HDR Travel Photography For Beginners (Like Me)

If you’re remotely interested in photography and you use the internet, you’ve probably come across the term ‘HDR’. It means ‘high dynamic range’ and can be summarised as a method of preserving detail in the highlight and shadow of an image that would be lost on the limited intelligence and capability of a camera, but which the human brain synthesises all the time in everyday life.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably avoided looking into it because of irrational fears that it must be far too difficult to do well, there are so many terrible HDR images flying around, it’s becoming clichéd already, and other such excuses for doing nothing other than occasionally cooing at some of the wow-factor work out there, like this:

Fourth on Lake Austin

Well, I’ve got over that stage now (finally) and done some dabbling. I went out yesterday evening with the purpose of shooting for HDR post-processing, and this is what I came up with. All of these images can be seen in high-resolution – just click through and hit ‘All Sizes’:

A moody dusk over autumnal Yerevan (HDR)

I think it is a great technique for certain less-than-optimal circumstances in which it may not be possible to get the perfect shot with the camera alone, which as a somewhat-stubborn purist (I’d travel with a 35mm film camera if it was practical) I still think should be every serious photographer’s ideal goal. I love viewing and capturing natural images, and there’s a fine line between natural and over-the-top, which I think is easily crossed with HDR.

Here are some of the admittedly-unspectacular yet curiously-pleasing results from some other photos I took, unseen until now, with HDR vaguely in mind. Keep reading to quickly find out how you can start experimenting with HDR – it’s not rocket science:

Dawn on the ferry from Aswan, Egypt to Wadi Halfa, Sudan (HDR)

Pump station on the Nile at dawn, Luxor, Egypt (HDR)

On the jetty near Luxor at dawn, Egypt (HDR)

Wild camping near the Aswan Dam, Egypt (HDR)

Do It Yourself

There are over a million results in Google for the term ‘hdr tutorial’ at the time of writing. So I won’t blather. Here’s how to get started in 5 easy steps:

1. Find an opportunity

Ideal subjects for HDR are ones in which a single photo would compromise detail in either the highlights or the shadows – in other words, subjects where there is a very wide range of brightnesses (often due to strong light sources and deep shadows). A tripod is practically essential – you need to capture the same composition three times.

2. Set up and snap away

Find and set your camera’s auto exposure-bracketing (AEB) function. The next three photos your camera takes will be a standard photo, a second underexposed photo, and a third overexposed photo. If you don’t have this function, use the Exposure Compensation (which all modern cameras definitely have) to do the same job.

3. Get the software

Download a free trial of Photomatix. Open the program and click ‘Generate HDR image’. Choose the three photos you took earlier, click OK and then OK again. Don’t worry about the weird image that will appear -just hit ‘Tone Mapping’ on the left.

4. Experiment

Goggle at the default results. Curse yourself for putting this off for so long. Then have a play with all the sliders on the left. Generate the wackiest, most unrealistic results you can manage. This is important – you need to get over the novelty of HDR so you can start producing more subtle and realistic results!

5. Learn more

Once you’ve sated your crazed mind, go out and take some more photos. Read a proper tutorial like this one and spend some time learning a bit more about the techniques and how you can use it to achieve truly impressive results.

Congratulations – another tool in the box. Go and play!