HDR Photography Tutorial

This is a detailed tutorial on HDR Photography for beginners and how you can create HDR images from single or multiple photographs using different exposures.

While I was driving through Rocky Mountains last year, I saw a beautiful sunset. It was so beautiful, that I stood there in awe for a moment, before taking out my camera and attempting to take a picture. I took one quick shot of the sunset and quickly realized that there was too much contrast between the sky and the mountains for my camera. The image came out horrible – the sky looked somewhat fine, but the mountains were pitch black. I only had my camera and my trusty tripod with me, so I knew that I did not have many options. I decided to try out a photography technique known as “HDR” or “High Dynamic Range” and I ended up with the following image:

Combined in Software

While some people really like the above image, others just hate it. That’s how it goes with HDR in general – the surreal look of HDR photographs is not for everyone to love and enjoy, although, there are cases when it is done extremely well. But let’s save this discussion for later and first try to understand what HDR photography is all about.

One thing that you should always keep in mind while taking pictures, is that your camera does not have the same capabilities as your eyes when it comes to seeing both bright and dark tones in a scene. Our eyes are equipped with the most advanced technology, allowing us to see and perceive colors and tones no human-made electronic device can even come close to. This range of tones and colors is known as “dynamic range” in photography, which has become a key performance metric on modern digital camera sensors – the more dynamic range, the better the sensor.

If you have been using a digital camera for a while, you most likely ran into a similar situation as the one I described above, where you would take a picture and parts of it would either be too bright or too dark. No matter what settings you tweaked on your camera, nothing would seem to help, despite the fact that your eyes were seeing everything just right. If you switched your camera to manual control, you could brighten up one area, which would darken another and vice-versa, but no settings would correctly expose both, all due to the large dynamic range of the scene.

I tried to do the same with the above image and ended up with the following two photographs:

Metered to Sky Metered to Ground

The left image shows that while I was able to correctly expose the sky, the ground turned out too dark for me to be able to recover any details from it. In the second image, I tried to correctly expose the ground, but ended up completely blowing out the sky. It was clear that my camera, despite having an advanced full-frame sensor, was unable to capture such a large dynamic range.

But what if I captured an underexposed, normal and over-exposed images of the same exact spot and then combined them together into one image, where everything is properly exposed? That’s exactly how HDR works.

HDR Image

1) What is HDR?

HDR or High Dynamic Range Photography is a post-processing technique that uses multiple images of the same scene shot at different shutter speeds to combine them all into a single photograph. The result is an image with the most amount of detail in both shadow and bright areas of the image, close to what the human eye would see. Although it is ideal to use multiple images of the same scene, you could also create an HDR image from a single image, as long as it is shot in RAW format. Hence, there are two methods of creating an HDR image: a) from a single image and b) from multiple images. In this article, I will show you how to do both.

Pool

2) HDR Requirements

In order to generate an HDR image, you need to have the following tools:

  1. Digital camera (preferably a DSLR)
  2. Tripod (for multiple exposures)
  3. Adobe Photoshop or some other image-editing tool
  4. Photomatix Pro or other HDR software (optional)
  5. Noise Reduction software like Nik’s Dfine or Noise Ninja (optional)

Although you could get away without a tripod by shooting hand-held in brackets and let HDR software automatically align the images, I still recommend shooting with a tripod to get the best results. Aligning images works most of the time, but you would lose a portion of the image.

Water Wheel

In terms of HDR software, you can use Photoshop’s built-in HDR functionality or third party applications like Photomatix Pro. I personally prefer to work with Photomatix Pro, because it offers much more functionality than Photoshop and is very easy to use, once you understand how to work with it. There are some other tools out there (including free & open source), but they are nowhere close to what Photomatix Pro can offer.

3) Camera Settings

For best results, I highly recommend to do the following:

  1. Shoot in RAW. See my RAW vs JPEG article to see why you should be shooting in RAW.
  2. Always keep the aperture the same between the shots, so I recommend shooting in Aperture Priority mode. You do not want to have images with different depths of field.
  3. Set your camera metering to Matrix (Nikon) or Evaluative (Canon) to let the camera pick the best exposure for the whole scene. This will be your middle exposure.
  4. Use the bracketing function of your camera and shoot in 2 EV steps if you are doing three brackets or 1 EV step if you are doing five brackets. For example: -2, -1, 0, +1, +2 works great for most situations.
  5. Watch out for wind – too much of it will move bushes/grass/trees, which will screw up your final image.
  6. Shoot frames quickly in bursts, especially if you have clouds in the frame.
  7. Watch out for other moving objects. Although Photomatix Pro has a built-in function to reduce ghosting artifacts, it is still best if movements are minimal – motion is difficult to fix in software.

4.1) HDR Photography Using a Single Image

You can create HDR images from a single image, as long as both the brightest and the darkest parts of the image are somewhat recoverable. What this means, is that your brightest part of the image should not be completely blown out, while the darkest part of the image should not be pitch black. Therefore, you can only use images that are properly exposed with as many details preserved as possible. Keep in mind that RAW images (especially 14-bit+ RAW images) contain lots of data that you are not going to see when the image is viewed from Photoshop or Lightroom. In order to see this data, you would need to increase and decrease the exposure within Photoshop/Lightroom.

