Beginner’s Guide to HDR

Well, you’ve done cheap Macro photos in the last post, so it’s time to try this madfangled HDR thingy you’ve seen everyone doing.

HDR (High Dynamic Range photography) is taking a photo at low, medium and high exposure and blending them together to get the best results. You know how when you get a decent holiday sunset photo and the beach is just a black smear under the gorgeous sky, or you see all the details of the sands with a white sky? That’s what HDR kicks to the kerb. Check out this slightly exaggerated example to see what I mean.


Sunset in Glassford

HDR tries to get around the limitations of traditional photography to present images in the same way as the eye sees them. When you look at a sunset, you see the sky and the beach equally as clearly.

You can see the HDR photos on my Flickr page. As you can see, the more I do them, the less outrageous they become.

What you’ll need is a camera that does bracketing (more about this in a minute), a computer and some HDR software. We know you’ve got a computer as this isn’t a dead-tree edition so we’ll get on with the software.


This is dead easy as you have two options and they’re the same on both Mac and Windows PC:

  1. Photomatix
  2. Adobe Photoshop and the Photomatix plug-in

Yes, there does indeed seem to be a pattern there. So, go get the demo of Photomatix and get your camera ready.

Camera Settings

Bracketing is the art of taking a photo and having the camera then take a darker one and a lighter one just to make sure you get the right levels of light. I won’t go into too much detail on how to do this as every camera handles it differently so open your manual and look for bracketing in the index. It’ll be there, even on lesser cameras. Oh, if you have ever read any other articles on HDR, they all stress the importance of having a good tripod, but if you don’t have a tripod, don’t worry as this tutorial is to get you past the hurdle of taking your first HDR photo to see if you like it. We’ll not be spending any money on this technique until you’re happy it’s worth buying the software and getting a decent tripod.

Before you get too bored of all this dry text, here’s the picture I’ll be showing you how to produce:


Bowling Basin

Taking your first photos

Sunsets, skies and the like. This is what you should learn on. Getting a triptych of a decent sunset or two or should set you in good stead to discover the software, or if you want to take daytime shots, a decent half-cloudy sky should provide all the contrasty goodness you need.

-2ev, 0ev, +2ev

I took three photos, without a tripod, at +2ev, 0ev and -2ev, which is posh-speak for dark, normal and light. You’ve looked up how to do bracketing on your camera by now, right?

See how on the left, you can see amazing cloud patterns in the sky but they’re above an inky blackness, and how on the right, the clearly pictured trees are sitting beneath a flat white sky? Normally, those would get stickers stuck on them by Boots the Chemist for being craply taken, but, in conjunction with the well-exposed middle photo, they are precisely what we want.

Before I forget, you need to be shooting all three shots with the same aperture settings. Look up “Aperture Priority” in your camera manual. Remember lower numbers (like f2.8) allow quicker shutter speeds but only have a short range of focus (depth of field) whereas higher numbers (f22, for instance) allow much more to remain in focus, but require more light or slower shutter speeds. If light allows it, go for higher aperture numbers, especially if you are using a tripod.


Load up the demo version of Photomatix and click on the Generate HDR Image button and select your three photos like so and click OK.

Screen Grab

This will give you the settings as follows. The image alignment feature can make up for our spack-handedness not using a tripod. Click OK and wait for the progress bar to do its thing.

Screen Grab

Just click through the next screen by clicking Tone Mapping.

Screen Grab

On the next screen, you’ll get loads of options. If the photo looks too weird, click Default and start again. Settings can be saved and loaded.

Screen Grab

Play with the settings until you get something that looks good. There are no hard and fast rules, but here’s one setting I find makes a huge difference in picking out detail: the Microcontrast slider.

Screen Grab

Once you’re done, you may want to save your settings. However, you will want to press Process (cropped off the bottom of these grabs, I’m afraid) and watch the progress bar march relentlessly from left to right.

Save your picture and post it on the internet somewhere for all to see. Don’t forget, when you look back at your earlier HDR attempts, you may well cringe at how overdone they look. Don’t worry about that just yet. Play with the sliders to your heart’s content and get the outrageous manipulations out of your system.

Here are some examples of my HDR photos:


Boats at Bowling





Please take the time to comment.

Update: Photos now linked to Flickr. Go comment on them there.

Jared Earle is a writer, photographer and systems administrator. You can find him on Twitter most of the time.

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  • Oooh. I’ve been wondering about this. Next time I take my Rebel out, I’m going bracketing!

