less you can customize it, the more you will end up with exposures that you really don’t need. The ideal AEB function should allow you to set the number of exposures taken, the EV difference between each of the exposures and the order in which the exposures are taken. It should also have a function that allows you to press the shutter button only once to capture the whole sequence of exposures.

I used a 5D mk II for three years and it’s bracketing is very good. It allows you to take three exposures, 0-2 stops apart and it allows you to select the order in which the shots are taken. If you activated the camera’s self-timer then it would capture the whole sequence with one press, but the shortest timer is 2 seconds and capturing critical movement on a 2 second delay is a headache.

I currently use a D800 and to say that I hate it’s bracketing function puts it lightly. It can bracket in sets of 2,3,5,7 or 9 but only 0-1 stops apart. This means that to cover a range of more than 2 stops, you have to take 5 exposures. This is an incomprehensible waste of memory, processing power and the camera’s shutter life.  In absolutely no situation have I ever needed 5 exposures taken one stop apart. In very few situations have I ever needed two exposures taken one stop apart because a RAW file almost always contains enough data to be pushed one stop to either side. I love my D800 and its image quality is unparalleled in 35mm cameras, but I hate its AEB function. It is backwards, outdated and horribly limited. Nikon has very seriously got to reconsider the AEB in their cameras.

*Apparently the bracketing of the latest Nikon models like the D600 and D7100 allow exposures to be taken up to 3 stops apart. So it seems that Nikon is listening to consumer demand.

Canon has improved the AEB in their latest models like the 1Dx and 5D3, now allowing you to take two shots up to 3 stops apart. No camera comes close to my desired perfection, but I would be very happy with the 1Dx’s AEB in my D800. I will now attempt to guide you through exposure bracketing to the best of my ability, I just needed to explain the limitations of some cameras first.

Things to Consider

  1. All cameras are set to a default bracketing order of 0, - , + which is confusing. It's like counting 2 1 3 or starting your alphabet B A C. Set it to -, 0 , + so the exposures are taken in order from dark to bright.
  2. Bracketed sequences should ALWAYS be taken with a tripod. You can to a very limited extent get away with auto-aligning handheld images in Photoshop if they don’t align perfectly. I’ve found the success rate for auto-alignment to be less than 25%, so don’t ever depend on it.
  3. I consider a cable release to be a critical piece of equipment when shooting bracketed images. Very few people are willing to spend $1000 on a tripod setup and a cheap tripod setup will move when you press the button. This will cause your images not to align perfectly and lead to blending halos. A cable release solves this problem. Don’t waste your money thinking that a wireless trigger is cool and futuristic. Most of them need a direct line of sight with an IR sensor on the front of the camera body, which means that shooting from behind the camera requires some circus antics.
  4. You should preferably take your shots in as close succession as possible, so switch your camera to continuous fire so that it takes all three with one press. As mentioned, Canon cameras take all three by it self if a self-timer is on. Nikon users will have to hold in the shutter button (on the cable release!) until the last exposure has been initiated.

Determine the dynamic range of the Scene to be Captured

You can’t capture the entire dynamic range if you don’t know how wide it is. So the first step to auto exposure bracketing is to measure the dynamic range of the scene. This is a fairly simple process for which I highly recommend you shoot in manual mode. This is done by taking a spot reading of the darkest and brightest area in the frame and measuring the difference on the exposure scale. The ideal is to set up your shot, finalize your composition and then take this reading. Because the light is constantly changing it’s very irritating if you have to discard your composition to take a light reading again.

If you have a Canon camera with Live View then you’re in luck. You can set up your composition and do the reading in Live View. Canon cameras have a metering/focus block that can be moved anywhere in the frame and it will take the reading from that area. Nikon has attempted to copy this in their latest models, but it’s not as convenient as Canon’s and it doesn’t display the exposure scale with all the exposure indicators. If you have a Nikon camera then the best is to select your central focus point, switch the camera to spot metering and take the readings through the viewfinder.

AEB for Canon

  1. Start by taking a light reading from the brightest part of the scene. If you’re doing it in Live View then position the block on the brightest area. Now adjust your shutter speed (in Manual mode) until the exposure indicator comes to rest on the RHS of the exposure scale. It needs to be ON the scale, not past it. If it goes past it, then the exposure indicator will blink.
  2. Now move the block to take a light reading from the darkest part of the scene. The exposure indicator will jump x amount of stops to the left side of the exposure scale. Count the stops and you’ll know how big a range you should set your bracketing to cover. The reason for positioning the exposure indicator on the RHS is that if it is in the middle then it only has a range of 2/3 stops to move on the scale. In most cases it will then fall off the scale and you won’t be able to see how wide the difference in tones is.
  3. Canon users can set their camera to cover the measured range plus 1/3rd of a stop to each side. So if you measured the difference to be 2.66 stops, then set your camera to -1.66, 0, +1.66 (total bracketed range = 3,33 stops).
  4. Once set you will see that you now have 3 exposure indicators on the exposure scale. Each one indicates one of the set bracketed exposures. Now while still taking a light reading off the darkest part of the scene, adjust the shutter speed until the RHS exposure indicator is exactly in the middle of the scale. This will result in the brightest exposure in the set being exposed well for the darkest area in the scene and the darkest exposure will be well exposed for the brightest part of the scene.