Take a look at the following image that I took at the Sand Dunes National Park:

HDR Sample #1

Single shot with preserved details

While the exposure seems to be way off, the RAW image actually contains plenty of data of the sky and the dunes. I can get more details out of the sky by decreasing the exposure to -1 and at the same time I can get plenty of details from the sand by increasing the exposure by +3:

Exposure: -1 Exposure: +3

By decreasing and increasing exposure, I can extract a total of 5 images from the above RAW file: -1, 0, +1, +2 and +3. I can then use all five images to create a single HDR image in Photoshop or other third party HDR tools. Here is what I got after running the 5 images in Photomatix Pro:

HDR Sample #4

HDR from 5 different exposures

The process is simple – decrease and increase exposure by one full stop (-1 or +1) and extract each as a separate 16-bit TIFF file. Next, open Photomatix Pro and do the following:

  1. Click “Generate HDR image”
  2. Click “Browse…” and select the extracted TIFF files. Click OK.
  3. Since the exposure data within the files is identical (shutter speed, aperture, ISO), Photomatix does not know which exposures you chose in your files. Therefore, you will be presented with a separate screen that will ask what exposure steps there are between the files. Look at the files and make sure that your normally exposed shot stays at 0, while the other files have the exposure values properly defined as seen below:

    Photomatix EV Spacing

    If any of the numbers are wrong, change them manually for each file.

  4. Click OK
  5. Now you will be presented with a new window. Set the settings as show below:

    Photomatix Generate HDR

    Since we are merging different exposures from the same image, there is no need to check “Align source images” and “Attempt to reduce ghosting artifacts”.

  6. Click OK
  7. Once all images are analyzed, an HDR image will be generated with the default settings. The first image will look very crappy, but it is OK, because you have not done any tone mapping on it yet. Click the “Tone Mapping” button on the left side of the image to open a new window.
  8. The default HDR image will look very average. That’s because you need to modify some settings for each individual HDR image. Here is how my Sand Dunes shot came out with default settings:

    Sand Dunes HDR #1

    Looks OK, but not the result I want yet. Let’s modify the settings a little bit.

  9. Here is what I used for the HDR version of Sand Dunes:

    Sand Dunes HDR #2

    Aha! Looks much better. Obviously, each image is different and you might need to change the settings to suit your taste.

  10. Click the “Process” button for Photomatix to generate the HDR image.
  11. Now let’s save the HDR file. Go to “File->Save As” or press CTRL+S to save the file.
  12. Open the image in Photoshop, remove the extra noise via noise reduction software, sharpen it up a little and you are good to go! You can also play with colors and curves, if needed.

Done!

Some people might argue that doing the above is silly, because we can recover a similar amount of data from a single RAW within Lightroom. While I certainly prefer to do the latter, HDR gives a totally different look and feel to a picture. Take a look at the below two images and compare:

HDR Image Adjusted with Grad Filter

The image on the left is an HDR image, while the image on the right is fixed in Lightroom with a Graduated Filter (-1 on the sky and +2 on the sand, +10 fill light). As you can see, the HDR version has a different feel to it when compared to a regular image. Let’s move on to HDR with multiple images – the way HDR images should be created.

4.2) HDR Photography Using Multiple Images

I personally create HDR from a single image just for fun – I almost never use the above technique for my work that I publish on our website. The reason is simple – I do not like HDR that much. Read why I say that below.

Let’s now talk about using multiple images to generate an HDR – the right way to do HDR. If we were able to get so much detail from a single image, think of how much detail we could recover from multiple images! Just three images shot at 2 EV (-2, 0 and +2) will work great for most cases, so if your camera can only support three brackets, set the exposure difference to two full stops. If your camera supports 5 brackets, set EV to a single stop, which will let you shoot -2, -1, 0, +1 and +2.

Let’s now generate an HDR image from these files.

  1. Once you have your images ready, load them into Photomatix Pro by clicking the “Generate HDR Image”. It is best to use the original RAW files, so either use those (CR2 for Canon and NEF for Nikon) or extract the DNG/TIFF files out of Lightroom in 16-bit mode. Photomatix can work with pretty much any image format, so you can feed those images directly into the application without the need to convert them.
  2. Loading RAW files brings up some more options – white balance and color profiles:

    Photomatix from RAW

    Choose the right WB and use ProPhoto RGB to preserve the most amount of colors. I recommend putting a check-mark in front of “Align source images” this time, because you are using multiple images and some of the images might not be perfectly aligned. If you have anything that is moving between your shots, also put a check-mark in front of “Attempt to reduce ghosting artifacts”.

  3. Click OK once done to start the process. Performance-wise, using multiple RAW images will take more resources and the process will be significantly longer, so be patient.
  4. When the first image comes up, click the “Tone Mapping” button to start working on the HDR image.
  5. Play with the settings and see what looks best to your taste. Here are my settings for the Sand Dunes shot:

    Sand Dunes HDR #3

    While the above settings are fine for this particular shot, they might not work for your image, so experiment a little.

  6. Once done, click the “Process” button to let Photomatix Pro generate the HDR image.
  7. Now let’s save the HDR file. Go to “File->Save As” or press CTRL+S to save the file.
  8. Although the amount of noise on the HDR image should be much less than what you would get from a single image, there still might be some noise present in the image. Open the image in Photoshop, remove the extra noise via noise reduction software, sharpen it up a little and you are good to go! You can also play with colors and curves, if needed.
  9. Here is how the final image came out:

    Multiple Image HDR

    Note that the shadows look a lot more natural now and there is no noise visible in the image. This is all due to the fact that we pulled plenty of detail from all images and we did not have to increase or decrease exposure, which is essentially what causes noise.

Done! Now you have a full HDR image with plenty of details throughout the frame.

5) HDR Use and Abuse

Thanks to photographers like Trey Ratcliff and various Flickr HDR groups, HDR Photography has been gaining more and more popularity on the Internet. While the majority of the people that use HDR are beginners and amateurs, there is an impressive number of pros out there that are now using HDR for their commercial landscape and architectural photography work. Using a DSLR is cheaper and more convenient than using a medium/large format system and when used properly, HDR can deliver outstanding results that rival the quality and dynamic range of expensive camera systems.

