HDR – Is it an essential tool in Travel Photography?
Have you ever wanted to capture that perfect scene when travelling only to find your skies are washed out or your foreground is in dark shadows?. Many people we meet simply want to take natural-looking images that closely represents what they see on their travels. In high contrast scenes, your eyes will reveal shadows and at the same time see blue skies. However, if you take a photo of the same scene, your shadows will be dark and your skies white.
This is where HDR photography becomes an indispensable tool for the travelling photographer. Unfortunately, the camera sensor simply cannot capture the full spectrum of light and shadow in one exposure. This is especially the case for those that have APS-C or Micro Four Thirds sensor cameras. Most Full-Frame sensor cameras now have a very good dynamic range and the need for bracketing images is usually reserved for extreme dynamic range scenarios. We currently use a Sony A7Riii, which is a 42mp full-frame sensor camera with an extremely good dynamic range and therefore rarely bracket our images anymore unless in extreme cases.
The only way that you can capture these scenes is by taking bracketed images and blending them in software. There are 2 options for blending the images-
- Luminosity Blending – this is a huge learning curve and requires Photoshop and additional editing although the results are great if you are prepared to invest the time. Visit Shutter Evolve for some great info on this process.
- HDR software – such as Skylum Aurora HDR which creates fantastic images in moments. This has now been replaced by Skylum Luminar Neo. You can no longer purchase Aurora but if you already own it you can get a special price to upgrade to Neo. Other great software to merge HDR images includes Photomatix, ON1 HDR and Lightroom, just to mention a few.
So what is HDR photography exactly? The actual initials stand for High Dynamic Range but simply put it refers to the combination of more than 1 image with varying exposures depending on the light that you are shooting in. Generally speaking, most HDR images are created with a bracket set of 3 exposures (eg. -2, 0, +2 OR 2 stops underexposed (-2), normal exposure (0), 2 stops overexposed (+2)). These 3 exposures will cover 95% of your HDR requirements, however, in extreme situations where contrast is very high such as a sunset you may find that you may need another shot or two underexposed to include in the bracket set.
We have found over the years that in most cases the +2 exposure is too light and we prefer to do a bracket set of (-3,-1, +1). This also allows us to get darker skies and also helps with handholding shots. In Aperture Priority you control this by changing your bracket preset in-camera or leave it as -2, 0, +2 and dial in -1 with your Exposure Compensation button (+/-).
Here’s a typical scene in Venice, Italy where we would use the HDR technique. The first image is how the camera perceives Normal exposure. The sky is nice but all the detail is lost in the foreground. As this is shot in RAW, we would still be able to get a half-decent image by lightening our foreground in Lightroom however if you are shooting JPG then there is very little latitude to lighten these shadows without introducing artefacts such as noise (grain). Also, notice on the left hand we have 2 people walking, this movement is easily controlled in Skylum Aurora HDR.
Normal Exposure (0)
This is how the camera would have exposed a single shot
Underexposed by 2 stops to darken the highlights
Overexposed by 2 stops to lighten the shadows
Q. So, how do I take an HDR image?
A. Easy, however, there are some very important rules to follow to achieve the best results.
- If possible always try to use a tripod for best results, however, hand-holding HDR shots is not a problem these days as the software is great at aligning your image
- Always shoot in Aperture Priority mode (A, Av) as your aperture MUST remain the same for all the shots. If using a tripod you can also use Manual and adjust the exposure manually, however, this is slower and it is best to try and get all the exposures as quick as possible
- Always try to shoot at a low ISO to reduce noise (grain) in your images which tend to get magnified when shooting at higher ISO settings. Avoid using Auto ISO as your camera may select a high ISO setting in low light.
- If shooting RAW files then AWB (Auto White Balance) is fine as you can easily adjust your White Balance to be consistent with all the files. However, if shooting JPG files then we would suggest you manually set White Balance based on the lighting condition (eg. Sunny, Shade, Cloudy etc)
- Set your cameras bracketing to 3 shots (with 2 stop increments) giving you a -2, 0, +2 bracket set. Check your camera manual to see what bracketing options you have. As mentioned above, if you do not want a 2 stop overexposed shot simply set your Exposure Compensation (usually a +/- symbol) setting to -1 if shooting in A/Av mode. This will then result in 3 shots (-3, -1, +1). When shooting in A/Av mode the Exposure Compensation will only affect your shutter speed.
