A Guide to High Dynamic Range (HDR) Imaging for Landscape Photography

High Dynamic Range landscape photography is a great camera-nerd technique to learn–and I have lots of fun nerding out with my camera! Purists argue photography is about reproducing a scene exactly as seen with the eye. But photography is an art form. HDR photography is a photographic art technique that can produce amazingly creative images.

What is HDR?

Cameras have a hard time capturing the full range of shadows, darks, lights, and highlights of a scene into a single image. HDR photography captures the different range of tones in multiple photos. These multiple photos are referred to as a bracket. The photos are merged together in post-processing to show the full range of light in one image.

When to use HDR for Landscapes

HDR landscape photography is ideal in any scene where there are strong shadows and highlights, and you want to see the detail at either end of this dynamic range of light in a single photo.

There’s a simple way to tell when to use the HDR landscape photography technique. Just take a shot as normal. Use HDR if your subject is well exposed, but details are lost in the brightest and darkest areas of your shot.

Examples of HDR Landscape Photography

3 photos combined into a single HDR image:

Lanscape HDR photography, 3 shot auto bracket
Top row: source photos at f12, ISO 400. From left to right, exposure time is 1/25s, 1/100s, 1/6s. Bottom: final HDR image. Photo by Dean Wormald.

Here’s another example. Just drag the slider back and forth to see the before and after shots in their entirety. 
Before:
 the original scene, one photo. After: 13 photos combined into one single HDR landscape photo.

HDR Photography Checklist

Equipment Needed

You can take HDR photos with any camera that allows adjustment of exposure compensation. The other optional tools below make shooting landscape HDR photos easier and result in a sharper image.

  • Any camera where exposure can be adjusted (required).
  • Preferably a camera with auto exposure bracketing (optional).
  • Tripod (optional).
  • Remote shutter release (optional).

Applications Needed to Process HDR Photography

There are many desktop applications available for processing the bracket of photos into one single HDR image. The most popular – and the apps we’ll introduce in this article – are:

  • Adobe Lightroom 6
  • Adobe Photoshop CS3 and higher
  • Photomatix

Capturing a HDR Exposure Bracket

What to Avoid!

Avoid scenes containing elements which are moving, for example:

  • If it’s a very windy day, with lots of trees or grass swaying
  • People walking
  • Cars driving
  • Moving water such as waves or a river

Why do we avoid movement in HDR landscape photography? When a single HDR photo is made, we take 2 or more photos and combine into one – if there’s too much movement in between each source photo, we can introduce what is known ghosting. Ghosting occurs when there’s movement between shots, and the post processing technique applications can have difficulty merging the differences.

So when we think about the types of scenes to photograph using HDR, we go for scenes which are still and unchanging. If it’s windy I usually avoid HDR, unless the scene is rock solid, literally a rocky mountain.

Exposure Compensation, How to Set the Correct +/- Values

There’s no hard and fast rule, no definitive number which applies to all photos when taking a HDR landscape photography bracket. So what we do is take a series of test shots and evaluate to see if all the elements of the shot will be covered.

So here’s my process. Start by exposing the photo for the subject. In the example of the Japanese shrine gate, the initial photo is exposed for the actual gate itself.

Then I’ll set the exposure compensation to + or – 1 exposure value (EV). I’ll then take the bracket of shots: the original shot, the +1 EV and then the -1 EV.

Then in camera, review the photos. In the first shot the subject should be well exposed. The +1 EV shot will have all the darker elements better exposed, so in this test photo we need things like shrubs and more shadowy areas to have detail visible – nothing else in this shot needs to be well exposed. For the -1 EV shot, look at areas like the sky and the water, which are likely blown out in the original photo.

From here, alter the +/- values as needed to get a good coverage of detail.

Automatic Bracket Shooting

Many DSLR cameras, mirrorless cameras and some high end point-and-shoot cameras automatically take the bracket of photos. Depending on the camera, it might take between 3-9 shots per bracket. I generally use a Canon EOS 6D which takes 3 shots per bracket, same as an old Nikon D5200 I used to have.

To find out if your camera has this feature, look in your manual for auto exposure bracketing or AEB.

Navigate to the menu setting to set auto exposure bracketing. On my 6D, I go to exposure compensation and set the base exposure (I generally start at 0). Then when I move the scroll wheel, the camera automatically adjusts both the + and – values for a series of 3 photos.

A tip to shooting automatic brackets is to set photos to release on a timer. Most cameras with auto exposure bracketing will take the 3 (or more) photos sequentially, without pressing the shutter release. I set the timer to 2 or 10 seconds. When the time is up, the camera automatically takes three photos. If you don’t do this, you need to press the shutter release 3 times, or if shooting in continuous mode, hold the shutter until the 3 shots are taken.

The timer approach is preferable as it involves less actual handling of the camera between the frames of the bracketing. Handy to not only take a sharper and steadier photo, but to ensure the camera doesn’t move between frames.

Manual Bracket Shooting

When I first started HDR landscape photography my camera didn’t have an auto bracket feature. But any camera with which you can adjust the exposure value will be able to take a bracket of shots. To do this manually we need to shoot in a mode that is not auto, as auto could change the exposure between shots. Switch the camera to either shutter, aperture or manual modes. Now take the first photo as normal. Then adjust the exposure to a value of, for example, +1 EV. Take the shot. Go back and adjust the exposure to -1 EV. Take the shot.

Be as delicate as possible while making adjustments. Make sure you don’t move the camera around too much, or the dreaded ‘ghosting’ will be introduced!