At the same time, HDR opened up new avenues for “HDR Surrealism”, where so many pictures are converted to ugly, cartoon-like images. At times, it almost feels like the Internet is being taken over by ugly HDR photographs. So, is HDR evil? Where is the fine line?

I personally stay in the middle – I think that HDR is a good technology, as long as it is used moderately and properly. HDR opens up new opportunities for photographers and lets us capture and see things differently. I really like HDR photographs that are done so well, that you would not be able to tell if it is an HDR image or not. I call it “realistic HDR” (which is a separate subject to discuss on its own) and I believe that every photographer should learn how to create realistic HDR images.

Sunrise

As for myself, I only use HDR when it is impossible to capture a scene otherwise – for sunrise and sunset shots and other difficult lighting conditions.

Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below.


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Avatar of Nasim Mansurov About Nasim Mansurov

is a professional photographer based out of Denver, Colorado. He is the author and founder of Photography Life, along with a number of other online resources. Read more about Nasim here.

Comments

  1. amazing technique that I never heard of… must see what I can do with photoshop one of these days!

    • Deana, you should give it a try and see how you like it :) Let me know if you hit any roadblocks during the process!

  2. 2
    ) kerry

    Hi Nasim

    Many thanks for this info as I had not been that familiar with HDR. I would be grateful if you could give me an answer to the following query:

    Near to where I live there is a hill with an Iron Age fort at the top. At certain times in the winter the moon rises directly on the edge of this hill, and as it is just as it comes up above the horizon it looks massive and absolutely stunning. It occurs around dusk. This is a link to a picture of the hill:

    http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/5qHsWDrXCu3QZ8ZoTqplLykfDm2LXJWGblc4IACDMyk?feat=directlink

    The moon comes up on the right hand edge of the hill. Would I need to use a technique such as HDR to get a decent shot of this? Because it happens so infrequently my chances to experiment are very limited, and due to mishaps of my own making (forgetting tripod plate for camera, etc) and weather conditions, I have so far not had the chance, but I would like to ensure that I know what I am doing for next winter. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Many thanks
    Kerry

    • You are most welcome Kerry!

      As I stated in my “how to photograph the moon” article, the moon never changes in size when it is near a horizon – it is just an illusion. You can easily test this by taking a picture of the moon near the horizon, then taking another picture when it is high up. The size of the moon will come out the same.

      You can certainly photograph the moon at dust using HDR, but a better technique would be to photograph the moon and the horizon separately, then blend the images together. The moon is typically like a light-bulb, emitting plenty of light in comparison to landscape. If the earth is lit up by the sun a little, the dynamic range might not be so huge and you might be able to capture both even without HDR. However, if the hill you are describing is dark in comparison with the moon and you want to properly expose both, it would be best to take one shot with the right exposure on the moon, then take another shot with the right exposure on the hill. You can then simply copy the moon from the second shot into the hill shot and you will be all set :)

      Hope this helps. Let me know if you have any other questions!

  3. I do a lot of real estate where the dynamic range can be 9 stops or more indoors from windows and lights. I use exposure fusion more than HDR (tufuse, enfuse, etc.). PhotoMatix now has an exposure fusion option too and it’s great for large batches, but I like tufuse better when I can work on one image at a time. Fusing is a very similar technique, but I feel the final output is not as saturated and looks more natural. HDR certainly has more “pop” for landscapes, but the saturated look is not very appropriate for real estate where you want color accuracy. It’s great where you can have some artistic license though!

    • Oh, and TuFuse can combine focus distances for increased depth of field too. Helicon Focus and CombineZM can do this too, but TuFuse can do focus stacking and exposure blending at the same time in one run, saving me time with real estate. Enfuse might do this too, I’m not as familiar with it. Your images must already be aligned first though.

      • Combining focus distances is very nice! I have read about this technique before and I even have some images shot at different apertures to try this out. It would be great to try the concept in landscape photography, where a subject is placed so close to the lens that using the minimum lens aperture still does not capture all the necessary details.

        By the way, would you be willing to put together a quick tutorial on doing HDR/fusion for architectural photography? You are an architectural photography guru and your knowledge would be extremely useful to our readers. The post will go under your name and point to your website as well, which should generate some good traffic for you in the long term. Don’t worry about it if I’m asking too much or if you do not have the time, I would totally understand it.

        I’m thinking about writing an article on stitching panoramas and if you do not mind, I will use some of the language from your previous comments about RRS pano setup for multi-row panoramas.

        Thank you!

        • Changing apertures usually does not result in a great focus stack, due to differences with diffraction I think. It works better to use aperture priority and just change focus. Here is an image that I used focus stacking on a couple weeks ago: http://www.aaronpriestphoto.com/Nature/2010-04-21/11967338_nHaDs#847979587_3Pr2h I didn’t have my tripod with me, it was very dark, and I couldn’t choose a small enough aperture for the depth I wanted. With the D700 and vertical grip, it shoots quite a few 14-bit NEFs at 8fps before the buffer fills. I just sprayed away and slowly rotated the focus ring, taking maybe 19 shots or so. Later I blended only the useful shots (I think 14?). The exposure latitude of this scene did not require HDR or exposure fusion, but for real estate I often do both focus and exposure fusion (with a tripod of course). In fact, I just got done editing these this morning: http://www.aaronpriestphoto.com/Architecture/2010-05-04/ Every image is made up of 30-45 images of different exposures and focusing distances, all at f/8 generally as that’s the sharpest aperture on my Sigma 10-20mm DX lens. Someday soon I hope to get the renowned 14-24mm f/2.8 and take advantage of the D700′s FX sensor. :-) Curiously, in DX mode, the D700 still looks better than the D70 even though it’s 1 less megapixel.