I know this is quite a procedure, but it will ensure that you shoot as efficiently as possible. Practice it a few times and it will quickly become a subconscious process.

NIKON USERS CONTINUE READING HERE - Listed below are the most common situations of what I'll call AEB exposure order, in their occurring frequency. It is just my classification of the order in which the primary, shadow and highlight exposures fall. It varies from scene to scene according to how much of a certain tone there is. Keep in mind that the exposure brightness and tone brightness are reversed. The darkest exposure captures the brightest tones and vice versa, so the bold titles below are in the opposite order of the corresponding images below each title. These situations have nothing to do with the exposure categories mentioned earlier and in the RAW editing tutorial.

1. Primary Exposure + Secondary Highlight Exposure (p +h1)

If you use the described method in a situation 1 scene, then the darkest exposure will be redundant and can be deleted. The middle exposure will contain the secondary highlight detail and the brightest one will be the primary exposure.

2. Primary Exposure + Secondary Highlight Exposure + Tertiary Highlight Exposure (p + h1 + h2)

If you use the method in a situation 2 scene, then the darkest exposure will contain the tertiary highlight detail, the middle one the secondary highlight detail and the brightest one will be the primary exposure.

3. Secondary Shadow Exposure + Primary Exposure + Secondary Highlight Exposure (s1 + p + h1)

If you use the Canon method for situation 3 images then the darkest exposure will contain the secondary highlight detail, the middle one will be the primary exposure and the brightest one will contain the secondary shadow detail. In these situations the middle exposure might be too dark or too bright unless the darkest and brightest areas of the scene are the exact same EV from the primary exposure. By giving a 3rd of a stop margin for error in the bracketing range you give yourself the opportunity to compensate by a 3rd of a stop to perfect your primary exposure. So once you’ve taken the sequence, look at the images and see if you need to compensate in order to improve the primary exposure.

 

Remember the most important bracketing guideline: Make sure your primary exposure is perfect, the brightest exposure contains no black shadow and the darkest exposure no blown highlight. Also keep in mind that these are just three most common ones. I've had situations where I had to shoot s1+p+h1+h2+h3 and it is also quite common to have a well exposed image with a small shadow area which results in s1 + p. 

AEB for Nikon

Nikon users will have to apply a bit more of a touch and go approach because the bracketed indicators don't move along the scale as you adjust the exposure. 

  • Start by taking a light reading from the brightest part of the scene. Make sure that the main focus point is selected and that you're in spot metering mode. Position the focus point over the brightest area. Now adjust your shutter speed (in Manual mode) until the exposure indicator comes to rest on the RHS of the exposure scale. It needs to be ON the scale, not past it. If it goes past it, then the exposure indicator will blink.
  • Now move the focus point to take a light reading from the darkest part of the scene. The exposure indicator will jump x amount of stops to the left side of the exposure scale. Count the stops and you’ll know how big a range you should set your bracketing to cover. The reason for positioning the exposure indicator on the RHS is that if it is in the middle then it only has a range of 2/3 stops to move on the scale. In most cases it will then fall off the scale and you won’t be able to see how wide the difference in tones is.
  • Once you’ve determined the range you have to bracket you can dial in the bracketing. If the range you have to cover is less than two stops, then you can get away with 3 exposures. If it is more than 2 stops then the safe option is to take 5 exposures. As I’ve mentioned before, the 1 stop range limit is unbelievably stupid as it results in a lot of unnecessary exposures. If you’re shooting with a D800, then it equates to about 300-400mb’s of data per image sequence. You better start saving for hard drives!
  • Set the main ( 0 ) indicator to the middle of the exposure scale, fire off a sequence and look at the results. Remember the guideline; Make sure your primary exposure is perfect, the brightest exposure contains no black shadow and the darkest exposure no blown highlight.

3. Secondary Shadow Exposure + Primary Exposure + Secondary Highlight Exposure ( s1 + p + h1)

If it is a situation 3 scene  then you probably won’t have to make any adjustments. The 0 exposure will be the primary, the -1 or -2 will contain the secondary highlights and the +1 or +2 will contain the secondary shadow detail. In the set below -2 was redundant, -1 ideal for the secondary highlights, 0 redundant, +1 the primary exposure and +2 contained the secondary shadow detail for the shadow side of the cliff on the left. It might look like +2 is the ideal primary exposure, but in this image it is too bright and will result in an unnatural final result. 

2. Primary Exposure + Secondary Highlight Exposure + Tertiary Highlight Exposure (p + h1 + h2)

If it is a Situation one or two image then you will have to adjust the bracketing sequence so that it captures more highlight detail than shadows because the primary exposure contains the darkest tones. Simply dial in a faster shutter speed and the whole set will shift left/darker on the scale. Try to set it so that the brightest exposure is ideal for the darkest area. In most cases this will result in the brightest image being the primary exposure and a number of darker ones of which a few can be deleted. In the set below the +2 is the primary and ideal for the foreground. The 0 is ideal for the majority of the sky and the -1 contains the highlights that are blown in 0. The -2 and +1 exposures are unnecessary and can go to the trash can.

