Scenes with strong shadows and highlights (such as landscapes) are always challenging to photograph because there are so many things to consider before taking a photo. It's tricky trying to balance exposing for both areas (and the midtones), especially when the light can change at any given moment, which requires you to constantly fiddle with the settings (and even cause you to miss the shot at crucial times such as sunrise and sunset).
Thankfully, technology has allowed for a HDR feature to be built into a lot of cameras, mobile phones and editing software to make landscape photography much easier. HDR is a digital camera and smartphone feature which stands for High Dynamic Range. This basically means that the camera takes different photographs with different exposures and combines them into one image, by layering them all together. Compare the two photos below. The second photo is the result of 7 exposures being blended together and the difference is clear.
Images taken by Chris Jornlin
In the days of film photography, photographers would take three photographs with three exposure settings for the entire frame (underexposed, overexposed and properly exposed) to determine which setting worked best. This can still be done using bracketing.
ND filters also help to reduce the amount of light that enters your camera sensor to allow for longer exposures, which often prevents overexposure in the highlights, so you can use the correct exposure settings you need for shadows. But filters don't work well for shapes that don't mimic the straight line of a horizon, such as mountains.
However, by using HDR, you can mix and match different exposure settings in each of the three photos, to best suit the top, middle and bottom sections of the frame. Then the final photo will include a full light spectrum that features perfectly exposed shadows and highlights, which is what makes HDR so popular with landscape photographers who often have to contend with different exposures for the sky and the scenery. Make sure your camera or smartphone is enabled to save all three photos with varying exposures, as well as the final HDR image.
Now that you’re all caught up, here are some techniques for improving your photos using HDR:
1) Use a tripod
Given that the concept of HDR is the combination of multiple images into one, it makes more sense to use a tripod to minimise inconsistencies in the framing and ensure there isn't any movement of subjects or other elements (such as birds or clouds in the sky). Inconsistencies in framing tend to create a “ghosting” effect in the final image. Using a tripod makes sure each shot is framed identically (don’t forget to lock the tripod so it doesn't wobble) and allows for sharper photos as well, which is necessary when you’re shooting at a lower shutter speed.
Image taken by Whitney Tower
2) Watch your settings
Since HDR is so heavily dependent on the consistency of the images in order for it to work seamlessly, the only thing that should be changing is the exposure time before of each photograph and nothing else. There are some camera settings that you have to be mindful of while you’re shooting to avoid any blending issues for the final image, such as aperture, focus and white balance. Some compact, non SLR cameras may also have Auto Enhancing features that will need to be switched off before shooting.
HDR processing can sometimes produce a lot of noise in your final image so remember to keep your ISO as low as possible to minimise this problem.
3) Be careful of over-editing
Although shooting with HDR gets a lot of the work done for you, this does not mean that the images won't need a bit of editing. You can use the Merge to HDR option in Photoshop if you want to create the final HDR layer yourself from all the photographs, or you can just tweak the HDR image that was saved in-camera. Editing can involve making universal changes to the whole photograph, or “masking” can be used to edit certain sections without altering others.
HDR photographs that have been heavily edited often look very brightly coloured, surrealistic and overly sharp, like in the photo below. Sometimes HDR is deliberately used for a dramatic or artistic effect and it can work well. But if you want a more natural look, make sure to check your saturation, contrast and sharpness settings while editing.
Image taken by Peter Gorges
Real estate photography is another genre besides landscape that can benefit from HDR, because of the light issues that can arise with exposing for interior rooms, without overexposing the views through the windows. Real estate photographers often don't have a lot of control over what time of day they shoot or how much light is available, and it can really help them to take the best possible photos of a property. With real estate photography though, it's essential that HDR is used subtly so that the photos are an accurate depiction of what the property really looks like.