          I’d be happy to write a little tutorial. I’m already working on a couple about panoramics and focus/exposure fusing for my first few blog posts, which I haven’t turned on yet for the outside world. I thought I’d also share a few thoughts on the RRS gear and the Promote Controller that I’m still getting used to. Just haven’t had time finish it with the amount of work I’ve had this month, not that I’m complaining!

          • Aaron, wow, those are great image samples! Really loved both photographs, especially the indoor architectural shots in your gallery.

            Yes, the Nikon 14-24mm is a superb lens for your needs, given how wide and crisp it can take pictures. I will be posting a review of the 14-24mm very soon.

            Have you worked with WordPress before? If you have, I can give you a login/password to the site for posting the article, or you could provide sample images along with the text and I will do it for you :)

            Thank you so much for doing this, I’m looking forward to visiting your future blog!

    • Aaron, thank you so much for pointing out the exposure fusion method. I personally have not played much with image fusion for landscape photography, but I will certainly experiment more.

      Image fusion is a very interesting concept and I like the fact that the images do not have the HDR “feel” to them.

  4. 11
    ) Kim

    Hey there. Really like it. Never thought it’s done the way it is. Are you Uzbek by any chance? Find your blog very informative and useful for beginners and pros as well. Just few more questions, perhaps irrelevant : I bought Nikon d5000. Realized that it is a DX format which makes it is very inferior to FX. I am beginner and would like to know which lens i should get: One all around or few specialized? was thinking of 18-200mm vr II, but read lots of reviews claiming it is pretty much not worth the money. I am interested in pretty much everything, Landscapes, Sports, Night shots, indoor shoiting (Clubs)…and do i need a wide angle lens? if i get 18-200 will it replace wide angle and zoom lenses at once? thank you in advance

    • Kim, thank you for your feedback! Yes, I am Uzbek :)

      The Nikon D5000 is a great camera for a beginner, so don’t worry about FX. In terms of lenses, I am not a fan of the 18-200mm, because it was too poor in sharpness and performance for me. I would get several lenses for different needs and start with a wide-angle lens + portrait lens combo. Are you using the kit lens that came with your D5000? Is it wide-enough for your needs? If it is, then just get an additional Nikon 35mm f/1.8G or Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens for portraits and you will be all set.

  5. 13
    ) Kim

    yes, I am using 18-55mm kit. Which is a bit useless )). Very limited in capabilities. The point you mentioned regarding sharpness and quality made me cautious too, so now i am definitely not going to go for 18-200. I would surely like to get something wider than 18-55 but facing a budget constraint don’t even want to think of prices. 35mm is very affordable but i’d like to get 50mm. is it better? Any reasonably priced wide-agle lenses out there for me? perhaps i should start with used ones first?
    That’s really cool that you’re uzbek. i can speak it too ))). I was born in Tashkent but live in Australia at the moment. Nice to meet you Mansur.

    • 14
      ) Kim

      *ov Nasim. Missed that.

    • Nasim, do you think you might have got a bad copy of the 18-200mm, or maybe one that had been dropped and mis-aligned? Sometimes you just get an exceptionally good or crappy copy of something. My dad has the first gen 18-200mm and it is an incredible lens for the price, especially in the 18-80mm range (what you would probably use the most every day). It is better than my D70′s 18-70mm kit lens in almost every way. Sure, it’s not a fixed f/2.8 aperture, but stopped down to f/8 I see little improvement over the DX pro lenses until you get past 180mm, even then it takes an FX sensor and the venerable 70-200mm VRII to really make a noticeable difference until you go wider than f/8, at least for normal size prints in good light. This means it’s not a pro sports lens for your kids’ soccer game obviously, but it’s a whole lot more affordable too. The focus is slower of course, but nowhere near as sluggish as a non AF-S lens like my first gen 70-300mm. VRII on the newest 18-200mm version helps overcome the variable aperture in many circumstances letting you shoot sharper photos at lower shutter speeds, it does not give you more light or stop action like an f/2.8 pro zoom. My real point is, it’s about the perfect lens to go with a D5000 and someone just starting out, if you want a single “do-it-all” lens to walk around with and learn. Better the lens you have, than the one you don’t! Better to have a lens with good focal range and lots of creative ability, than to not shoot a telephoto at all for a couple years dreaming of better lenses!

      Of course, I’d save up for some good primes and things afterward as I grew, but the 18-200mm would help you learn your style and what you like to shoot. Looking back at images over a few months, do you tend to shoot wide angle, telephoto, or portrait? Then you can better determine what your next lens should be to match your tastes. I don’t know a cheaper way to cover 18-200mm than with that lens. You could get two lenses like the 70-300mm for telephoto (D5000 requires newer AF-S version) and the 10-24mm for wideangle (I have Sigma’s version without AF-S), but you still have a significant mid-range remaining to be covered by a couple primes or a mid-range zoom, and those two lenses together would cost nearly $600 more than the 18-200mm VRII. There’s also a smaller, cheaper 16-85mm that is worth considering, but typically not sharper at the telephoto end (I have not personally used this lens to say much). The more expensive pro zooms with fixed apertures are a sheer joy to use, but get heavy to carry around and don’t balance well on smaller camera bodies like the D5000. Primes however are cheaper, lighter, balance very well on smaller bodies, and have wider apertures than zooms anyway. Might make sense to start with a large-range consumer zoom, and then pick up a few pro primes along the way to cover what you like to shoot most.

