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HDR Photography Basics

Sunrise at the Concord Point Lighthouse

When is an HDR photograph called for?

High Dynamic Range photography is ideal for use in situations where you have a broad range of lighting conditions, and a static or mostly static scene. An example would be an indoor shot where you want to also show the outside scenery through a window. Or maybe a landscape photograph taken in the golden hour where you want the shadows to be less prominent. It has many uses, and is also used artistically to create very colorful pictures that, although not realistic looking, are beautiful nonetheless.

Taking the photograph

Depending on the range of shadows and lighting you can use a set of 3, 5 or seven images. They should be taken using a tripod, if possible. Lightroom (and other HDR software) can do a good job of de-ghosting and aligning, but it is always best to use a tripod for stability when it is possible.

You should take a series of images with the same base settings and then use negative exposure compensation for 1,2 or 3 shots and positive exposure compensation for 1,2 or 3 shots. The amount of exposure compensation should be about 2/3 of a stop for each increment.

A 3 shot HDR will give you one shot underexposed by 2/3 of a stop, one shot with normal exposure, and one shot overexposed by 2/3 of a stop. For a 5 shot HDR you would have an additional shot underexposed by 1 1/3 stops and one shot overexposed by 1 1/3 stops. And for a 7 shot HDR you would have an additional shot underexposed by 2 stops and one shot overexposed by 2 stops.

Many cameras now have settings to automatically set up the range of settings for you and then take the shots. They might even take the shot as an in-camera HDR image for you. Although those in-camera HDR images are generally a great improvement over a single exposure, I prefer to have the flexibility of a manually processed HDR image.

A trick I learned from others about HDR batches is that it is always a good idea to take a first and last shot that will identify the batch when you are post processing. A good suggestion that I saw is to take one picture with your hand in the picture with one finger extended to show the start of the batch (no, not THAT finger) and two fingers extended after you finish the batch to show the end of the batch.

Processing in Lightroom

Lightroom makes it easy to create an HDR image. Start out by selecting all of the images from the batch. Next, select “Photo”, then “Photo Merge” then “HDR”. If you are happy with the results, click the “Merge” button at the bottom of the popup window.

If Lightroom is unable to merge the images, it is likely that one or more of the images differs enough in composition that it cannot align them. Many times it is possible to then create a useable HDR image from a sub-group of your images by selecting images that look the closest from the group and excluding any that look different in composition.

It is also possible to create a pseudo-HDR image from a single shot, described in this article.


HDR photography is a great way to improve your images in static scenes that have a wide range of light conditions. It can also be used to create artistic images that appear somewhat over saturated and overly bright and colorful. They are easy to shoot, and Lightroom makes it easy to merge the images. It is a method well worth experimenting with to find out if it fits in with your style of photography.

You will find other articles about HDR and photography here.

Copyright 2021 by Walt Payne Photography. All rights reserved.

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