Beginners Guide to High Dynamic Range Photography

High dynamic range (HDR) is perhaps one of the most vivid photographic image processing options.  In just the past couple years HDR has taken off in landscape and indoor photography.  But what you may not know is that HDR came about in the late 1800s though it is not until now that computers could handle the math computations to process photos digitally with HDR.

This is a beginner’s introduction to HDR using a Nikon D200 digital SLR camera, however you can still do HDR if you own any digital camera that allows changes to the exposure values (EV). If you are using another digital SLR camera (Canon, Pentax), check the manual for the setting up auto bracketing.

Using a point and shoot camera is just a tad trickier than using a DSLR but make sure to use a tripod so there’s no camera shake.  Then on the P&S settings for the camera, put it in manual mode, turn the flash off, keep the ISO at auto (too high ISO will create noise), and use the Menu to change EV.  It will take almost a minute to do the shoot.  Some point and shoot do allow for bracketing but it is something you will need to read up on.

If you know how to do bracketing (changing the EV photos in series shots) but unsure how to use Photomatix, you can follow this guide from step 7 onward.

What you need:

  • Photomatix – you can use the free trial to test drive the features before buying.  Photomatix software.  It’s a stand alone program (though can be integrated with CS3) created by HDRsoft.
  • 3-5 Photos – These photos should be in RAW (JPG if you are in a serious pinch) with different exposure settings.  Instructions are below.
  • Post processing program – Photoshop or Gimp works fine.

Taking the Photos:

1. First, you need photos.  Three photos are a good start, five are ideal.  On the Nikon D200 (similar to D300), have your images set to RAW, large file, and fine quality.

2. Get a tripod.  These photos should take as still as possible and tripod works the best.  I did the hand held in the sample photos and you can see small shakes in the photo.  Even the negligible camera shake between shots can affect the final photo so best to hunker down the camera to a good tripod and keep it still.

3. Take a normal photo and set the EV to the best possible photo that you can make in standard lighting.   Also, do not shoot in Shutter priority as the shutter speed needs to be adjusted because of the varying EV.  I shoot in Aperture priority, normally f/2.8.

4. Now set the exposure by pressing the BKT button on the camera: on the upper left side of the camera.  If you hold the button down and turn the dial (the one on the back of the camera body), you can see on the screen different exposure sets appear.  Some go every 1/3 EV, while some are -3, -1, 0, +1, +3.  You can decide what works best depending on your lighting conditions.

5. If all is good, turn the BKT on by pressing down the button and turning the dial so you see the BKT sign pop up on the screen.

6. Shoot, shoot, shoot the set of photos.  You can see the five original photos on Flickr that I used.  On each photo one part is perfectly exposed, the rest are highly over or under exposed.  Here they are:  1., 2., 3., 4., 5.

Start here for Photomatix Processing Steps:

7. Once you have your photos loaded on the computer, open up Photomatix.  You have three options: Generate HDR Image, Exposure Fusion, and Batch Processing.

a. Generate HDR Image – It is the function most often used with Photomatix to blend at least two photos of different exposures.

b. Exposure Fusion – Creates a natural looking feel to a photo but with more limiting options.  Sometimes EF is a better choice than the above.  If your image turns out terrible with Generate HDR (too fantasy-like especially), then try this function.  The file format for Exposure Fusion is best with processed photos, like JPEG.

c. Batch Processing – Exactly what it means, batch process photos for different HDRs.

8. We are going to use Generate HDR Image.  Click on it and then ‘Browse’ on the popup dialog box.  You can select all your photos.

9. Press OK.

10. You now are given options now for creating your HDR photo.  I choose aligning images by Matching Features as this photo was taken without a tripod.  I can eventually crop the photo in post processing if parts are missing at the edges.  The remaining choices are up to the need of the photo, but I have normally not used them.  Click on Okay.


11. Using RAW photos will take a few minutes to process, so go grab a cup a tea and a cookie while Photomatix processes and aligns the photos.

12. You will now get a very ugly looking photo that is not tone mapped.  Click on Tone Mapping to get settings for tone mapping.


13. The settings will allow you tweak the photo to look realistic as the way you remember it in person.  The major functions are Strength, Color Saturation, Luminosity, Microcontrast, and Smooting.  I tend to keep the color saturation at least 50, even higher to really feel the colors of the objection.  Also, always make sure that in Smooting, you have it set to High or Max, lower settings will create  a painting type feel to the photo.

3-tone-mapping copy

14. After tweaking everything, press Process and you will now get a finished product.  Go ahead and save it as a 16bit (if the photo is in RAW format) or 8bit (if the photo is in JPEG).

15. Post process the photo in Photoshop or Gimp or whatever program that makes you happy.  Ssave up!  You have now created an HDR photo.  Not as hard as it looks right?


I love HDR because it fills in that missing spot when shooting large landscapes or indoor low lighting that a standard digital shot fails to capture.  To be honest, it does not matter what digital camera you use, just that you know how to use the camera. After I read a lot of digital slr camera reviews, I bought a Nikon D200 (now the newer is D300) and it is extremely versatile. But even lower end Nikon cameras like the D40, D70, D90 take wonderful HDR photos too.

HDR brings a realness and alive feeling to these photos. As a caveat, high dynamic range photography should not be used all the time.  Even if you take mostly landscapes, sometimes pure, unadulterated photos are the best.  If you are interested in HDR Photography, join this Flickr HDR Discussion Group. Happy Shooting!

About the Author:

Preeti is an amateur photographer in Stockholm, Sweden.  She loves taking photos of Stockholm and even jellyfish, plus a musing about Swedish life.


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