  • Nice tutorial Jared…… That HDR with the boats is awesome!

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  • Jeff

    There is a free program called Picturenaut if anyone wants to dip their toes in the water:

    By the way, your blog concerning munchy boxes caused me to soil my underwear and I will be seeking compensation.

  • Lewis

    Ooooo, i was wondering how people made those fotos. Wonder if my camera can do that? Wonder if I can find my camera manual…

  • Oh, before I forget, please Digg this story here:

  • Richy

    I had no qualms in digging this guide.

  • Thanks for sharing, now I know how to impress others :0

  • Kath

    I sandwich slides (with different levels of focus) to get a dreamy effect. This looks like something else fun to play with. Thanks

  • Arne


    is there a plugin or tool for the gimp? Photoshop is great peace of software, put much to expensive for me.


  • Arne,

    Photomatix doesn’t need Photoshop to do this. What you can do is run the demo of Photomatix on its own and then open the result in The Gimp.

    ps. The Gimp sucks. No, really, it does. It’s a worthy and valiant attempt, but … yeah, it sucks. Friends don’t let friends use sucky software.

  • Even simpler HDR…, if your camera supports RAW, shoot one picture. Then use the Photomatrix plugin in tatty shop on your 16bit image (though it is more likely that unless you have a REALLY expensive camera, you’ll actually have a 12-14 bit image, but I digress). You’ll be amazed at how little difference it makes from the 3 photo approach, and means that you don’t have to shoot with a tripod… win-win!

  • RAW isn’t proper HDR per se. RAW will allow you to tone-map images, but at that point, you can convert a single JPEG to a 16-bit TIFF and tone-map it too.

    For instance, this was a single JPEG:

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  • Welcome b3tards. I hope you like my pictures. 🙂

  • Ian

    Am I right in thinking that the first of the big examples is Bowling Basin on the Clyde, at the end of the Forth and Clyde canal?

  • John Smiths Bitter

    This is a pretty lazy way of acheiving something using a tatty piece of software that you’d be better off learning to do the correct way in the long run…

  • Great guide. If you’re a cheaparse like me and only have a standard Canon point and shoot (most of the Ixus range for example) then you can still get in on the action.

    Some bright sparks have rewritten the firmware to access a bunch of hidden features, including raw shooting and bracketing! Let joy be unconfined. There’s more info and the download at:

  • Haggisbreeder

    Could anyone recommend a good (camera) to do this with?

  • sp3ccylad

    This is top. I’ve dabbled in HDR before and I’ve told admirers of my photos that it isn’t hard. You’ve just showed them it isn’t; better than I could.

    Demystifying is cool.

  • Wow, this is an EXCELLENT tutorial. I thought the muchy box one prior to this was informative and well-written, but this one is WONDERFUL. I have tried to read tutorials regarding this type of photography but I was always left feeling confused. I will be back to read any topic you choose to discuss here.

  • Of course I meant “munchy box.”

  • smiff

    You can get similar results with any image, though its never going to be as good as a proper bracketed image.
    Just create 3 images in photoshop using the exposure setting to create one image -2 and one +2 exposure then build it into a hdr using either photoshop or photomatix.

  • rory

    I find as well if you edit your photo on IPHOTO on the mac and change the exposure manually you only need to take one photo. Duplicate the photo, change one to high exposure, and one to low exposure, leaving the original as it. Just in case you camera doesnt have this feature. Nice easy-to-use and understand blog though, thanks.

  • Thanks for this – I must do more HDR work. For Linux users (and skinflint PC / Mac users) there’s an open source HDR application: Qtpsfgui ( that can save in various common HDR formats.

  • smiff

    lol Rory just beat you to it there:)
    Another nice trick is to flatten your final image, duplicate it then set the top layer to soft light and fine tune with the layer opacity.
    It works in a similar way making darks darker and lights lighter and deepening teh contrast of your colours.

  • @Ian
    Yes, this is from Bowling Basin on the Clyde.

    @John Smith’s Bitter
    Um, wtf? I’d love to know what the ‘correct way’ of doing this is. Let’s face it, you’re not going to get this in the lens without special filters and managed lighting. If you’re doing it off the camera, the moment you take it off the memory card, all bets are off; from that moment on, there is no ‘correct way’. If you have any tutorials that show us how to do this the correct way (remembering this is for beginners) then I’d love to be enlightened.

    @All those faking it with one image, what’s wrong with just converting the JPEG into a 16-bit TIFF in Potatoshop?

  • Fiachra


    That’s a great article, and smashing photos.

