Archive for August 13th, 2008

Mastering HDR Photography, by Michael Freeman

August 13, 2008

A lot of people love HDR photography. “HDR” stands for High Dynamic Range. Dynamic range refers to the range of light that cameras can capture. (Comparatively, there are also dynamic ranges for sound, that audio equipment can reproduce, or that the human ear can hear.)

Basically, when your camera captures a scene, it will capture one version of that scene. Generally, your camera will either capture the objects shown in low light and medium light, but not bright light, or it will capture objects shown in bright light and medium light, but not low light.

You can see an example of this if you set your camera to “spot metering” and take two photos indoors on a sunny day, towards a window with light coming through it, but shoot from about 15 to 20 feet away from that window. For the first photo, aim your camera directly at the window, allow the camera to determine the correct exposure by “metering” off the light coming through the window, and press the shutter button.

Next, from the same position, do the same thing, except this time, aim your camera to the left or right of the window, toward a wall, bookcase, or something else next to the window, and press the shutter button. This time, the camera will determine the correct exposure from the light hitting the wall or bookcase, not the bright light coming through the window.

When you examine these two photos, in the first one, you’ll be able to see objects outside the window, such as trees, cars, or whatever is outside your window. In this photo, it’ll be hard to distinguish objects that are inside the room, which is darker than the light outside. In the second photo, you’ll see the opposite: you’ll be able to distinguish everything inside the room, but you won’t be able to see what’s outside the window; you’ll only see a very bright light where the window is.

These are examples of the limited dynamic range that cameras are able to capture. They capture either the low, dark end of the scale, which is indoors in this example, or the high, bright end of the scale, which is the outdoors in this example.

HDR photography software basically allows you to take both of those photos and combine them into one photo. The result would be a photo that shows the entire range of light in that scene, which would more accurately represent what the human eye can see. Usually, HDR photos are comprised of at least three photos, with each photo capturing a different range of light in the scene.

The four photos shown on the book cover above illustrate this example perfectly. On the left, you see the three small photos, with the top one capturing more of the indoor light, and showing the bright window light coming through as I described above. The bottom photo mainly shows only what’s outside in the window, also as I described above. The large photo on the book cover shows the result of combining all three photos together.

Personally, to be honest with you, I’m not a huge fan of a lot of HDR photos that you can find online. Most of them look too processed, too manipulated, too artificial, and too much like paintings to me. I’ve seen a few that look really good, and I suspect that the photographer who took them has a lot of experience with HDR photography and really knew what he was doing. But, just because I don’t like a lot of the HDR photos out there, doesn’t mean that you won’t like them.

I believe many people enjoy shooting HDR photos because of the fantasy or art look it can provide. Or, their HDR photo is a better representation of what they want or expected the scene to be when they shot it, such as the example I described above. Or, they just like playing with their photos. All of those reasons are perfectly valid.

If you’re interested in learning more about HDR photography, be sure to check out best-selling author and renowned photographer Michael Freeman’s Mastering HDR Photography book, which shows photographers how to use this powerful technology. Michael Freeman gives you a very quick conceptual look at HDR photography, and then quickly dives into the details and discusses specific software packages that you should use to process your HDR photos. You can read reviews of the book and purchase it on

What do you think of HDR photography? Have you tried it yourself, is it something you’re going to try, or are you not interested in it? Please let me know in the comments.

Mastering HDR Photography is published by my favorite book publisher, Amphoto Books, which also publishes my favorite photography book, Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson, which I strongly recommend, even for beginners. Understanding Exposure is listed as a prize each month for the Photobird Photo Contest, but the winners actually get to choose a book. Winners may choose one of the books listed on the page at ; click the book covers and if “Amphoto” is listed under the ISBN number at the top, then the book is available as a prize. Mastering HDR Photography is also available to the winners as a prize each month. Enter the contest for your chance to win Mastering HDR Photography!

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