      I think it’s Scott Bourne that says 90% of all lenses are sharper than 90% of photographers. :-P Much of the sharpness in a photo is technique, and it takes a while to get better than most lenses or DX format are capable of giving you, at least for 8×10 prints and smaller. Sure, it’s possible with time and practice, but I’d enjoy taking a lot of photos when just starting out and learning on a smaller budget, and then expanding your gear once you are comfortable and probably can get paid for it. If you are getting paid to shoot, I would get pro glass with fixed apertures and never look back of course. Or if you have a large, expendable income and don’t mind an expensive hobby. :-) Many photo review sites test lenses in conditions that just are not that common in the real world, such as flat brick walls with no other subject. Well, if you are getting paid to shoot architecture that might matter, but snapshots of the kids diving in the pool? Haha! Also, fixing distortion is very easy these days with software (PhotoShop CS5, Lightroom 3, or PTLens for example), rendering some of these “tests” moot. I’d take anything Ken Rockwell says with a grain of salt, but here are some real-life photo examples contrasting the sharpness of the 18-200mm (first gen) with a pro zoom: http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/18200/18200-sharpness.htm. Also, a review by Thom Hogan: http://www.bythom.com/18200lens.htm. Another by Bjørn Rørslett: http://www.naturfotograf.com/index2.html.

      At any rate, I have used most of these lenses for some time. My 18-70mm was my walk-about lens for 5yrs and I was never disappointed with it. It always delivered beautiful colors, great contrast, and exceptionally sharp photos. On my D70 (which doesn’t look great over ISO 800), it did not give me a lot of light to work with though, compared to an f/1.4 or f/1.8 prime, so I’d swap out for a prime at night and zoom with my feet. My 70-300mm (first gen, non VR, no AF-S) I have never been real happy with in comparison, though for a $150 lens it has taken many great photos, and so I had to keep reminding myself that it was the best $150 lens I’d ever shot. My Dad got an 18-200mm (first gen) to replace his 18-55mm at my recommendation, and both of us have used that for 4yrs on his D50 and my D70. He was on a long waiting list to get it and until the new VRII model was announced, he could have sold it for more than he paid for it. :-P I found no real-world scenario where it did not improve on my 18-70mm and 70-300mm combination. In fact, I was about sell both my zooms and buy the VRII version of the 18-200mm when I started getting enough real estate work to justify upgrading to an FX sensor for better wide-angle and low-light performance. So I bought a 24-70mm f/2.8 pro zoom instead for my normal lens on a D700 this spring and have never looked back. That lens is crazy sharp, and it took an FX sensor to really show what it is capable of. It works great on the D70 too as a portrait lens, but doesn’t balance quite right on such a light body. Anyway, those are my experiences. I have not done as much with the pro DX lenses to share any experience there. If you shoot a lot in the 200mm+ range you will not be really happy with anything under $1300-1400 though. The 300mm f/4 prime is about the cheapest great telephoto, and the older 180 f/2.8 and 80-200mm f/2.8 are not AF-S lenses and thus cannot be autofocused on the D5000 body. I’d recommend renting a lens for a week to try it out first. There are a few good websites that do this quite affordably. I’ve rented lenses before for a paid event to get pro glass that I couldn’t really justify owning year round (sigh!!!).

      • Aaron, I have tried three different versions of the 18-200mm. I bought the first one for myself (used it for 3 years), then recommended it to a friend (he was not very happy with it either and I played with his sample before he sold it) and then borrowed and tested another sample. What can I say – I agree with Bjørn Rørslett’s review. If someone asks me “I want to buy just one lens and never want to change lenses”, I would certainly recommend the 18-200mm to that person. It is also a good choice for overseas travel, where carrying more than one lens is inconvenient or unsafe.

        Here is my short overview of the 18-200mm lens:
        It performs quite well on the wide side, although there is some heavy CA in the corners. Center sharpness is OK between 18-105mm and it gets worse towards the edges. At 105mm+, sharpness significantly decreases and the lens suffers from poor autofocus performance on the telephoto end. Images come out soft, contrast also suffers a little.

        In terms of focal length, I feel that 200mm is not really sufficient for most situations (the 18-200mm is not a true 200mm lens and the focal length varies depending on the subject distance – same issue as in the new 70-200mm), unless you are shooting relatively close subjects. The 105-200mm focal length is normally good for portraits on lenses like 70-200mm, but not on this lens, due to poor bokeh – I do not see much use of telephoto on it. So, if I am not going to use it for 105mm+, why pay the extra $? I would rather get the cheap plastic 18-55mm or 18-105mm to cover the wide end and the 70-300mm to cover telephoto. Even the original non-VR version of the 70-300mm is going to be sharper than the 18-200mm, plus it will give another 100mm of true, useful focal length.

        I do agree with what you have said about lenses being sharper than photographers – it is unfortunately true in most cases :)

        Again, this is just my opinion and I know that many photographers would certainly disagree with me :) But after recommending this lens to a friend who was not happy with it, I now refrain from recommending it to others, except for cases when only a single lens is desired.

