Often we are faced with a choice of what we want to expose in an image; either the sky or the foreground (as seen below). This is because unlike the performance of our eyes that can take in vast quantities of information at once, our cameras have a limited dynamic range (the difference between the brightest and darkest points). This scenario is classic when shooting indoors and the windows blow out to white, in architecture and travel shots where we want building details but also to expose the sky, or in landscapes where we really want all of the details in both the tree details and sky highlights.
Exposing for the sky
All shadow detail is lost but the sky highlights are maintained.
Exposing for the land
All highlight detail is lost but the land shadows are maintained.
Most cameras these days have a setting built in called HDR (high dynamic range). This setting takes multiple pictures at different brightnesses (exposures) and merges them into a single image; taking the shadow detail from the brighter images and the highlight detail from the darker images.
The problem we sometimes encounter with built in HDR is that the camera can ‘overcook’ the image, where it starts to look incredibly artificial and a little bit too dramatic. This is where learning how to bracket your images and merge them in editing software can be invaluable as you have total control of the end outcome.
1. Activate Bracketing
This will differ from camera to camera so it is best to look it up in your cameras manual but the universal options will be:
1. How many images you want to take
2. The exposure difference between the images (measured in f/ stops)
In the example I have below the settings are 5 images with a 1 stop difference between them. In a scene where the difference between the highlights and the shadows is more dramatic you might choose 3 stops difference between the shots.
2. Stabilise your camera
Because you may end up with some long exposures in your brighter images (a few seconds in some cases) you will want to use a tripod. This will also ensure that each image you take has the exact same composition which makes merging them much easier
3. Aperture Priority with burst mode
Using aperture priority will ensure you have the same depth of field in each shot which will aid in aligning the images later on in post production.
Whilst not absolutely essential, popping your camera into burst mode for shooting will speed up the bracketing. Given scenes can change quickly (cloud formations etc) you want to complete all of the images as close together as possible.
4. Shoot your images!
Clear and simple, take the photos! You will need to hold your finger on the shutter release if you are in burst mode or simply press the shutter 5 times (or however many images you have chosen in your HDR settings). This will give you 5 images of identical composition but with different exposures.
5. Lightroom CC HDR merge
Once you have your images loaded into Lightroom CC, select the set of images that make up your HDR, right click and choose “Merge Photo” then “HDR…”. There are literally thousands of programs that will allow you to merge HDR but this feature is now built into the latest version of Lightroom CC and will merge RAW files into a single .DNG and speed up the editing process. Doing this will give you what I like to call a HDR file with loads more information than a single shot.
In the HDR Merge Preview box, the deghosting options in the editor basically remove parts of each image that may not perfectly line up (think, leaves on trees if there is some wind, not every leaf will line up so it removes unwanted parts of the scene). I usually set this to ‘high’, check the ‘auto-tone’ and ‘auto-align’ options then click Merge!
6. Process or retouch
If you were shooting RAW you will end up with a new file with a .DNG extension (the part that says what kind of file it is). If you were shooting JPEG you will end up with a super-size JPEG. This file will have loads of both shadow and highlight detail and will already be ‘pre-edited’ as we selected ‘auto-tone’ in the previous window.
The real trick when editing or processing HDR is to tread lightly and not go over the top. If it starts to look artificial, you’ve gone too far! Stick to the following sliders for easy editing: