HDR Tutorial - Lesson 1 - Learn the Basics
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Lesson 1: Learn the Basics

In this lesson you'll learn the basics about HDR photography and choosing the best camera for you.

HDR (short for High Dynamic Range) is a very popular technique among photographers and a frequent discussion topic across social media and photography forums. It’s used by new photographers and experienced photographers alike, and offers the photographer a very interesting, useful and highly effective way to overcome the limitations of our camera sensors.

What limitations, you ask? Have you ever shown a photo to your friends, and then said, “Well, it looked a lot better than that - you just had to be there”?
HDR can overcome that issue and help you tell a better visual story.

You see, in a single photo, the camera will generally expose (based on the chosen settings) either for the highlights in a scene or for the shadows. In either case, your camera will not record light evenly across the scene, because it generally cannot do so in a single image (unlike the human eye, which can see it all and adjust accordingly).

What this results in is that either the highlights will be darkened enough to be usable (resulting in extremely dark shadows that are unusable), or the shadows will be brightened enough to be usable (resulting in highlights that are blown out and thus unusable). So it becomes a trade-off of sorts: do you want some detail visible in the shadows but a blown out sky, or do you want a nice balanced sky with absolutely nothing visible in the shadows?

Here’s a perfect example of what we are talking about. This is a single exposure taken of a pub in Ireland at sunrise. This is what a camera will typically record in situations like this. You can the see the sky is pretty bright and the shadows are pretty dark.

In the below photo, we took multiple exposures of the scene at different light levels and combined them to form an HDR photo. As you can see, the light is much more evenly distributed here. The clouds and color in the sky are visible, and you can also see detail in the shadows along the buildings. It’s much pleasing to the eye.

Being able to overcome these limitations is what HDR is all about. This requires the photographer to take a series of photos (which is called bracketing) at various light levels (exposure levels). The result is that you get a group of photos ranging from fairly dark to fairly light. 

You then blend them in software such as Aurora HDR 2017 and the resulting image more accurately balances the light across the entire image, and thus more closely resembles what you saw with your own eyes. In other words, the dark shadow areas brighten up and the bright highlight areas darken a bit, and it looks balanced.

This allows you to more accurately represent a scene as you experienced it (or if you prefer, you can creatively adjust the photo to your artistic preferences). The options are limitless, but HDR is a great place to start when you encounter those unevenly lit scenes.

HDR for Landscapes and Other Locations

Landscape photography is the perfect example of why HDR is so useful. Think about a beautiful sunset that you have photographed. In fading light, the foreground is generally darker than the sky, so if you take a single photo and expose for the foreground (causing it to be brighter), then you run the risk of having the brighter sky completely blown out (totally white). This means it will be so bright that you will lose out on all the color in that beautiful sunset - and that’s the part you wanted in the first place, right?

The below photo illustrates what happens when you expose for the shadows. While you can see detail in the shadow areas, you have completely lost any sense of what is happening in the sky, and that’s what you want.But if you take a single photo and expose for the sky (causing the camera to capture all those wonderful colors in the sky), then the foreground will be so dark that you will lose all detail in it. While that could be acceptable (and that’s how you would do it if you wanted a silhouette), many photographers prefer to balance out the light between foreground and sky, ending with a more visually pleasing image with evenly distributed light across the entire image.

This next photo was exposed for the sky. While it captured some of the color, it’s not a true representation of the scene, and the shadow areas are completely dark. In fact, the entire image is too dark.That’s why HDR comes in so handy. You can take a scene where there is a big contrast between light and dark and use HDR to overcome the limitations of the camera. Take a range of photos, from dark to light, and blend them together - and you can easily solve that problem.

Here is the full range of photos that were taken in order to create this HDR photo:Here is the photo after it has been through Aurora HDR 2017. We merged the files together and then added some Presets and made a few adjustments. The result is more representative of the scene we encountered that amazing evening.Great examples of scenes where HDR really works well are landscapes (particularly at the edges of the day where the light contrasts are greater - such as in the example photo above), cityscapes, architecture and even real estate photography (for example, a dimly light interior with bright sunlight visible through a window).

