Making the Best Use of HDR in Landscape Photography

Do you love landscape photography? It provides ample rewards for those who are drawn to the outdoors. Chasing the light can be very exciting but it also poses some significant challenges. What you see versus what the camera sees can be two very different things.

Making the Best Use of HDR in Landscape Photography - two images of a forest

What is High Dynamic Range and why it matters

Much of the best light comes with difficulties related to exposure, and all cameras have limitations when it comes to exposure. The problem is High Dynamic Range or HDR.

Your eyes have an immense dynamic range when it comes to scenes with extremes of bright and dark. Your eye adjusts so quickly you don’t notice it. But your cameras sensor, on the other hand, has a fixed dynamic range. If the scene you’re photographing exceeds that, the camera can’t capture all the details at both ends of the contrast range.

There are several methods for dealing with this limitation:

  • You can underexpose the image and allow the darker elements to become silhouettes. But that only works in a few situations.
  • You can use a graduated neutral density filter. This works best when there is a straight dividing line between the bright and dark areas of the image. Otherwise, the tops of foreground objects like trees become darker than the bottoms.
  • Or you can use a method that works in all situations and the solution is simple. If the sensor can’t capture the full dynamic range in a single shot, take several shots at different exposures that span the dynamic range. Later, in the digital darkroom, blend the images together to make a single image.

Lower Antelope Canyon - Making the Best Use of HDR in Landscape Photography

There are two parts to the HDR process – capturing the image in the field and processing it in the digital darkroom. Let’s start in the field.

Setting up an HDR shot

Here are the things you need to do to set up an HDR shot for landscape photography. The starting point is your normal landscape configuration.

  • It’s customary to use a tripod for landscape photography and this applies to HDR as well. However, with the exciting advances in alignment technology in applications like Photomatix Pro, more and more HDR photography can be done hand-held.
  • Set your camera mode to Aperture Priority. You want all your exposures to maintain the same depth of field.
  • Set your focus to manual (or use back button focus); you don’t want the focal point changing between shots.
  • Use a remote release and set your drive to continuous mode. That way, you don’t inadvertently jiggle the camera when you press the shutter button. This way, one press of the remote‘s button takes all your shots.
  • Set your exposure bracketing, you’ll typically want 2 stops difference between shots.
  • Set the number of shots, typically 3. But be aware that in extreme conditions you may need 5 or more shots to capture the full dynamic range of the scene.

Note: Your camera may have restrictions on exposure bracketing and/or the number of shots, so you will need to work with that. The important thing is to get enough shots to cover the entire dynamic range.

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