How to make your photos pop: HDR in Three Easy Steps

The Secret to Stunning Photos

Have you ever wondered how the professional photographers capture the landscapes so brilliantly? The wonderful hues – the waters so blue, the leaves so green, the sand so gold, and the heavenly sceneries all seemed to be from an unearthly paradise. I am revealing the secret… you can do the same with simple equipment and finishing touches with software.


(I am a novice in photography and I am not used to writing tutorials; but I am just recently inspired to share this with you, hoping that my readers may find this useful. You may not have the same equipment or the same processing software, but the concepts are the same.)

Modern mirrorless cameras, with their relatively large sensors (for example APS-C size on my good old NEX-3) already can capture images with a wide dynamic range. In simple terms, the sensor preserves the details in both the highlights and the shadows, without giving you white blow-outs for skies or patches of featureless black when photographing dark hair. But sometimes, you may be forced to photograph a scene with high contrast, like a tree against a bright sky. Then what can I do? Either push up the EV (and overexpose the image) to show the details of the tree, or lower the EV (and underexpose) to preserve the colors and texture of the sky.

Imagine how much information there is, contained in three different photos – the subtle variations in color and contrast – combining three of them into one HDR image boosts the dynamic range, making colors and details stand out.

Step 1. Use Auto-Bracketing – Capturing 3 different exposures

Fortunately, new cameras have either (1) built-in HDR function, or (2) auto-bracketing function to come to your rescue. They function similarly – the camera takes a series of three images in quick succession using three different shutter speeds (hence three different exposures from light to dark, e.g. -0.3, 0, +0.3 EV), and with HDR processing we can combine these three together to become one image, so you get both the shadow details (from the underexposed picture) and the highlight details (from the brighter one). Built-in HDR in cameras does this processing for you; while auto-bracketing gives you the freedom for post-processing. Of course, there is no better fun than getting the most out of your images all by yourself! :)

Say for example, I have these three images (-0.3, 0, +0.3 EV). They look a bit dull and washed-out, don’t you agree? Let us create a beautiful picture out of them.


Step 2. Post-processing – Compiling 3 images into one

Now we come to the more difficult part – post-processing – but don’t panic yet! I believe in using the simplest equipment to get the biggest effect. I use Aperture 3 on my Mac to organize my albums, and Photomatix offers an HDR plugin to Aperture which is so handy that I can just select the three pictures I want and then combine them to HDR via Photomatix Pro by a few magical clicks.

(Note to our fellow Windows users: you can use Photomatix too, it can run as a standalone application. There are a number of Photomatix versions for Windows/Mac, any one of them works. Alternatively, you can have other HDR processing software, which you can search for online reviews for comparison.)

I highlight the images I want and click edit with Photomatix HDR. Next, it prompts you with a few dialog boxes, asking you whether you want to align the three images and remove ghosts and reduce noise. I click the affirmative action to proceed. These steps will eliminate the problems met with combining three images together. For example, the series of images may not be perfectly aligned (because of hand shake etc.) and may result in a blurry final image, or there may be moving objects or people in the set and you may end up getting one person with three legs and two heads in the compiled photo.

Afterwards you will be taken to the main screen of the Photomatix program.

Step 3. The Finishing Touches

Using this software is easy. I mostly use the presets. There are more subtle ones, like “Natural” and “Soft”, or more extravagant ones, like “Painterly”, for you to experiment. “Photographic” and “Deep” lie somewhere in the middle.

I am not familiar with the inner workings of the program, so I cannot bore you with the details of the advanced modes and settings. But there are enough dials and levers for you to try on your own. Actually I tell you my secret, I find the “Black and White” preset the best, I select it first, and then I adjust the color saturation (of course I don’t want the final picture in B&W) and the exposure on the left panes.

The above image is quite good and natural, it suits my taste. However, some of you may like “surreal” looks, and this program does offer some amazing lighting effects which make your pictures look like a vibrantly colored surrealistic painting, like the one below.

Now you can turn these…


Into this!

Just click “Save” and then you’re done. Well, that’s it! HDR in three easy steps.

Step 4. A Hearty Recommendation

You can check out my post of the Tai Tam Reservoir, which many photos had HDR processing. Otherwise, please check out some of the older HDR pictures I had taken in the past in the links below.

Also, I would like to recommend a fellow blogger’s website to you, his name is Dave Morgan and his HDR photos are simply stunning – really beyond what my words can describe. You must see it yourself and please kindly follow the link here.

I hope you find this useful!


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