Mongolia Sunrise

This is part 1 of 3 articles on shooting and processing HDR shooting methods. Many people do not understand HDR and only think of the overworked images that many people create. That is not what HDR was created for and not the way it should be used. HDR is simply a way to maximize your color, not to distort it. Follow along in these three articles and you will find a way to create and process images you will be proud of.

We have to start with the basics which are how to use your camera and how to find and use the settings.

If this is new to you, you take multiple photos at different exposures using high contrast scenes. These are usually a landscape or cityscape, you then combine the images and the resulting picture will use the best light and color from all of the images.

The resulting pictures will provide a remarkable image that is as close as possible to the way a human eye interprets the scene. Many people love it and there are many who do not. The do not people are for the most part against the process do to the “over-cooked” images some people create. This is a process to enhance images not to distort them into carnival photos. That being said when done correctly you can enhance your photos into true works of art that you will be proud to sell or display.

The image above is one example of the benefits of HDR. This image was taken in Mongolia at the glacier cavern in the Gobi desert. The image was deep inside two ranges of hills and had very little lighting. Also light was very low as it was the late afternoon with not much sunlight. These next three articles will show you how the image was changed and how you can do this as well. Turn your camera into an HDR factory.

1. Get Out the Manual


Nobody likes to read this material but for simplicity sake, it will show you the different functions we will be talking about in this post. The key to getting the shots you want is knowing you camera. The knowledge you need is inside this manual and should become your best friend. Also as I talk about the functions of my Nikon camera yours many be a different model or manufacturer and have some differences. You can find that information in your manual. If you don’t have the manual you can find an online version using Google.

2. HDR Is All About Bracketing

Using the AEB or Auto Exposure Bracketing is the most useful tool on your camera. It sets aside many of the problems associated with some HDR shots mainly the movement of objects or people. This term refers to the number of exposures that are shot of a single image. Some people shoot 3, I prefer 7, a three bracket shot will have conventional -2 and +2 on exposures. A 7 bracket shot will have conventional +1 +2 +3 and -1 -2 -3. These will then be converted to 1 images with HDR software such as Photomatix or Photoshop. Some cameras only have settings for 3 photos others 9 and up and I recommend you take as many as the camera will allow. Your edited results will be much much better.

The AEB is not available on all camera models. With it you simply program the number of shots and the exposures you want and the camera will shoot all of them when you click at one time. Without it you can still do the shoot but you will have to manually change the exposures and the shot will have to be done with a tripod. The results of the running stream would not be near as good. For this reason, make sure if you camera does not have AEB that your next one will have.

Go to your camera’s setting and find the AEB function if available. It is usually in the same area with the exposure settings, highlight AEB and opt for the number of photographs and the exposure settings you wish to use.

The reason for the multiple shots will become clear as we analyze the photo above. The original shot shows as a stream running through a bed of rocks. There is nothing impressive about the photo and most people would disregard it on first glance. There is no vibrancy or distinctive color until you get to the HDR converted image. This one shows everything including the multiple colors of the rocks, the shiny clear water, the sunlight peeking through the back of the frame, everything the original photography missed. The HDR version is exactly how I remember the setting and much like my eyes thought the picture would look when I bent down to shoot it.
I shot this with only a 3 set of exposures and had I taken the time and done 7 or 9 the results would have been even better.

3. AV and Aperture Settings

Review the area below the center red line.

AV and Aperture


Choose the letter A on your mode dial.

Mode DIal

You will need to use Aperture or AV mode for HDR photography. It is imperative and without AV you will simply not get good HDR results. This is how you will control the exposure while letting the camera choose the correct shutter speeds. When shooting multiple exposures you will have to choose what stays the same in the bracketed photos.

Should you choose timed shots the camera will keep using the same shutter speed for each exposure.

The aperture controls the depth of field, this will let you choose how much of a photo you want to be in focus. If the value is different in the exposures then you will not be able to merge them into a single HDR photo.

Even when using Manual settings it is still easier to use AV for the best results. Only advanced photographers choose to use Manual, if you think you are ready to give that a try and compare the results to the automated brackets. If not start out using AV mode and work into the Manual mode, later on, AV saves time over dialing in the exposures manually which you will have to do in Manual mode.

Simply go into AV mode then consider what aperture to choose. You aperture settings will control your depth of field. When shooting landscapes the entire field will need to be in focus which will require a higher F12 to F16 depending on the distance you are shooting to. The higher the aperture the further you will be able to shoot and still maintain focus.

Imagine 20 people in a line staggered but looking at you. If you want the first 3 to be in focus choose F3, all 20 choose F20 if you camera allows. The higher you to in aperture the further you will maintain focus. Remember this is an approximation.

Step 4: Metering Settings

One of the toughest settings for new photographers is correct metering settings. This is how your camera takes samples of lights to then set the correct exposure. The camera needs to analyze the scene, determine how much light is available and what settings to use for the best results.

Letting you camera determine the metering using Evaluate settings and that will be your best avenue. However, center-weighted metering at times will give better results. Study each setting and we will be providing more in-depth lessons in a later article.

