Manual HDR bracketing

Of course there are situations that demand a more customized approach to capturing the full dynamic range of the scene. In those instances, manually setting and choosing exposures to merge together is a must. After capturing the images I prefer to use HDR-specific software like Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro and HDR Soft's Photomatix. Let's take a look at two examples.

Los Osos, California: Canon 5D Mark II, EF 15mm fisheye lens.

The key with the image you see above was to capture make sure I captured the entire range of shadows and highlights. To do this, I had to take the following exposures: 0Ev, -2 EV, +2EV, +3EV, +4EV and +5EV. There were a lot of dark shadows in the car's interior that needed to be recorded.

This screen grab from Adobe Bridge shows my six original images. My camera was set on Manual and I bracketed the exposure by changing the shutter speed for each shot. As you can see, I had to take more overexposed images than underexposed images in order to capture the dark shadows below the front seats.

Here is another HDR composite. This time it was in the highlights that I had to devote more attention in my exposures.

Florida Hotel, Old Havana Cuba: Canon 5D Mark II, EF 15mm fisheye lens.

You'll notice in the screen shots below that I had to take more underexposed images than overexposed images to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene.

These are the five original files from which I created my HDR image.

Both of these images I've just shown convey a very important point. You must take the time to recognize just where along the tonal range the scene exceeds the dynamic range of your camera. Simply taking an equal number of images over and under the middle exposure will not always capture all of the information in the scene.

Quick tips

No matter what type of HDR images you are looking to create, here are some basic guidelines that can ensure the best possible results.

• Keep your aperture constant and instead bracket by adjusting shutter speed.

• Use a tripod whenever possible for best all-around results.

• If you must shoot handheld, position yourself so you can hold the camera as steady as possible.

• Use the onscreen histogram to make sure you have captured the entire tonal range of the scene.

• Resist the urge to open up the shadows too much. Without rich shadows, image simply look flat.

Iceland landscape: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24-105mm IS lens.

This is one of my favorite HDR images. It was shot on a recent trip to Iceland. I could not have retained detail both in the clouds and along the shadowed ridges of the mountains in a single exposure. A perfect opportunity for in-camera HDR. I like the way this veers closer towards a painterly effect, yet is still much more subtle than what we typically associate with HDR photography.

What I hope you've seen from these examples is that there are degrees of application when it comes to HDR imagery. We all have our own tastes and preferences, of course. But today there are enough options available that HDR can be very useful even to those photographers who prefer more natural results.


Awarding-winning photographer Rick Sammon is a Canon Explorer of Light and the author of numerous books. He leads international workshops and seminars covering shooting technique and image processing. To learn more about his work, visit his blog, Rick Sammon's Digital Imaging Diaries. You can find his iHDR app for iOS in Apple's App store.