Here’s a skyline photo done in HDR, and given a little bit of a “glow”. Blue hour, just after the lights in a city have come on, is a fantastic time to capture HDR photos, and especially so if you have water to capture reflections in.

Generally speaking, it’s advisable to take a set of brackets anyway, and you can decide later whether you will use them all, some of them, or if you just want to use a single exposure. In other words, having taken the brackets is a great safety net for the future. At least that way you have all the photos, should you choose to use them all at some point. The other thing to think about is that your tastes and processing styles will change over time. If you have a full set of brackets from a shoot, you can go back and experiment with HDR at a later date - and you’ll have the full range of light captured across the photos.

Why Shooting for HDR?

While you may not choose to process every photo as an HDR (by combining the photos in a bracket set), it’s ALWAYS advisable to take a bracket set - just in case. Better safe than sorry, right? Many photographers capture brackets on every outing, should they decide later that they need them.

Once you start reading about and using HDR, you will quickly find out that it can be a divisive topic. Some argue that it best represents a scene when used with realism in mind, and others argue against it due to the sometimes overdone results that one can get when really pushing their artistic ideas. It doesn’t matter which path you choose because this is YOUR art and thus it’s YOUR choice. Just know that an HDR photo can vary wildly from a subtle application to an aggressive one - and everywhere in between. Likewise, opinions on the use of HDR will vary wildly too.

Your own style will evolve over time as you practice, learn and change. The point is that it’s helpful to become familiar with HDR and how to capture the brackets so that you can have them handy once you are ready to achieve your creative vision with a photo.

One of the great things about Aurora HDR 2017 is that because it is such a flexible yet capable program, your creative vision for a photo can take you any number of directions. You can process with realism in mind, or go for something surreal. You can employ a soft, dreamy implementation, or just really bring out the details. The options are limitless with Aurora.

That’s what we will cover next - so let’s get started!

The first thing to do is to figure out how to set up your camera to take a set of brackets. Some cameras have a button for HDR which allows you to quickly choose your bracket set, and some do not. If your camera does not, look in the menu system for BRK or BKT - that will usually mean “brackets” (alternatively, it may be listed as AEB, short for Auto Exposure Bracketing). Once you find that, you will see that you have several options. It may be helpful to have your camera manual handy, or to look this up online.

The first big decision to make when setting up your camera for bracketing is how many photos you want to take in a bracket set. Some photographers take 3 photos and some take up to 11 photos. Each camera manufacturer should have a few options in the menu for this. Many photographers shoot 3 exposures per bracket as their standard choice for a scene. 

It comes down to how well your camera captures the light (what the dynamic range capability of the sensor is) and how comfortable you are that you can use the exposures to complete your vision for the shot. This will require some experimentation on your part, and note that it may vary depending on the light situation you are shooting in.The other decision to make here is how many stops (exposure levels) you want between shots. When shooting 5 or 7 exposures, they are spaced 1 stop apart (though all of them may not be used when merging to HDR). Generally, if you shoot 3 exposures they will be spaced 2 stops apart. 

This choice often comes down to the dynamic range that the sensor in your camera has, and how well it handles a scene. If you need more exposures to capture the full range of light, then move the exposure compensation dial a bit and fire another set, or expand the set to a greater number of exposures. It’s quick and easy to do so. After you have chosen how many photos you take, and what the exposure interval is between them, you are ready to get started.

The majority of photographers that are shooting HDR will place their camera in Aperture Priority mode (denoted by the capital A on the mode selection dial). This causes the camera to decide for itself how many seconds are needed per exposure. It’s a great mode to shoot HDR in, because then you don’t to have to figure that part out. If you choose to shoot in Manual Mode, you will decide on the seconds per exposure. 

It’s easier to shoot in Aperture Priority mode - it gives you less to think about before getting started - and you may be pretty excited when you are standing somewhere about to take photos, and eager to get started!

