How High Dynamic Range saved the Tidal Basin and 6 tips to use HDR on your photos

The Washington Monument across The Tidal Basin My iPhone just did not want to take this picture. On our Cherry Blossom Photo Tour, we came to a point where we saw this view. The late afternoon light and reflection on the Tidal Basin created a scene that was simply breathtaking.

Naturally, I reached for my iPhone to snap a quick reminder. Yuck! The Washington Monument was overexposed. Easy fix. I’ll get my iPhone to expose for the Monument. Yuck again. Now the Cherry Blossoms were underexposed.

Why can’t I get a shot like that with my iPhone? Well, I can. A technique called HDR allowed me to better portray what my eyes saw. Luckily, my iPhone has an auto HDR feature.

What is HDR, and why is it important? The range of light to dark that your camera sees is significantly less than what your eyes recognize. For a full tonal range, many photographers will shoot one photo at settings the camera suggests, another overexposed, and a third underexposed. Blending the best of these three images using software is what we call High Dynamic Range, or HDR. It allows you to capture more of the highlights and shadows than you might normally record in a photo.

Ready to try it for yourself? Here are six HDR tips to remember:

  • Choose the right subject. Look for a greater range of highlights to shadows. Make sure everything is relatively stable in the image, since you’ll need to merge the photos. Good choices include landscapes and architecture. 
  • Use a tripod. To get all three images closely aligned, you will need to keep the camera in the same place. A tripod will help you do that.
  • Use your camera’s auto bracketing feature -- That is where your camera takes three shots in rapid succession that vary in exposure compensation.
  • Adjust the shutter speed, not the aperture.  If you take three pics at three different aperture settings, the depth of field changes each time. You will get three very different photos, which will make them hard to blend.
  • Shoot in Raw format. Raw images capture more information in the range of colors. You might even be able to create the three files based on one raw file.
  • Choose the right software. The three leading software apps have very different approaches. Here is a review that could help you understand the differences. The right software depends on your subject, the time you have to invest, and a host of other factors.

If you don't have time for all that, many cameras’ auto HDR feature will do it all for you. Just like my iPhone. Try it out for yourself.