Step 5: White Balance

White Balance

Many people get confused by this setting and some know but just don’t bother to pay attention to it. It is crucial to get this correct, if not the colors will be off in the image and no amount of editing can fix these issues. The auto balance will usually work just fine, but like the metering settings you need to understand them for the times that Auto will not suffice.

When the camera and you eye disagree on a shot then it is time for you to manually change the settings. The easiest way to make these changes is in the Custom White Balance setting. Find something that is pure white such as a piece of paper or white shirt. Take a photo and see if the entire photo is completely white.

Got into the camera and scroll through the settings until you find the CWB setting. Follow the prompts and find the all white image you just captured. Your camera will take the white from that image and create a pure white balance using that photography. One the white color is set correctly using this method all other colors will automatically fall into place for you.

Step 6: Optimize Your ISO

Review the area below the right side red line.

White Balance

Light sensitivity in your camera is determined and calibrated with the ISO settings. The larger the number the more sensitive it becomes. Think of it as your employees. At ISO 100 you have 100 people going out of the camera to gather light for your photo and bringing it back in. When shooting low light or night shots you may need to change to ISO 3200 or 6400 to have enough people to go and gather adequate light for your photograph.

When you shoot a shot that is too dark you simply did not have enough workers getting the light for your image. Raise the ISO to send out more workers and shoot the shot again and do this until you get the correct exposure for the image.

There is a downside to having too many workers and raising the ISO too high. This is called noise and in some instances such as night photography it is impossible to control completely although some of the noise can be edited out. The problem is when doing this you lose some picture quality. For that reason, you want to use the lowest ISO possible and compensate by shooting a longer exposure. This will work well for landscapes, moon shots etc but will not work for photos of people or images with motion in them.

Shoot the lowest ISO possible to get a good image and increase the exposure time if possible rather than raising the ISO.

Step 7: You Need A Tripod

When shooting many shots especially with high aperture and very low ISO’s the shutter speed becomes progressively slower and slower. This makes it impossible to shoot handheld shots and to use in HDR composites. Anything you do to reduce movement will increase the quality of the photographs.

Using a tripod is the best way to get high-quality HDR composite photo sets. The various tripods are useful for your purpose but some are much heavier, these are the best but if you travel and shoot as we do they are not a good choice. Get a high quality but low weight tripod. When shooting hang your camera bag on the tripod to add weight and eliminate movement from the wind etc. Get something that is good for your choice of photography.

For hikers and backpackers, I would get a smaller carbon fiber tripod.

The tripod head is also important. Not only do you need a good one that supports you camera well but we suggest getting one that has a ball head. That way it allows easy movement of your camera in all directions.

Step 8: Time or Automatic Shoot Button


There are two ways to shoot with your camera to avoid shake. One is to use the timer and the other is to pick up an automatic shoot button. They are very cheap and offer a way to get the perfect time for a shot. Automatic times can sometimes cause an issue if something enters the field then you will have to do it all over. The buttons allow you to shoot at exactly the moment you want. You can also opt for a button that attaches to your camera by a cord.

When using the 2-second self-timer simply push down the button and step back. The camera will shoot the shot in two seconds and if using AEB it will shoot all 3,5,7,9 or more exposures depending on your choice of settings. The automatic shoot button will do the same when you choose to push it.

Step 9: The Correct Lens

The Correct Camera Lens

You can use HDR for virtually any photograph but High Contrans landscapes, nature shots, and cityscapes often provide the best results. Getting a great shot in your mind and then finding that your choice of lens did not deliver the same is very disheartening. These are often very large and you will need the right settings as well as the lens to get the HDR composite you have pictured in your mind.

To get good results you will need the correct lens. We choose the 24-55MM lens and usually never choose to shoot anything about 30MM. Anything larger than that and the field begins to shrink dramatically. Get a lens that falls into those areas and you will be happy with the results. You will have to stay under 30MM usually to avoid the images getting a distorted look.

Step 10: Ready for Manual

Choose the letter M on your mode dial.


You have the settings located and are getting a better understanding of using your camera. Now it is time to begin testing the world of manual focus. Auto is great but for HDR landscapes not so much. To get the entire frame in focus you will need to use Manua. With manual focus, you will want the lens set to infinity. That will bring the entire frame into focus, unlike Auto which will focus on an area and lose focus as you work to the edges of the frame.

This is great in most cases but if you have a particular object in the photo has is more important you will want to use Live View Setting and set the red dot in your viewfinder to focus on that area. Now that you have that area chosen begin moving the focus knob on your camera to the perfect shot. The chosen area will be great bu you will lose some sharpness in the balance.

With the new cameras, you are often forced to set things with the best possible. Not always the best but in many cases, you will have to balance all of the options and choose the best setup for the current conditions.


Now we are ready to shoot some pictures, the camera is ready and so are you. Go out and shoot some brackets and in the next installment, we will begin our tutorials and shoot in the field. How to get the best shots and choice of light and settings. Composition and what to look for as well as how to use histograms and more. Below you will see a full-size photo of the one used in the first section of the tutorial.

Glacier Completed HDR

The next installment will appear on the site in a few days.


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