        • It’s certainly very possible that my Dad just happened to get a very good copy of the 18-200mm. CA and distortion is easily corrected these days in software (mostly). Sharpness can vary slightly from lens to lens, especially on the consumer models. It may also depend what you are comparing it to. In the 18-105mm range it beats the 18-70mm and 16-85mm (it’s closest competitors), but it’s nothing like the 300mm f/4 on the telephoto end (at least hand held). It’s primary function is not designed to replace a telephoto, but it’s nice to have the range when you need it in a pinch for a cheap(er) walk-about lens. I have found my Dad’s to be both sharper and faster at 100-200mm than my 70-300mm (non AF-S), so we have had opposite experiences there. I don’t find that surprising though. Really depends on subjects and shooting style. I agree the bokeh is not great (only 7 blades), but the 70-300mm is not either until at least 180mm, and even then not very impressive. Still, Bjørn rates it at a 4- out of 5 and not a 2 or 3. Now that I’m spoiled by my 24-70mm f/2.8, I would probably say it’s a solid 3+. Still a great single lens for a beginner on a smaller camera body. All depends on subjects, technique, and expectations. That’s why it’s art right?! :-)

          • Aaron, yes, I am very spoiled by the 24-70mm and prime lenses, so my comparison of the 18-200mm is probably not fare, LOL :) Well, I will be receiving 6 new lenses to test within the next 2 weeks and another 18-200mm will be on its way for some testing. Want to compare the 18-200mm to the 18-105mm, 18-55mm, 16-85mm and some other lenses…

            Cheaper Nikon lenses generally do have more defects compared to pro-level lenses, so I hope I get good samples to test :)

            It is very surprising to see that the 18-200mm was sharper than the 70-300mm, because I remember very clearly that anything above 105mm was softer in comparison. But maybe the AF-S is sharper… I do have the 70-300mm, so I will certainly do another test to see, for both short and long ranges.

            And you are right, these lens tests are relatively useless, because everyone has a different technique and style when it comes to using gear. I’m a sharpness freak and many pro-level photographers don’t even bother looking at their images at 100%, because slightly soft images are quite acceptable for them. When I see a blurry or soft image, it directly goes to my trashcan :D

    • Kim, the Nikon 50mm f/1.4G is very good for portraits, certainly better than the 35mm f/1.8G. Don’t buy the f/1.4D or f/1.8D versions, because autofocus will not work on your D5000. But 50mm might feel a little too long for other types of photography. Try to set your lens to 50mm and shoot with it without changing the focal length – does it feel too long?

      If you shoot portraits, the 50mm is better than the 35mm. For general photography, the 35mm might be more useful due to focal length.

      • I would LOVE to see a newer AF-S design of the 85mm f/1.4D for portraits (maybe with VR?).

        • 20
          ) Kim

          Thank you Aaron for your thorough reply. I am so tired coz i spent 6 hours researching on the above mentioned lenses. To my surprise, i’ve gotten to conclusion where the winner here is nikon 16-85mm. Since i really want sharp and close-to-perfect pics i cut the zoom feature off instead getting something wider. All the reviews state that 16-85mm is sharper. To get the zoom with great quality i think i ll need some better lens on that range. Since i am beginner i reckon 16-85mm would be perfect for me to practice for a year or so. Plus it’s reasonably priced. I’d like to hear from Nasim too on this one. Thank you very much

          • Hey Kim, have you looked into the 17-55mm f/2.8 DX lens? If you want sharpness and close to perfection I think you won’t find a better “normal” zoom lens for a DX sensor for that focal range. It costs more, but if you are patient you can find them used for a good deal (~$1000) as people jump on the FX bandwagon and sell them. Of course, a couple primes would be better, but likely cost more, depending on focal lengths. I’ve not used this lens, just read good things about it. Have you Nasim?
            http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/1755.htm
            http://www.bythom.com/1755lens.htm

            I’ve not read all reviews of the 16-85mm, but I’ve read several that didn’t really rate it much higher than the 18-55mm or 18-200mm for it’s range. Might want to rent it first if you can, maybe rent both this and the 17-55mm f/2.8 and see what you think before plinking down much dough. http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/16-85mm-vs-18-200mm.htm

          • Kim,

            I have not had a chance to test the 16-85mm, so I cannot really say that it is better. Hopefully I will do that within the next few weeks.

            I would do as Aaron recommended – rent one, try it out and see if you like it or not. The Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 DX is excellent, so if you can find it used for cheap, it might be an ideal lens for your needs. I personally wouldn’t buy it new though, since it is a hefty investment for a DX sensor. Sharpness-wise, it is the sharpest Nikon DX normal zoom lens. Another lens you could take a look at, is the Nikon 16-35mm f/4.0 VR that was recently released – it is super sharp, will work on both DX and FX sensors and has VR for low-light situations. The only downside, is the longer focal length when compared to the 16-85mm…

  6. 24
    ) George Gutierrez

    Once again a great article. I love that you give us the place to start from. i.e. what camera settings to try first. I appreciate it. Thanks once again.

    George

    • George, you are most welcome and thank you for your feedback@

  7. Hi and thanks for your introdution to HDR, I like how you presented the tutorial and I want to go on a photo shoot to experiment. I have been using a DSLR for years, now I need some new software to make it happen. I will further explore your site for tips. Thanks fh

    • You are most welcome Frances! Give it a try, you might like HDR!

  8. 28
    ) sain

    Dear Nasim,

    Is it possible for me to shoot HDR using D3100 ?
    Is breckting essential to shoot HDR ?

    Thanks

    • Sain, of course you can shoot HDR using D3100! You don’t need a bracketing feature – all you need to do is shoot in Manual mode at different shutter speeds.

      • 30
        ) sain

        Big Relief ! Thanks a lot :)

  9. 31
    ) Rajan

    Hi Nasim,

    Great walk through of the entire process!

    I’ve been doing HDR for the past year and am running into the same problem again and again – my HDR images come out noisy, so in order to reduce the noise I open up the saved HDR file in lightroom 3 and then reduce the noise, but this leaves my image looking very soft and almost blurry. I’m not sure how to get clean crisp images using HDR. OR The picture comes out looking soft without any corrections (and yes I always use a tripod!) Could you offer any advice/help?

    Thanks!

    • Rajan, make sure that you shoot in RAW and that your exposures are consistent and have good shadow detail. Noise in HDRs often comes up because of exposure issues – just brighten up your exposures a little more and you should have less noise.

  10. 33
    ) Jules Baldevarona

    Hi Nasim! How are you? Very informative blog. I am buying my first SLR, and I don’t want to get disappointed (just like my first digital compact camera before). I love taking pictures especially still and portrait. I read about Nikon D3100. Can you suggest one if D3100 is not for me, and what suggested lens to buy with it? Buying an SLR for me is like marrying a man, and I despise divorce. I’ll be looking forward to you response. :D

    Regards.

    Julie

  11. Hi Nasim,

    Excellent work! The way HDR techniques were explained was just great. I use a Nikon D90 camera for my shoots. Never used HDR software before… Thanks for the informative writing.

    Regards,
    Sheen

  12. hi Nasim..,
    excellent work . thanx..

  13. 36
    ) motaz

    Hi Nasim
    Thank you very much for the article i guess it will help alot , but i want to ask you a question i saw HDR photos for people and animals ! and what i know is that we cant take HDR photos for moving subjects ! so can you tell me how could we do that , how to shoot a moving subjects and convert it to HDR
    thanks
    Motaz

  14. 37
    ) Carl

    Thanks for sharing Sir Nasim, you did a great job

  15. 38
    ) vivek

    Hi Nasim,

    I am trying shooting HRD of clouds with my Nikon D3100, but due to absence of AEB, the shooting is not so fast (as I have to change the EV manually) and this results in ghosting due to movement of clouds. Any suggestions would be of great help,

    Thanks
    Vivek

    • Without AEB, I’d say you are stuck doing it manually as you are, doing a single file HDR, or saving out different exposures (+2, +1, 0, -1, -2 EV) from your RAW file and using those in an HDR program. I often do the latter with moving objects such as windmills and you’d be surprised how good a result it can get. Obviously true HDR with real exposures will result in more dynamic range, but if your exposure is really good to begin with, you can still get quite a bit of data out of a single RAW file.

      You might be able to shoot a little faster in manual exposure mode if you can get the command dial to control the shutter time. Just spin the dial a notch, take a picture, spin the dial, take a picture, etc., especially if you have a cheap infrared remote control in your left hand. My D70 could only do 3 exposures with AEB, and I often wanted more, so I did it manually like this. However it also had two command dials and the rear thumb dial controlled the shutter, and I’m not familiar with the D3100 controls.

      • Oh, another option (though costly) is a Promote Control. I eventually added one to my D70 and still use it with my D700 when I want more control than the camera offers.

      • Thanks for helping out Aaron!

        • 63
          ) Ramesh Chandra

          Thanks for helping out Aaron

  16. 42
    ) vivek

    Thanks Aaron for the tips!

  17. 43
    ) Mark Borchers

    Hello Nasim,
    I have a question about the bracketing technique for HDR. Suppose you are going to do a 3-image bracket and you are SURE that -1.3, 0 and +1.3 will give you perfect exposures of the darkest and brightest parts of your scene. I know that these values are well within the dynamic range of the camera, but still what we are looking for is perfect exposure of all parts of the scene. I’m wondering if these settings rather than the usual +/- 2.0 would render a more natural looking HDR image in the end, rather than the surreal look you sometimes get? I plan to experiment with this but haven’t had the opportunity yet. Is there any downside to trying to narrow down the exposure range more accurately?

    Thanks,
    Mark

  18. 44
    ) andy

    Hello.I do have a question. I using Photomatix pro to modifily my photo. But all the photo after HDR will become not clear and doesn’t look real.it is not like your photos sample.

  19. 45
    ) Sreeraj Raveendran

    I just heard of HDR photography few minutes before reading this article. I am very much satisfied reading this article. Thnks Soo much :)

  20. 46
    ) celeste M.

    I appreciate so much how you have shared this knowledge with others, including me. I found this article exttremely helpful. I believe what you said about using this technique in a realistic way, to enhance, and not overpower the subject matter. I will be following all your advice. Thanks so much!!!

  21. Hi Nasim-

    I am on my way to Alaska to photograph the Iditarod dog sled race and then off to capture more landscapes. I only have room for one camera because of all the lenses and other things I need. I am trying to decide whether to take my Nikon d3s or the d3x.

    This time of year Alaska does not have a lot of natural light to shoot in so the d3s with a higher ISO would be helpful. However I love the higher pixel count of the d3x. All of my work is enlarged, matted and framed for sale.

    I love both cameras but which one would you think would work best in this situation. Thanks for your help

    jack mitchell

    • Jack, take your Nikon D3s instead of the D3x. You will need good low-light performance at this time of the year (it gets dark very quickly), plus higher FPS won’t hurt for dog sled race photography…

  22. 49
    ) PABLO NIETO

    REALLY INTERESTING, BUT PLEASE CAN YOU ADVICE WHAT CAMERA IS BETTER
    D3100 OR D5000.
    THANKS FOR YOUR HELP.

  23. 50
    ) richard

    hi nasim,
    i’ve been “toying” with hdr for the past few yrs. my work flow has been, camera,>bridge> photomatix>
    cs4> nik fliter. i’ve just recently downloaded lr4. I’m curious as to where lr 4 fits in. i know its a personal choice but any suggestions as to how best to benefit or do i even need to use lr4 at all.

    thanx,!!

    richard

  24. 51
    ) Kerri

    Hello

    I am new to Photomatix Pro 4.1 and I am trying to learn how to use it for real estate photography. I have spent countless hours trying to figure out a good preset for interiors. I need help! Would you mind sharing your “formula” so I could use it for my own preset(s). Thank you in advance.