  • I love clouds. I have billions of pics of them as I walk my dogs at sunset and sunrise most days and always carry a camera. But now I can have that bit under them as well in the shot, the ground! Hoopy Doo, I’m going to have fun slapping the pictures about until they look as good as yours. Fantastic. Just the carrot I needed to get me up in the morning to trapes about deserted fields in the wet yet again.

  • shh.. don’t tell the developers

    A mate recently put me onto HDR and photomatix. He’s a PC guy. I’m a mac. But there is a hidden gem in the (PC-only) software to get rid of the demo’s watermarks. Tone map your image – and once your happy save the settings. Then flick into the ‘batch processing’ option – select images, and saved settings, and viola, no watermarks…and out of pocket developers. Catch it while i lasts.

  • smiff

    @Jared Earle

    “@All those faking it with one image, whats wrong with just converting the JPEG into a 16-bit TIFF in Potatoshop?”

    Nothing I guess, don’t know enough to be able to tell you otherwise, as you said there is no correct way. I’ll have to give it a try though so cheers for that.

  • I will try this technic tomorrow! Many thanks for this tutorial.

  • This is very cool. I shall have a look in the Missus’s camera manual and see what it can do. It’s a pretty decent camera, so it should have it. Here goes nothing!

  • AlecMac

    This is great fun.

    Anyone know what John Smiths Bitter was on about, or is he just a random loon?

  • @AlecMac,

    No idea what he was on about. I think he was just a drive-by troll.

  • John60wales

    I really liked the ‘boats’ – one of the best HDR photos I’ve seen! I’ve dabbled in HDR myself [using Photmatix-basic] but was never happy with my un-realistic results.
    Maybe I should have kept on trying??

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  • @shh.. don’t tell the developers

    thanks for that! just tried it, it worked a treat! watermark free images. excellent.


  • chocolatesa

    Sh… don’t tell the developers – Thank you soooo much!!! I’ve been going crazy downloading other programs to get around the stupid watermarking, and nothing works right. Thank you!!!!

  • Haggisbreeder

    I’m a software developer on an very small income … I’ve worked for 15 years on projects just like this one, projects designed to make sure that these little computer programs are all easier for people like you to understand….

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  • One piece of information I forgot to mention is that you should ideally be shooting in Aperture Priority mode. I’ve edited the article accordingly.

  • So pretty… *sigh*
    Going to have to dig out my camera manual now, but it’ll be great to give my tripod some use.

  • tom

    []Good site I Stumbledupon it today and gave it a stumble for you.. looking forward to seeing what else you have..later[]

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  • Surely shooting one image in RAW and then creating three copies at -2, 0 and +2 EV in software and using them is the same as taking 3 JPGs with different EV values at shoot time?

    I just don’t understand how that be classed as “cheating” at HDR, as the whole point of shooting in RAW is that you can change EV value and WB later.

  • Shooting at +/-2EV isn’t the same as setting the exposure in RAW: Your camera simply doesn’t have 4EV stops of dynamic range in the sensor.

    If in doubt, try it. You’ll see that you cannot create depth and detail where there is none.

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  • Tim

    @All those faking it with one image, whats wrong with just converting the JPEG into a 16-bit TIFF in Potatoshop?

    Well, nothing, but it doesn’t gain you anything.

    Think of the histograms. Let’s say normal processing is a 12-bit sensor saved as RAW format and converted to 16-bit (TIFF) for photoshopping around. This corresponds to a contrast-range in the source scene – sky 6 stops brighter than ground, for example. When you do HDR, you build a 32-bit image with greater range and greater detail – more information in shadows and highlights and smoother throughout. If you were to convert a pure HDR image straight to a JPEG, you’d simply think it looked very low-contrast.

    If you take an 8-bit JPEG and apply a gamma curve to darken it 1 stop, all that happens is the lower part of the histogram (midtone and darker) get compressed and the higher part expands – so you lose detail. By doing that twice your 32-bit image has merely gained errors in tone-placement – you don’t gain image-data, merely the illusion of it which might look favourable if you’re lucky.

    Tonemapping is where you use some algorithm to simulate apparent increased contrast locally within an image – mostly spatially (adjacent pixels) with some consideration for the pixel values. This is where you have the option to make it look whizzy but disgusting, or exercise some restraint and strive for normality 🙂

    ObExample: hdr panorama.

