A Brief Introduction to HDR Photography

As impressive as digital cameras are, there are still shooting environments that push your camera to its limits. One of the most infamous are scenes with a high dynamic range (HDR). HDR refers to the ratio of light to dark in a photograph. When there is a scene that combines very bright light with very deep shadows, cameras can struggle to pick up the detail in either the light or dark areas.

That’s where HDR photography comes in. It’s a method that brings out the details that are otherwise obscured by harsh light or dense darkness. The results, as seen above, can be breathtaking.

In the camera, HDR photography can be handled by taking multiple photos at different settings and using algorithms to blend these images into a single, pleasing whole. Many cameras will offer a dedicated HDR mode that does just that, snapping three or more images and quickly processing them in-camera to achieve the desired effect. Even smartphones are getting into the act: the iPhone 5s, for instance, has an automatic HDR mode that can apply the technology if it detects a scene that suffers from too much dynamic range.

But let’s say your camera doesn’t offer an HDR mode or you’d like to coax detail out of your photos after-the-fact, what can you do?

Zoner Photo Studio 16 offers two ways to create beautiful HDR images. The first leverages the Exposure Blending HDR tool (found in the Manager’s Create menu) and will only work if you have several photos of an identical scene taken at different exposure settings. You’ll need at least two, but three is preferred. It will blend these images together, much like a camera app will, only you’ll have a lot more control over the intensity of the effect thanks to the software’s sliders. 

But you didn’t plan ahead and take multiple exposures of the same scene, did you? That’s ok, you can still dabble with HDR using the HDR via Tone Mapping feature. It’s also found in the Manager’s Create menu and lets you make adjustments to either Contrast or Brightness across the entire photo with sliders on hand to fine tune a range of settings, such as Shadow Intensity and Light Intensity. This method is broader-brush since it impacts the entire photo, but can help if it’s the only image you’ve got.

Now that you’ve got a sense of how to go about HDR photography, there are some times when you do want a lot of contrast in a scene. For instance, you may want to play with shadows and silhouettes for artistic effect. Similarly, if you have a scene with very vivid colors, blending multiple exposures can wash those out or give the photo a starkly unnatural look. Like any photographic tool, it takes experimentation to get a feel for when it works best.

(For a full deep-dive into HDR photography in Zoner Photo Studio 16, check out this piece. If you’re struggling to lighten just a portion of a photo, check out Tomas Slavicek’s walk-through here. Want to see HDR in action? Check out this great gallery of HDR photos from Zonerama users.)

(Image: Roman Lechner)

Last updated 17. April 2014

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Author: Greg Scoblete

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