  25. 52
    ) Vindy

    Hi, thank you for explaining in simple and effective words just like your photographs.

    In my Sony Alpha 200 there is an inbult option called HDR-standard and HDR-dynamic. Its in standard mode by default. Will this affect shooting when HDR is not required?

    Thank You

    Vindy

  26. 53
    ) shashikant dabade

    R/sir, whether Nikkor 50mm AF-S F/1.8G can be used for all general photography purpose on Nikon D-7000. With Nikon D7000 bare body, I am intending to purchase this 50 mm f/1.8G & Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED (4.3x) in place o0f kit lens. Kindly guide as to whether these lens will be perfect for Portrait/wildlife/action/Landscape photography. I shall be very much obliged for your kind guidance.

  27. 54
    ) Adam

    Hi Nasim

    Thank you for the great tips! I have just got my first DSLR style camera (Sony Nex 5) and I want to get into HDR photograhpy. I agree with most of what you say regarding taking it too far but I still want to be able to do the unrealistic HDR style. I think it is part of the learning process that I am and on and you have completed. I imagine that I will end up similar to yourself after the novelty has warn off!

    Do you have any other tips or ideas for great photography for people like myself i.e. black and white styles etc that you could suggest trying?

    Many Thanks

    Adam

  28. 55
    ) abat

    a very useful tip i ever seen.
    thank you for all

  29. 56
    ) mevine dolce

    thanks it was very useful

  30. 57
    ) Gamal

    Hello Nasim,

    Thank you for this HDR tutorial, you’ve opened my eyes on a subject that I’ve never dared to think about before.

    I shoot with Nikon D90 and leave “Active D-Lighting -Auto” on all the time. When I do Bracketing (3 brackets) do you recommend to turn it off?

    Thank you

    Gamal

  31. 58
    ) Jacqueline

    Hi there,
    I just came across your blog and its very interesting and informative. Just wondering whether as a amateur could I achieve this technique on a Nikon D90?

    • 61
      ) Gamal

      Hi Jacqueline,
      Yes you can do that on Nikon D90 which support 3 brackets, remember to set your camera to shoot in Raw, I ‘ve bought Photomatix with approx. 70% student discount, and it works great.

      you can download a trial version of Photomatix for unlimited time, but all your pictures will have Photomatix watermark on them, play with it before you buy.

      Sure you will need a noise reduction program like Nik Dfine 2, check Nik Collection on line which include six different very important modules like HDR and Silver Efex Pro 2 which turn pictures into black and white, all of these for just $150 but no student discount.

  32. 59
    ) Kristhian

    I was in Hawaii last year and tried to photograph an amazing sunset with no success. I wish I had known about this technique. Unfortunately I did not shoot in RAW :( Thanks for all the great info Nasim.

  33. 60
    ) Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead

    Hello Nasim – your article is refreshing and easy to understand. I am purchasing Photomatix this week after the trial download (4.2.6, 64-bit).
    Warm regards from Mauritius

  34. 62
    ) Peter Flaccus

    Hello Nasim
    I thank you for your article, it is easy to understand and very eye opening. I am currently studying architecture and have encountered that some “HDR users” makes a photo, look like a rendering from a 3D program, through HDR. I have searched the web, without any luck and was hoping you could guide me in the right direction.

    Thanks for now
    Peter

  35. 64
    ) Latisha

    Hello, I was wondering is there any way I can take an HRD picture with a nikon Coolpix P80?

  36. 65
    ) Chris C

    Nasim! Thank you very much for the wealth of information you provide on your site!

    I just have a question on the first photo/scenario of this article. I am just starting to get deep into landscape photog and learning about proper techniques and gear choice. You start off the article by saying all you had for that day was your camera and your tripod. If you had an NDgrad filter with you – could you have achieved proper exposure of the mountains and sunset in one shot and not had to rely on HDR techniques? What are your thoughts on NDgrad+single shot vs. HDR for capturing landscapes in scenarios like your first in this article? Any filters you suggest?

    THANKS VERY MUCH!

    Chris

  37. 66
    ) Pedro R Werner

    Hello Nasim!
    I was very impressed by the way you make a complicated issue appear so simple, your ability to teach and for your openness and willingness to help.
    I have a special interest in the topic “combining different pictures of the same subject,” which brings me to the question I would like to ask.
    I am a veterinary pathologist and frequently take photomicrographs of microscopy tissue samples. A tissue sample when seen trough the microscope (the field of vision) is very flat, but it has some depth as well. That is, in spite of the tissue section being very thin (4-5 microns) the structures in the tissue are located on different planes (depths). Since the focus and the focusing mechanism in a microscope are VERY precise, in order to examine a tissue sample you have to keep adjusting the focus knob on the microscope up and down to be able to appreciate all the elements present in the field you are looking at.
    A common problem with photomicrographs is that many times you try to photograph a field in a microscopy slide, lets say a cellular structure, there are others structures in the same field which you would like to appear in the same photograph, but they appear out of focus or even are not seen because they are located on a different plane, or depth. You cannot use a small aperture in the camera because many artifacts on the slide become too evident, or the contrast become exaggerated, which may ruin your picture.
    That said, my question is: Is it possible to combine two or more pictures taken from the same field, but focused in different planes, in such a manner that structures located in different planes (depths) would appear all and in focus in the final picture?
    I am sorry for the lengthy explanation before asking the question, and I apologize if I said too much, but to me this topic is kind of “mysterious”.

    Thank you very much

    PRWerner

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