- Set your cameras Drive Mode to Ch (Continuous High). This will ensure that the 3 images are taken in quick succession. If your camera allows you to set Custom Buttons on the camera then set up points 4 & 5 as a preset for easy access.
- One of the biggest factors when hand-holding the camera for HDR images is ensuring that your base exposure allows for the overexposed shot. For example, if the light is a little low and your base exposure is 1/60th second which is generally fine to handhold a single shot then your 2 stops overexposure (+2) in your bracket set will be 1/15th sec. This will almost always result in this image being unsharp. In this example, the options are to use a tripod or increase your ISO. By increasing your ISO from 100 to 400 you will get a base exposure of about 1/200th which will allow you to handhold the overexposed shot.
Q. My camera has an HDR setting. Why should I take 3 shots when my camera will give me an HDR image in a single shot?
A. Great question. Glad you asked 🙂
Simply put, we have not seen one camera yet that has this feature that can produce as good an image as using the technique above. Some cameras give you a merged image only, if this is the case we would suggest you do not use it. If your camera gives you a merged image and keeps your 3 files as well then it may be worth trying this feature. If you are not happy with the in-camera merge then at least you will have the 3 files to process in the software.
Q. How do you capture HDR images when there is movement in the scene?
A. Don’t worry about movement in your shots.
Other factors to consider when shooting HDR images –
Obviously, if you are shooting 3 bracket shots in RAW file format it is going to take up more space on your memory card and your computer. If you are not carrying a backup device with you such as a laptop or external hard drive then make sure you take plenty of memory cards with you.
Travel Photography opens all sorts of challenges for photographers as you are confronted with countless lighting situations that simply cannot be captured in a single exposure and the use of filters may be impractical. To us, HDR Photography is an indispensable tool in capturing well-balanced images in difficult lighting situations. Many, if not all, Real Estate photographers will also use HDR techniques as a single image of an interior which includes bright highlights from windows cannot be exposed correctly.
Landscape photographers do not generally like HDR photos as they would prefer to balance their exposures by using Graduated ND filters and this works perfectly when you are shooting scenes that require a tripod and has some sort of horizon. This also requires expensive filters and filter holders which is not practical when shooting under varying lighting conditions that are encountered in Travel Photography. However, having said that, when we take landscape images at sunrise or sunset this is our preferred method as you can usually capture all the dynamic range in one exposure.
We have been shooting and using HDR software since about 2010. The best software on the market for many years was Photomatix Pro which yielded great results, however, we now use Skylum Aurora HDR . This software is just mind-blowingly good. So good that we are now re-visiting old images from the days we used APS-C crop sensor cameras. Unlike Photomatix, Skylum Aurora HDR is an all-in-one editing programme. Not only will it align your bracket sets but it gives you the full power of editing every part of the image (including heaps of free Presets). It is also a ‘standalone’ product which means that you do not need Lightroom or Photoshop to access the software however it also acts as a plug-in if you do want to use it in conjunction with LR & Photoshop.
Q.Wow, it all sounds complicated.
A. Well, not really.
It’s actually very simple. The software is the easiest part. The hardest part is determining when you need to shoot HDR brackets. There’s no point shooting an HDR on an overcast day as the contrast is low and your camera sensor will be able to capture the exposure in a single image.
Q. So, how do I get it?
Check your computer minimum requirements as stated below and then simply click on the banner below or any of the links in this post
So, if you really want to vastly improve your travel images (and images in general) then we would suggest that you download the trial version of this wonderful software and give it a try. Below are the minimum requirements for your computer before downloading and a 17min video to watch.
Mac Model – Early 2010 or newer
MacOS – 10.11 or higher
RAM – 8 GB or more
Disk space – 10 GB free space
Graphics – Open GL 3.3 or later compatible
Processor – Intel Core i5 or better
OS – Windows 7 or higher (only x64-bit OS)
RAM – 8 GB or more
Disk space – 10 GB free space
If you have any questions or comments we would love to hear from you.
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