How to Use the HDR Technique to Take Great Photos

by Max Therry

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Have you ever come back from a great holiday only to look back at your photographs to see that your nature images are lacking a certain ‘something’, and you’re unable to see all the detail in that amazing safari scene that you saw with your eyes. Well, worry no more because we’ve put together a guide to help you get the most out of your nature shots.

Taking photos is a must when you’re on a wildlife safari but shooting in sunlight can make it difficult for your camera to cope with the contrast changes. Your camera will always try to use its exposure meter to capture the mid-range of tones, which is why you end up with areas that are too bright and too dark.

Enter HDR, or High Dynamic Range.  This is a term used in photography to describe an image that has the complete tonal range, from shadows to highlights and everything in between. HDR is great for nature and safari photos, as it gives you great detail and infuses everything with light. Meaning you can capture all the textures and fine details of what you see, from an epic sunset landscape shot to the fur or feathers of the wildlife. 

Shooting for HDR Images

landscape photograph at sunset

The preparation and actual shooting of HDR images is a little different from what you may be used to. You’ll need to bracket the exposure of your shots, so it’s worth looking at your camera manual to find out how to use this feature.

There are some things you should be aware of before you shoot HDR. One is called ‘ghosting’. This is when you have moving things in your bracketed images, such as a car or animal. For instance, you may be on a crocodile safari and wish to snap a picture of this ancient animal while it is resting on the water’s edge. Even though you may think the animal is perfectly still, it could still be moving a little. You won’t see this, but the camera will pick it up when you take your bracketed images. When you go to merge your crocodile images, you’ll find that the croc may have strange, repeating edges where it moved. If it’s a windy day, you may find it hard to avoid ghosting from trees, plants and even clouds as they move across the sky.

The other issue is alignment. I mention using a tripod below, as it will keep your images tightly aligned on the same subject. If you have to hand-hold your camera, keep it as still as possible and don’t move it at all while you shoot. If you’re bracketing manually, change your settings while looking through the viewfinder. Most cameras have the shutter speed, ISO, aperture information displayed digitally in your viewfinder, so this makes it easier to change settings without moving the camera.

Here are some tips for taking brackets:

  • Use a tripod. Even if you are shooting in bright light, you need your camera to hold steady in one place, so you won’t have problems merging the images later.
  • Shoot in Raw file format, not JPEG. Raw files are uncompressed, which means they capture all of the tonal information in a scene. That’s why they take up so much space on your memory card. JPEG’s are smaller and are compressed to make them so. This means that the camera gets rid of some of the information from the image during compression, which is not good for HDR. JPEG images also have sharpening, contrast and saturation settings adjusted automatically by the camera. Raw files don’t have these artificial adjustments added, which means you have full control over how your image looks later in the process.
  • Choose your aperture and focal length, and don’t change it. A good aperture for having things sharp from front to back in your images is f/16. This aperture and upwards to f/32 are good for shooting in bright sunlight. Keep your focal length the same for each shot you want to use in HDR. If you shoot one image at 18mm, shoot them all at 18mm. That will help prevent distortion when merging.
  • Set up your camera to AEB (automatic exposure bracketing) mode. Good HDR images can be made from three different exposures and is a good starting point. Doing five or more bracketed shots will give you even more tonal range. A good starting bracket is to set your camera to take three shots - one shot at around one stop underexposed, one shot at correct midtone exposure, and a final shot at one stop overexposed. These three shots will be merged to create your HDR image. Your camera will take care of this automatically when you set the bracket up, so you have three separate shots at different exposures.
  • Choose your scene carefully. Landscapes or architecture suit HDR very well, one of the reasons being that they don’t move! If you have moving objects in an HDR image, you’ll end up with ‘ghosting’ when you merge in your editing software. Some image editors can try to fix this issue, but it’s easier if it’s not there in the first place.

Merging Your Images

day time landscape photo

Once you’ve got your bracketed images, you’ll need image editing software to bring them together into one image. Photoshop has an HDR merge feature, which is fine if you already use Photoshop anyway, but the monthly subscription fee makes it an expensive choice for those who only want to use it occasionally. You can get a free HDR plugin for Photoshop called HDR Efex Pro by Google – formerly Nik software. The drawback to this is that you have to have Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture to make it work. Softwares like Aurora HDR or Photomatix are also a good choice since they were developed specifically for working with HDR images.

Some image editors also allow you to upload one single image and try to create an HDR look with it, which is handy if you love HDR and want to give some of your old images that particular look.

Most dedicated HDR editors use roughly the same upload and merging process:

  • Open your image editor, and choose your bracketed images to upload.
  • Once you click to start the process, it can take a while for all the images to be aligned, adjusted and merged. The more images you have to merge, the longer it will take.
  • Your merged images will appear as one single one. Hopefully, it will have a wide tonal range from shadows to highlights, and you should be able to see every detail.
  • You’ll probably still need to fine-tune your image. In Aurora HDR, there are sets of adjustable overlays and presets to give your image different looks and styles. If you did it in Photoshop, you can make your image adjustments there, or move the image to another editor.
  • Don’t overdo it. It can be tempting to ramp up the saturation etc to give a dramatic effect, but I’m sure you’ve seen HDR images on the internet that are garish and cartoonish. They get attention for all the wrong reasons – unless the cartoonish look is what you’re going for. In that case, have at those adjustment sliders.


Final Thoughts

Although HDR doesn’t lend itself well to taking images of fast-moving wild animals, you can get some great shots of slower or resting animals if you are very patient. The rewards are worth the wait, as the detail and light of HDR can make some stunning images.  For taking images of faster-moving wildlife, you can use a high shutter speed to freeze their movement and get some dramatic action shots. You will need enough light to use your camera at around 1/250th second or more to do this.

The African landscape and buildings are perfect subjects for HDR. If you use the HDR technique, you’ll be able to capture the full range of colors and tones to do your subjects full justice.


Ready to put the HDR Technique into practice? Then head on an epic photography safari in Uganda to capture the region’s amazing scenery and wildlife!

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