In my Canon days I used to shoot very selectively, now that I shoot with Nikon my efforts have shifted to deleting selectively. It is not only an issue of storage, but also of selecting the right exposures afterwards. It can get really confusing when you shoot too much. 

 

Conclusion and Final Tips

  • When you're shooting critical movement like a wave that has to be timed to a split second, don't shoot all 2/3/5 exposures in a single burst. Try to adjust your sequence using the shutter speed so that the first or last frame is the one with the wave in it. It will usually be the last one, so shoot the first few as the wave is still a safe distance away. Then get that last critical shot at the right time and prepare for the next wave sequence. Always remember that clouds move faster than you think, so don't wait too long between the wave exposure and the rest. 
  • When the wind picks up, open your aperture and ISO to make sure the frames are identical. Some blur may look nice in a photo, but a blending halo is only artistic in the photomatix world. 
  • Get to know how flexible your camera's RAW files are as this will save you a lot of effort. Many scenes can be blended from a single RAW file instead of multiple exposures. 
  • Delete unnecessary exposures before even getting to the computer. When you return to the images months or years later, those redundant exposures will be a pain in your rear. 
  • I still shoot with graduated filters most of the time. It helps to 'compress/narrow' the DR of most scenes and thus makes the blending easier. 
  • Do not practice in your backyard and expect the next Ansel Adams Snake River image. Get out to a park or prime landscape spot for a weekend and go give HDR your best attempt. 
  • What I have explained here won't make complete sense until you get to the blending. It's part of a much greater process and only once you've done A-Z will everything make proper sense. 

HDR DOES NOT make good photos. Photogenic landscapes, good light and good composition makes good photos. HDR simply allows the photographer to overcome some of the camera's limitations. In the same paragraph I have to mention that I don't want to make it sound useless. If you can master HDR using luminosity blending then it will open new doors of creativity to your photography. Always remember that photographs are made in the field, not behind a computer. 

In the next article I will look at how to blend the images using luminosity selections and layer masks. Please comment below on any technical or grammar mistakes, inconsistencies or unclear areas so I can amend it. This article has consumed almost a week's worth of work hours to create and I'm making it available to the public for free. All I want in return is a share to this website, so if you found it useful please share it on any social media or link to it where ever you can. 

Hougaard

12 Comments

  • Stunning Hougaard!!
    So much information given here….much appreciated!!

    Albert de Weerd - 04 November, 2013

  • Dankie Hougaard! Dit maak sin…ok ek dink so..wag nou vir jou volgende aflewering…

    Deon Kotze - 04 November, 2013

  • Yup . . . . you nailed it.
    Well put, clear, short and sweet!

    Bruce - 04 November, 2013

  • Great article. Just FYI you can set your D800 to fire off all your brackets with the self timer as well if you want. Just use the c3 Self Timer menu item and adjust the number of shots. I totally agree though that the D800 needs to be able to bracket by more than one stop increments! Seems like they could easily fix this with a firmware update, I have no idea why they don’t!

    Connor Katz - 04 November, 2013

  • Great article. You can tell you spent time on it the way you have explained things and the way you have given the technical jargon a laymans description. Looking forward to the next article.

    Russ Scullen - 05 November, 2013

  • I completely agree with your HDR thinking and hate the extensive misuse of HDR allover internet. I practised more or less as you described on my latest Iceland trip and came back with nice 5D3 results. Still learned a lot from your fantastic blog.  I will have to return to Iceland to make it better grin.  Your blog is the best I ever red on the subject.  Sincere congrats!

    Paul Boyden - 05 November, 2013

  • Best article I’ve seen on explaining HDR! Well done and thanks.

    Paul Knipe - 05 November, 2013

  • Thanks for all the amazing info!  A quick question… I’ve always been shooting with the mirror up for any slow exposures to stop any sort of camera shake. I tried out the auto bracketing and it doesn’t work with mirror up. Do you just shoot with mirrow down or am i missing something. I’m working on a Canon 5D Mark 2.

    Mike - 07 November, 2013

  • Interesting and well explained article, thank-you very much!

    Christa Niederer - 15 November, 2013

  • Thanks Hougaard, very good article.
    Justa small point… When you say “RHS”, it means “right hand side”, right? Then I guess for Nikon, it should be “LHS”, unless you have inverted the settings to make them more Canon-like (setting f12, the Nikon way is normally +0-).

    Bernard - 27 November, 2013

  • Very informative and different than the other articles on the web.
    Thank you

    Antonio Biggio - 07 December, 2013

  • Hougaard ek het hierdie artikel met belangstelling gelees en ek gaan ook definitief die res van jou artikels met aandag lees en seker maak dat ek jou volg. Ek bewonder jou dat jy bereid is om soveel tyd te spandeer om jou hard-verworwe kennis aan ander fotograwe oor te dra. Dit is voorwaar prysenswaardig.

    Josef Steyn - 14 May, 2014