Beginning photographers ask me all the time about tips for shooting better HDR photos. While, I’m far from an expert, I’ve definitely learned a thing or two when it comes to shooting HDR photos and processing them.
This article assumes you generally know a little bit about what HDR is and the basic process behind composing images. I use Photomatix and Photoshop in my post processing, so this post will mention both of those.
And now without further ado:
Tips While Shooting
1) Use a tripod (duh). HDR 101: use a tripod. I’ll admit it, I don’t always do this, and my photos often suffer because of it. Unless you are shooting with something that can shoot in the 7-9 fps range, you’re hands aren’t steady enough to shoot 3 or more consecutive photos without movement. I shoot with a Nikon D5000 which shoots at 4 fps, not quite there. If you don’t have a tripod with you see tip #2.
2) Practice composing HDR shots from 1 RAW image. When I started out (ok and to this day), many times when I felt like I’m doing everything right, something moves or one component is off, and I end up with blurry photos. By shooting one RAW photograph and then making the brackets after the fact in Photoshop, you eliminate the possibility of camera shake or movement in the scene. This is a great way to practice your post processing skills, as it takes out one of the greatest challenges in HDR.
Along with this, always shoot in RAW. If for whatever reason your brackets don’t turn out, you can always grab the best one and create them from that one image. Not to mention the flexibility RAW gives you is astounding.
3) Turn off image stabilization and auto focus. This holds true anytime you are shooting on a tripod. In theory you shouldn’t need the stabilization and I’ve had a lot of photos be ruined because of the autofocus resetting. Make sure everything is perfectly set up and then remove as many moving parts as you can – turning these two things off is a great way to do this.
4) Use a remote trigger. Along with tip #3, using a remote shutter is one of the best ways to eliminate the potential for camera shake. I try and use a remote shutter at all times, and the good news is that they’re cheap. If you don’t have one you can pick one up for less than 20 bucks.
5) Have an end goal. When composing a scene think about what you want the final result to look like – don’t just shoot and hope for the best. Do you want those clouds to be dramatic? Are you trying to bring out all of the details of a scene? Shoot with those things in mind and you’ll be much more likely to get the brackets you’ll need when heading into post. See the bridge photo to the right. I knew I wanted this to be a dramatic and stormy scene. So I shot and edited with this image in my mind the entire time. It forced me to stick with a neutral color palate and emphasize the clouds as much as possible without overdoing it.
Tips for Post Processing
6) Try both methods of aligning source images in Photomatix. So many times I think I have a great shot, and once it gets into Photomatix I find that something just doesn’t quite line up right. Bummer. Until I started trying both the “matching features” and “correcting horizontal and vertical shifts” options . If you try one and it doesn’t work, give the other one a shot, you may be surprised at the results.
7) (Almost) Always leave light smoothing at “very high”. Just because you can make other worldly, surreal photos doesn’t mean you should. Almost everyone I know who has begun shooting HDR has leaned more towards those types of photos in the beginning. See this HDR photo of Manila which I thought was AWESOME at the time. By leaving the light smoothing set to very high in Photomatix and then working around it, you’ll have a better shot at creating more realistic, higher quality images.
I’d like to note that there are obviously exceptions to this rule, but if you’re a beginner looking to make better photographs, this is an excellent rule to follow.
8) Touch up in Photoshop. Photomatix is great for a lot of things, but when it comes to getting your colors and levels just right, its pales in comparison to the tools Photoshop provides. I also highly recommend Imagenomic’s Noiseware Professional plugin – the best I’ve found for reducing noise in HDR (or any) images.
Not to mention Photoshop is a must if you get into more advanced HDR techniques like layer masking.
9) Tone down the vibrance, contrast and saturation. Another early mistake by me is ALWAYS going for the over saturated, ‘vibrant photos”. Those were always my 3 favorite sliders. But the reality is, sometimes the mood just doesn’t call for that. In many cases, some of the coolest photos are the just the opposite, very neutral and dark. Don’t fall into the routine of doing the exact same thing with every photo.
10) Convert RAW to jpeg in Photoshop first. For the first month of my HDR shooting I was getting these ugly pink photos and I didn’t know why. Turns out it was an issue with Photomatix handling the NEF files from my Nikon D5000. It doesn’t do this with all file types or cameras, but now I make it a point to convert all my files in Photoshop beforehand to ensure everything is going to look good. If you’re getting pink hued photos, definitely give this a shot.
Well there you have it, ten ways to improve your HDR photography if you’re just getting started (or even if you aren’t). As always the best way to improve your photography is to actually do it. Always bring your camera and tripod, even if it’s a pain in the ass. You’ll be glad you did!