All About HDR Photography

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(Last Updated On: October 3, 2016)

You may have noticed the HDR feature on your iOS or Android camera app. What is HDR? How did it begin? How can we create HDR photography? What does it actually DO?

What is HDR Photography?

HDR stands for high dynamic range photography. When a camera snaps a photograph of a scene, there are areas of both high and low light intensity. The spectrum of lightness and darkness between these extremes defines the camera’s dynamic range. The camera processor must choose an exposure within that dynamic range to best capture the scene and details. HDR Photography is a method of blending exposures of the same scene to maximize detail.

Learn about Dynamic Range

From inside a building, open your camera app and point the lens at an exterior window. You will notice the details of whatever is outside the window. Grass blades, tree leaves, and street signs in the sunlight appear detailed and clear. Your camera is set to a low exposure because the sun is a powerful light source.

Now pivot the camera lens towards the window sill. The exposure will re-adjust to the new, lower light levels. You’ll notice the details inside the room will become brighter and clearer. Your camera is now set to a higher exposure to let more light into the photo. Any light from the window will become blown out. Outdoor details will become lost in the brightness.

Your camera is making adjustments to maximize visible details. Cameras, especially older ones, do a bad job capturing both dark and light details. Windows are not the only subject which causes this issue. Any light source (monitors, lamps, signs) forces your camera to change its exposure level.

Now imagine making a collage of different exposure photos of the outdoor and indoor scenes. We could combine the outdoor details from the low-exposure photo with the indoor details from the high exposure photo. Both the light and dark areas of the scene would have detail and their brightness would be more level. Nothing would be in a heavy shadow, and nothing would be washed out with light. This is HDR photography.

How HDR Photography Began

HDR photography began with photographers combining multiple negatives into a positive image during darkroom processing. The example below presents a bright, sunlight patch of ocean and sky, yet the details of the clouds and waves and even the shoreline can still be discerned.


Gustav Le Grey, 1850

Gustav Le Grey, 1850

Later, dodging and burning (changing the exposure of specific areas of a photograph during developing) became the preferred method to capture the dynamic range of a scene. The photo by W. Eugene Smith below shows an example of early HDR photography. You can see the folds in the bright white shirt. The wire frame of the lampshade is clearly visible. At the same time, the background details towards the back of the room are clear. The right-hand side of the subject’s face, in shadow, still shows good detail.

Schweitzer at the Lamp by W. Eugene Smith 1954

Schweitzer at the Lamp by W. Eugene Smith 1954

Ansel Adams was a master of dodging and burning. His landscape photography often included bright skies, glaring snow caps, and reflective bodies of water contrasted against dark forest expanses and shadowy rock walls. To bring out the detail of these extremes, he would burn the strong lights and dodge the dark areas, producing a high dynamic range.

Ansel Adams, Yosemite

Ansel Adams, Yosemite

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, technology introduced HDR settings into video camera recorders. Nowadays, most camera apps have an HDR setting.

Where You See HDR Images Today

HDR photography has become popular in the real estate industry. Realtors can now capture photos of rooms with bright windows and still keep details of the interior. Architectural and video game renderings usually include some HDR processing to enhance visual detail. Landscape and cityscape photographers sometimes use HDR.

HDR Real Estate Photo

HDR Real Estate Photo


Chicago Cityscape HDR

Chicago Cityscape HDR

Televisions manufacturers (Samsung, LG, and Sony) are adopting HDR technology as well. Netflix and Amazon Prime are adding HDR content. More about HDR television.

HDR Capable TV

HDR Capable TV

Digital Methods and Photoshop for HDR Photography

Adobe Photoshop and other programs offer methods to work with HDR photography.

Merge to HDR

This method requires the same photo at different exposures, so you will need to know how to adjust your camera’s exposure level. Use a tripod for the best results.

Photoshop has had a “Merge to HDR” feature since 2005. Under the File menu, select Automate > Merge to HDR. Choose multiple exposures of the same photo with the pop-up dialog. There are settings to tweak to your liking. The end result will be an HDR representation of your original photos.

Third-Party Software

Photoshop plugins such as HDRsoft and Redynamix are available for fine-tuned HDR processing.

No Photoshop? Standalone HDR programs exist:

HDR and Apple Products

Apple’s HDR camera feature was first introduced in iOS4.1 (release September 2010). It combines several images taken in quick succession, and can toggle either on or off. Since then, Apple added an Auto option. To avoid overdoing the effect, Apple’s HDR feature blends the HDR version of the image with the original to produce a more subtle effect.

Camera Repair with iFixYouri

Of course, HDR photography is impossible with no camera. If your camera lens broke, or if your camera does not take clear or focused pictures, visit iFixYouri. Our technicians offer professional camera repair for all makes and models of smartphones and tablets. Repairs are available for both front and rear cameras. All replacement parts come with a 90-day warranty that covers everything but accidental damage. Happy snapping!