    Cameras: what you want to avoid is any pixel changing value unnecessarily between exposures – so you need a still scene or very long exposure for motion-blur – and fix the aperture and focus distance and vary the speed only. You can get somewhere with a simple point-‘n’-shoot and exposure compensation; a dSLR would be better so you’re shooting RAW in the first place and have a nice lower-noise sensor. There’s nothing to stop you doing it with film if you want, as long as you can control the scans to represent the different exposures.

    Software: free alternatives include FDRTools and qtpfsgui.

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  • Henry McGilton

    So I was trying to do HDR and I started off doing it ‘wrong’, so I thought, hey, Jared has a tutorial on HRD. Sure enough, I was doing things wrong . . . So I read through your tutorial, and all becomes clear, especially your note about Aperture Priority . . .

    However, my camera, a Digital Rebel EOS XTi, has a (at least in my view) peculiar bracketing function. As far as I can tell, I can bracket Blue/Amber, or Green/Magenta, but, I see no way to bracket both. In addition, fairly extensive web searches on the subject have turned up nothing useful that might tell me (1) if bracketing in bot axes is even possible, and, if not, which axis ought I to bracket.

    Cheers, Henry

  • Pep

    Great tutorial. I would like to add that, after spending plenty of time in Photomatix, I re-focused (ha) on the shooting for HDRs and that is when my results became loads better. I like what you said about the results getting better with practice and I also think that after practice with tone mapping you will improve your shooting since you know what to expect. So set your camera to spot metering and measure the highlights areas and shadow areas of your scene!!

  • I had never known such a thing was possible, great work JJ, I’ll be sure to try it some time.

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  • Dave

    This is just so great…. One question though…. Raw or jpeg what is best for Hdr

  • Dave

    Sorry one more question… when i try Hdr i have a lot of noise…i shoot in raw with a canon 400d what would cause this

  • Dave, a small amount of noise is inevitable. However, you can reduce the noise by always shooting at the lowest possible ISO – that’s ISO100 on your Canon – and using a tripod. If the original photos themselves come out noise-free, you may be introducing HDR noise with the software settings or with camera movement, hence the tripod advice. If all this fails, try using something like Noise Ninja to reduce the noise.

    Oh, and while RAW is technically better, but every photo I’ve done recently is from best-quality JPEGs.

    Good luck!

  • Dave

    Hi, Just found your site after seeing your stuff on Flikr. Really amazing.

    Want to have a try myself but as a complete amateur (photography and the computer touch up side), would the basic version be enough to produce some starter stuff or do I need the free Pro demo and have to live with the watermarks for now?

    Don’t mind paying up when I get better, but didn’t want to splash out when I’m still learning 🙂


  • Dave,

    Excellent question. I’ve never tried the basic free version because I’m on a Mac and it’s Windows only. How about you get the demo and the basic version and do a quick comparison and post your results. I believe that the Pro version would teach you more, but not having tried both, it’s just a guess.

    I’d love to see a comparison. 🙂

    And yes, there’s no point in investing in a hobby until you know it’s for you.

  • Dave

    Had a 10 minute play around with both, and the basic version seems very basic.

    It only contains the tone compressor and not the details enhancer so cannot be used in this tutorial as none of the options in your guide are there.

    As a beginner I’m not sure what the use of some of the tone compressor options are, but as it can’t be used in your tutorial I’ve gone with the Pro trial and have to live with the water marks for now 🙂

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  • Tim D

    Fascinating piece, Jared. Thanks. It actually all makes good sense suddenly! Now all I need is a camera worthy of the name… 🙂

    Oh, and the Munchy Box?
    And yet strangely delicious-looking, in a Homer Simpson way.

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  • Hey Jared,

    Thanks a lot for this tutorial… real nice and easy to understand HDR….

    Let me try my hands on it now, and will post back the results .. 😉

  • cool read

  • Al

    Simply the best Basic HDR Tutorial I’ve seen. Thanks for your help in getting us started.

  • Larry Lamb

    Do you advise using a polarizing filter to get great skies in HDR? Will HDR produce rich sky tones without a polarizing filter?

  • Larry Lamb :

    Do you advise using a polarizing filter to get great skies in HDR? Will HDR produce rich sky tones without a polarizing filter?

    I don’t use filters as HDR does the same job as some filters with multiple exposures. If you have a polarising filter, it may be useful with shots of water, but I think it’d be more trouble than its worth.

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  • Where is the microcontrast slider????

  • What format do you save your HDR. Tiff or jpeg. I have only tried two different pictures, but they were so large when I was done they wouldn’t upload.