You can also choose to set up your brackets to fire from darkest first to lightest last (which will also be found somewhere in the menu system). It doesn’t really matter if your order is “dark to light” or “light to dark” - this is just a personal preference.One last thing to think about is whether you are centering your brackets or not. Many photographers will set up their camera (using a 3 exposure example) to fire the shots this way: -2, 0, +2. While that may be perfectly acceptable for the scene, you may find that the +2 exposure is WAY too bright to be useful.

If that’s the case, you can start your brackets darker than -2. You might want to start with -3 for example, which makes a 3 exposure bracket set look like this: -3, -1, +1. Or maybe even start with -4, so your set is like this: -4, -2, 0. It really depends on the scene, and it’s good to experiment a bit when getting started shooting somewhere. 

The point is that it’s best to not assume that a centered bracket set (-2, 0, +2) is what the scene requires. It might work out better if you shoot them off center, either starting darker (example: -4, -2, 0) or starting lighter (example: 0, +2, +4). Don’t hesitate to experiment and see what works best for you.

Then, frame up your composition and select your aperture. You will want the aperture (also known as f/stop) to remain constant while the bracket set fires off, because you want the photos to be identical except for the difference in exposure values.

Additionally, many photographers prefer to the leave the ISO setting at 100 if at all possible, which is easy when you use a tripod (see below). For handheld HDR (which we will get to in a later lesson), you will likely need to move the ISO up to help you get the shots fired more quickly.

Two more things to think about: tripods and cable releases. Both are highly recommend to help you capture great HDR photos. One of the key things about taking a bracketed set of photos is that you want them to line up properly. Aurora HDR 2017 is quite good with the alignment (so if you shoot handheld for example, you may still be able to use them), but if you take your tripod then you don’t have to worry about that (and we will talk about that in a future lesson).

The cable release is super-handy as well. Once the camera is set up and ready to fire, just hold down the cable release to fire all of the photos. The other option is to just depress the shutter button, however you run the risk of slightly shaking the camera if you do so, and that can result in photos that aren’t perfectly aligned. So these two steps really help you capture accurate shots in the field.

That’s it - you are now firing brackets.

iPhone HDR

As you can imagine, the popularity of HDR has also crept over to shooting with mobile phones, many of which have fairly capable cameras in them these days. This is written from the point of view of an iPhone user, though it is said that Android phones are also great. No, it’s nothing like shooting with a full-frame camera, but it sure is fun and you can’t beat the convenience of having it in your pocket.

The built-in HDR capability works pretty well. All you have to do is select HDR when in the camera mode, and choose On or Auto. The iPhone will combine what it determines to be the best parts of 3 photos into a single photo. (Note that in the Settings menu, you can choose to keep the normal photo as well as the HDR.) You can also choose a self-timer in either option. The key thing here, when taking the photo, is to stay as still as possible! As with your DSLR, you will want your photos to align. There are multiple ways to attach your iPhone to your tripod, which will ensure the stability of it during the exposures, so that’s an option too.

Here’s an iPhone HDR, straight out of the iPhone (without further edits):Also, many photographers will use other apps to create the HDR photos on their iPhones. Your best bet is to experiment with various apps to see which ones you like best. Some popular apps include Pro HDR X, vividHDR and Simply HDR. They all provide the ability to capture multiple exposures and blend them into a single HDR result (as well as make various edits and adjustments to them too).

Alternatively, you could take the iPhone HDR image into a non-HDR iPhone editing program for creative effects. There are literally a million things you could do from there.

But, also, keep in mind that you can take the iPhone shots into Aurora and work on them there too! There are a lot of creative possibilities with Macphun, and just because it’s an iPhone image doesn’t mean you have to edit it on the iPhone solely. Why not see what you can come up with using the professional software?

One of the interesting things about shooting HDR on an iPhone is that you often feel more creative and open to taking risks when doing so. Since it isn’t your “real camera”, you may feel a little more free when using it, both in terms of the compositions you choose and the edits that you make to the photo. Take some photos, make some edits, try some new apps, and experiment, experiment, experiment. It’s fun!

Tune in for the next lesson and the REAL fun will begin!

If you have questions, don't hesitate to email us at support@aurorahdr.com.

Use Aurora HDR for free for 14 days.

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