High Dynamic Range photography, HDR in short, is a powerful technique used to extend the dynamic range of your camera in order to capture the maximum of the details in highly contrasted scenes, such as sunsets, interior photography and more.
Imagine you are a tourist visiting a majestic cathedral and that you want to photograph the internal architecture. Because the windows will be many more times brighter that the interior, without HDR, if you expose for the darker interior, you will not be able to photograph the intricate graphics of those breathtaking stained glass windows.
All windows, in fact, will be mostly clipped to pure white.
With HDR you will be able to extend the dynamic range you can capture and retain the maximum of details in both the dark and bright areas of the image.
Another example is a typical sunset, where the sky is much brighter than the foreground.
In our previous article on HDR, we focused on the whats and hows of HDR, this is all about the don’ts.
Many things can go wrong with HDR, both behind the camera and in front your computer screen. Here’s a list of 10 common mistakes and how to avoid them.
10. Being Lazy
One of the first mistakes you can make is not shooting for HDR when facing highly contrasted scenes with a wide dynamic range. This can be because you are being lazy or because you are not sure on how to proceed.
Shooting for HDR is not complicated. Many cameras and camera phones have built-in HDR modes. While these modes have many limitations and may be available only when shooting in JPEG, they are better than nothing. You should experiment with them when facing highly contrasted scenes.
Below are two photos of the common room of the University I work at. I took these photos on my iPhone with (bottom) and without (top) the automatic HDR mode active. When the HDR mode is active, we can see much more of the view outside the windows, although it is washed out.
The HDR mode is extremely useful for camera phones and entry level compact cameras, because they have small sensors and quite small dynamic range.
Camera phones in particular can benefit from many dedicated apps to create decent HDR images by manually selecting the darkest and brightest areas in the scene, like True HDR for iOS. A tripod is a must.
The only exception to the use of HDR in difficult light conditions is when timing is the highest priority, like when you are trying to “catch the moment” in street or sport photography, for instance. If you are doing landscape or architecture photography, time is not a big issue and, if needed, you should do HDR.
9. Creating a Too Short HDR Sequence
Another common mistake is to limit yourself to taking only 3 photos at, say -1, 0 and +1EV.
While this is certainly the most common way to do HDR, often 7 or more exposures are necessary in order to properly cover all the dynamic range.
Once again, don’t be lazy. Taking a couple of extra shots is not a big waste of time. Better safe than sorry.
8. Forgetting Your Tripod
At the core of HDR technics is the combination of different photographs together into a final image. Ideally, there should be no movement (either camera movement or changes in the scene) during the recording of the HDR sequence.
While all HDR software can perform an image alignment (and use deghosting algorithms to compensate for movements in the scene), too much movement from one shot to the other will cause the image alignment to fail.
Another reason to avoid handheld HDR photography is that single exposures in the overexposed part of the HDR sequence, which aims to lift the shadows, can be several seconds long. Blurred images cannot be recovered and should be discarded.
A tripod is, therefore, the most useful accessory for HDR. It ensures no camera movement while manipulating the settings during the recording of long single exposures.
If you don’t have a tripod, your best bet is to use the in-camera HDR mode. Settings will be changed automatically and you can rely on camera stabilisation to counteract the small camera movements typical of the handheld camera scenario.
Make sure that your longest shutter speed is such that you will be able to keep the image sharp.
7. Not Being in Control of Your Camera
While in camera, HDR modes can be handy. But they usually produce a JPEG file that will be more difficult to edit than RAW files.
Rather than produce an HDR image in-camera, it is better to select a shooting mode for HDR. This means the camera will allow you to shoot in rapid sequence a number of different exposures, typically 3 or 5 images, each 0.3EV, 0.7EV or 1EV apart.
These auto modes can easily capture an HDR sequence or create an HDR image in-camera. These are very useful if you occasionally need to do HDR photography.
If you find yourself doing it more often, it is better to learn how to bracket manually and how to stay in full control of your HDR sequence.
6. Changing Aperture or ISO During Bracketing
With the term “HDR sequence” I mean a series of photographs where each photo is taken with a different exposure.
As we know, the exposure depends on the lens aperture, the shutter speed and the ISO settings.
Changing ISO will create images with different noise and different dynamic range, while changing the aperture will change the depth of field along the sequence.
The best way to manually create an HDR sequence is to change the shutter speed only.
5. Using Autofocus
Another mistake to avoid is to use the autofocus. With autofocus on, it is your camera’s job to decide where to focus. This can change from one image to the other in the sequence.
To be consistent, it’s better to use manual focus or to lock the AF.
4. Over Processing
This is by far the most common mistake people do when playing with HDR. Overcooked HDR images flood the internet every second and they are the prime cause of HDR’s bad rep.
HDR is a technique, not a style. It does not mean you have to create grunge or painterly looking images all the time.
Many HDR-dedicated software come with a number of presets. The problem is that most of the time, the result is an extremely over processed image.
You should use those presets only as a starting point and further tweak them to achieve a more natural look.
Good HDR images look natural and you can achieve this when the HDR has a subtle, but beneficial, effect.
In the image below, HDR allowed me to retain detail in the bright sky around the castle as well as in the trees and foreground.
3. Flattening Your Image
An HDR image contains a huge amount of data that can be extracted, and dark areas can be brightened up quite a lot to reveal the smallest details. But this does not mean you should do it.
The amount of details you show across the scene is only one aspect of a good photograph: contrast is the other part.
Flattening the image by reducing the contrast between the original bright and dark areas is often bad practice. It makes the image look less natural, difficult to understand and not really appealing.
It is best to retain some contrast to keep the shot interesting.
2. Black Clouds
Another common HDR mistake in landscape photography is to allow the clouds to go black.
For sure, black clouds are real in bad weather, but the puffy clouds scattered in a blue sky are mostly white. You should keep them as such in your HDR image.
Halos around highly contrasted edges are the first indicator that you have over processed your image by boosting the contrast and clarity too much. Those halos are typical of too many HDR images posted online and are, simply put, rubbish.
A more gentle approach to editing will make for a more pleasant image, with no halos.
As we have seen, there are a lot of potential HDR photography mistakes and this article should help you to correct many of those. Unfortunately, because of careless use of HDR, many photographers tend to dismiss it as a surreal, grunge and fake photographic style.
But HDR photography is not a style: it is a valuable technique that can dramatically improve your photography. All it takes is a bit of practice.
We have a post about using Photoshops burn and dodge tools instead of HDR you can check out too!