  • Bowling Basin, Mercurius and Trees look great. Boats at Bowling is a bit overdone, but not as much as the majority of HDR pictures you can see on flickr. I’m almost convinced it would be worth trying once.

    Still, I would like to be able to compare an HDR picture to the best shot you can achieve without HDR. Not the individual pictures taken for the HDR but the shot you would take if for some reason you couldn’t do HDR (well, not you in particular, but the people who post HDR photographs in general trying to convince the world it’s the next best thing after peanut butter).

  • @Ölbaum Feel free to check out the rest of my Flickr photos if you want to see non-HDR.

    HDR comes into its own when there is simply too much dynamic range to capture with a standard camera. Sure, you can use a filter over the sky to capture tones you’d otherwise miss and that’s how it used to be done pre-digital.

  • Rob Innes

    Nice article explaining the process in simple terms. The picture of Mercurius is particularly impressive as you cannot ‘see’ the technique in the results, whereas Boats at Bowling is impressive and big and gorgeous but you can see the technique at work in the picture.

  • nicolasb

    Thanks Jared. I’ve only been to Scotland as a visitor years ago and your photos bring back good memories of the rugged, beautiful terrain. I’ve just started using Photomatrix and your observations are helpful. What have you found to be the value of the “360º image” checkbox? As far as I can see, it darkens the corners (vignette); anything else? There’s nothing written about this adjustment in any of the manuals I’ve seen.

  • nicolasb

    Followup to my question about “360º image”. This concerns doing stitching in panoramas, not a concern for regular images.

  • RT @pixfan: RT @photojack: RT @jearle: @photojack In case you've not seen it, here's my HDR tutorial:

  • RT @photojack: RT @jearle: @photojack In case you've not seen it, here's my HDR tutorial:

  • RT @photojack: RT @jearle: @photojack In case you've not seen it, here's my HDR tutorial:

  • RT @photojack: RT @jearle: @photojack In case you've not seen it, here's my HDR tutorial:

  • RT @photojack: RT @jearle: @photojack In case you've not seen it, here's my HDR tutorial:

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  • Bob Simmerman


    Thank you for posting this, and those are some damn fine shots!! Just getting started with the technique myself, I am using Corel Paint Shop Pro v2 with the HDR merge to create the shots. For now I am practicing with single JPEGS after exposure alteration using ACDSee Pro, but I was able to find the setting on the camera to take a -0.7, 0, +0.7 spread and can’t wait to give it a try.

    Thanks again!


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  • If you take an 8-bit JPEG and apply a gamma curve to darken it 1 stop, all that happens is the lower part of the histogram (midtone and darker) get compressed and the higher part expands – so you lose detail. By doing that twice your 32-bit image has merely gained errors in tone-placement – you don’t gain image-data, merely the illusion of it which might look favourable if you’re lucky.

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  • I love this guide….

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  • This is a very easy to understand tutorial. Nice one. I’ve included it in my top 5 HDR tutorials on the net:

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  • l.junkin

    thanks very helpful

  • You should try baidu to search what you need,It always works more than your expectance!

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  • Stephanie

    Thank you so much for this post. This is exactly what I was looking for to learn the basics of HDR Photography, and it was in a language I could understand! I can’t stand photography articles/how-tos that use so much photo lingo that you have to read through it 5 times in order to grasp what they are referring to. Very well-written and much appreciated!

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  • Jon_Doh

    If you shoot raw you can also take the raw image and open it in Camera Raw or Lightroom/Aperture and under expose by two stops and save in Tiff. Then open the photo back up and over expose it by two stops. Then open it and save it in Tiff as shot. Now you have three shots just like bracketing and you can load these into Photmatix and go from there. This technique works great when you don’t have a tripod with you.

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  • Glenn

    Thanks for the tips. I enjoyed the article.

  • Jericho

    What are the difference between Bracketing and HDR settings…?

  • Richard Smith

    Studying your tutorial. At one point you say if the photo looks weird click “default”. Where do I find that? Also where does the Microcontrast slider

    I shot several images in RAW but found that Pro 3 would not accept RAW or tif
    images. Would only accept jpeg. End results were very grainy. Felt like I was not getting the results I expected. Very Frustrating.


  • Payal Sharma

    OMG, absolutely fascinating…!! Loved this tutorial, learned so much from it — and can’t wait to dig into the PSD file to see all the nuts and bolts! I have watched many Photoshop tutorials over the years, and this is the first time I have ever felt prompted to actually leave a comment about one. Thank you sooooo much for your wonderful website and all the time you put into your fabulous tutorials — you are THE BEST!!

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