Pre-processing the Source Photos

Once you’ve done your shoot and you have the bracket of source photos, load them onto your computer as normal. We then do some very basic and limited edits before processing them into HDR.

We need to keep adjustments we make across all 3 shots consistent. This is to ensure that, for example, we don’t have a different light temperature between shots, introducing different colours between the source photos.

Restrict yourself to these adjustments:

  • White balance
  • Noise reduction: many HDR processing software can enhance noise
  • Lens corrections: profile corrections, remove chromatic aberrations, level the horizon
  • Cropping

If using Lightroom, make these adjustments to the original photo first. Then click the ‘Copy’ button and in the ‘Copy Settings’ dialog box, check all. Then go to the other photos in the bracket and click the ‘Paste’ button.

Alternatively you can save a preset based on the original, and apply that to the rest of the shots. Or make one adjustment at a time, and manually make the exact same adjustment to the other photos (for example in Lightroom, adjust the ‘Luminance’ slider under ‘Noise Reduction’ to 40, then make the exact same adjust to all photos in the bracket).

How to Combine the Bracket of Multiple Source Photos into a Single HDR Image 

This step is often referred to as tone mapping. It’s where the original source photos are combined into a single HDR photo using Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, or Photomatix.

Adobe Lightroom 6

A new feature released in Lightroom 6 is HDR Merge. Before this version, Adobe users could use Photoshop to merge multiple photos into a single HDR image. Here’s how to make a HDR landscape photo in Lightroom:

  1. Select the multiple photos in your Lightroom library
  2. From the menu bar, go to ‘Photo’ > ‘Photo Merge’ > ‘HDR…’.
  3. In the ‘HDR Merge Preview’ window:
    • Check the boxes next to ‘Auto Align’ and ‘Auto Tone’.
    • Under Deghost amount, choose the lowest setting that removes ‘ghosts’ (for example, tree leaves may have moved, grass may have swayed).
    • Click the ‘Merge’ button.
HDR landscape photography in Lightroom
Merging HDR source images into a single photo using Lightroom.

The single HDR photo will be created and added to your Lightroom library, in the same location as the original shots. You can identify this as the filename will end with ‘-HDR’. Make further adjustments in the ‘Develop’ module if needed, then export the image.

Adobe Photoshop (CS3 and higher)

Adobe Photoshop has for a long time been the go-to option for processing the source files of HDR landscape photography. If you already use Photoshop, it’s a great way to get started in HDR photography without having to invest in additional specialized software, such as Photomatix. We’ll talk about that next, but first let’s review how to create your HDR photo using Photoshop:

  1. From the menu bar, go to ‘File’ > ‘Automate’ > ‘Merge to HDR Pro…’.
  2. At the ‘Merge to HDR Pro’ dialog box, click the ‘Browse’ button. Select the multiple source photos and then click ‘OK’.
  3. Make sure the box next to ‘Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images’ is checked, then click ‘OK’. Wait for Photoshop to open and analyse each photo.
  4. A new window will open showing a preview of the single HDR photo, with the original source images below. In this window:
    • From the drop-down menu next to ‘Preset’, select a preset that you like.
    • Check the box next to ‘Remove ghosts’, if objects in the scene have moved between shots.
    • Optional: adjust the settings under ‘Edge Glow’, ‘Tone and Detail’, ‘Advanced’ and ‘Curve’. Hover over the title of any adjustment slider for a description of what effect the setting will have on the photo.
    • Click ‘OK’
HDR landscape photos in Photoshop
Merging HDR source images into a single photo using Lightroom.

As a result the single image is opened as a new file in Photoshop. Either export, or continue to edit the photo further.

Photomatix

Photomatix Pro has become the application of choice for serious HDR landscape photography. It features a comprehensive set of presets, detailed adjustment options and integration with Lightroom. If you think you will be taking HDR seriously, this is a great program to invest in.

  1. To load source photos into Photomatix, either:
    • Open Photomatix, click the ‘Load Bracketed Photos’ button, ‘then ‘Browse’ to select the multiple source photos, or,
    • From Lightroom, select the multiple source photos in your library, choose ‘File’ > ‘Export’ and next to ‘Export To:’ select ‘Photomatix’. This is my preferred method.
  2. The merge options for either option above are similar:
    • Under ‘Align Images’, select either ‘Taken on a tripod’ or ‘Handheld’. This refers to how the source photos were taken.
    • If there’s movement of objects between scenes, check the box next to ‘Show options to remove ghosts’.
    • Check the boxes next to ‘Reduce noise’ and ‘Reduce chromatic aberrations’.
  3. If you chose to show options to remove ghosts, follow the instructions in Photomatix (they are very good!) to remove ghosts.
  4. Start by selecting a preset that looks something like your ideal image. Once a preset is chosen, use the advanced adjustments in the left of screen.
  5. Finally, export the file:
    • If you loaded the files directly into Photomatix, click the ‘Apply’ button. Add contrast or sharpening if desired, then click ‘Done’. Then from the main menu choose ‘File’ > ‘Save As…’.
    • If the files were imported from Lightroom, click the ‘Save and Re-import’ button. The image is imported into Lightroom, in the same location as the source files.
HDR landscape photos in Photomatix
Processing a HDR landscape photo in Photomatix Pro.
guide-to-hdr-landscape-photography-pinterest

Get Started

Now you’re ready to head out there and start practicing your HDR photography. We would love to see what you’re able to create using the techniques we covered today. Why not share one of your photos in the comments below!

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About the author

Dean Wormald

Dean Wormald is a Australian digital nomad, working in photography, website user experience and blogging. Dean's Japan travel blog is the main destination where photographs are published, as he travels the country annually.

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