Home > Photoshop Tips/Tricks > Camera setup for HDR shooting.

Camera setup for HDR shooting.


The best camera setup for shooting photos to be used in HDR conversions is roughly the same as a careful setup for landscape or just any other type of carefully planned photograph. However, in order to get the best captures we can to work with, following a few quick steps first before shooting a series of images intended for HDR will give you a much better end result and less work on your part in editing.

First off, if you have a tripod, use it! Although some HDR software has the option to auto align images and correct for all sorts of things, I find most of the time it is mediocre at best. In fact, I have shot images ON a tripod and allowed the software to “auto align” the images and instead it mismatched the frames and made objects less aligned. So now I start my HDR captures with my camera on a sturdy tripod or set on a stable, solid surface. Also, by disabling the auto alignment features, it cuts the HDR generation time down considerably.

For the same reasons as the tripod (stability), I also suggest using a remote release or cable release of some type. Some cameras come with infrared remotes while most will accept a cable release. I prefer a very inexpensive imported cable release with an interval timer among other features built into the unit. (Very much like the Nikon cable release but for far less money.) This allows me to frame the shot, stabilize the tripod and NOT touch the camera or tripod at all during multiple captures. Even touching the camera to press the shutter release can cause very slight movements at the camera level which translate into much larger movements at 20 or 30 feet through the lens. Also by using the cable release, I can set it up to take my brackets for me by pressing the button once and allowing the interval timer to shoot a set number of frames for me.

Now that we are setup and ready to go, we need to get the camera set properly. First off, since we are using a tripod, unless you intend to shoot an HDR of a moving subject or something that will otherwise change over 15 or 20 seconds, you may as well set the camera to the lowest ISO setting (or the lowest native ISO setting). In the case of the Nikon D300, it has a base ISO of 200. Although it has a Low1 setting which is roughly equivalent to ISO 100, there is little to no gain from using it unless necessary to bring shutter speeds down in bright daylight. (Even then, there are other ways to tackle that problem.) With the tripod and remote release setup, you can easily shoot lower than 1/60th of a second without risk of camera shake blurring the frame. In fact, many of my HDR are shot with shutter speeds as slow as 2 to 5 seconds. Just be sure not to bump the tripod.

Current Settings: ISO 200, Apeture Priority, Flash WB, 5 Frame Auto Bracket

Current Settings: ISO 200, Apeture Priority, Flash WB, 5 Frame Auto Bracket

Next, I suggest either setting a custom white balance in the camera (see your owners manual on how to do that) OR select one of the programmed white points that matches the scene. If you shoot in RAW, you can simply capture a frame of your neutral target and set the white point in software later. We want to AVOID using Auto WB because this may cause the color to shift from frame to frame. By setting our own white balance in the camera, this insures that all of the frames for the bracket used in the HDR will have the exact same color tone. (This is also very important when shooting panoramic scenes.)

We now have the ISO and white balance set. Next thing I consider is the framing and focus. Of course you should frame up your shot as you intend and depending on lighting conditions, either manually focus or use auto focus targeted where you want the focus to be. But if you use auto focus (or if you manually focus with auto focus enabled), I suggest you TURN OFF auto focus once you have it sharp and where you want it. Again, this prevents the camera from potentially trying to refocus while shooting the bracket of frames. If you have a lens with image stabilization, I also suggest disabling this feature while shooting brackets for HDR’s. (As long as you are using a sturdy tripod and some sort of remote release, we should have no camera movement that will need further stabilization. Any lens stabilization motor or gyro mechanism  will only result in potential for slight misalignment from frame to frame.)

Although you don’t have to do it my way, I use Aperture Priority mode to shoot brackets for HDR’s. This way I know that my depth of field will not change from shot to shot. Only the shutter speed should change. You MAY need to go into the camera settings to be sure your bracketing mode is set up to change the shutter speed ONLY when using the auto bracketing feature (assuming your camera has the feature). In Aperture Priority, I like to set the camera generally between F/5 and F/8 which tends to give me a reasonable depth of field for most shots and plenty of sharpness for most lenses. I may break my own rules here depending on the subject matter, lens used and for whatever other reason. I often shoot a bracket at multiple apertures and pick the best set of images to use and delete the others. You CAN shoot in Manual mode but by using AP mode, I am completely sure that the shutter speed is the only thing changing from frame to frame.

D300 Auto Bracketing Screen (5 Frames, +/- 1 EV spacing between shots.)

D300 Auto Bracketing Screen (5 Frames, +/- 1 EV spacing between shots.)

Lastly, we need to get the camera into an auto bracketing mode. This will vary from camera to camera (read your manual) and some cameras may not have an auto bracketing feature. Most modern SLR cameras will have an auto bracketing control that can be activated with a button press or combination of buttons on the body of the camera. (This will depend on how you have your custom buttons setup. Again, refer to your manual.) Ideally I want a bracket with at least +/- 1 EV from frame to frame. This gives me a nice spread from shot to shot so I can quickly cover very overexposed to very underexposed with as few shots as possible. Most cameras will have a 1EV maximum but some may allow as much as 2EV steps. You may be able to adjust this in the custom menus in the camera. (You really should dig out that manual and read it for once!) Since I am limited to 1EV steps with my camera, I tend to use a 5 shot bracket in order to cover the perfect exposure + and – 2 full stops above and below that. In an extreme lighting scenario, I may go to a 7 or even 9 shot bracket just to be sure I get every little detail that I can from highlight to shadow. I may not need all of those shots to get a good HDR file, but it’s easier just to shoot them than it is to make up that lost detail later. If your camera does NOT have an auto bracketing feature, you can MANUALLY bracket by changing the camera to the fully MANUAL exposure mode, set the aperture as before but use the shutter speed dial to change the exposure manually for your bracket of images. (Yes, this negates the use of the remote release since you will need to touch the camera between frames to adjust the exposure. Don’t worry, your next camera will have an auto bracketing feature and hopefully you will read the manual to figure out how to use it.)

Sample 5 frame bracket for HDR.

Sample 5 frame bracket for HDR.

Now that the camera is set up, stable, focus is locked on and set to manual and the camera is set in auto bracketing mode, we are finally ready to shoot! I like to set my bracketing so that it captures the “ideal” exposure first, then shoots the + and – frames. You can set up your bracketing however you like. In any case, meter the scene as you would for a normal shot so that the majority of the exposure is “good” for the first shot. Then, depending on the number of frames in your bracket you set the camera to, go ahead and fire off the additional shots to complete the series. This should give you several more frames that will be over or under exposed compared to your perfect exposure. You can evaluate the detail in the images to be sure you are getting information from the deep shadows and bright highlights in at least the highest and lowest exposed frames. This is what we want and it will make creating an interesting HDR that much easier later.

That’s all there is to it!

Final HDR image after editing. Photo Copyright: © Jason Greashaber 2009

Final HDR image after editing. Photo Copyright: © Jason Greashaber 2009

In short:

  • Set up the camera on a stable tripod, table top or even the ground.
  • Use a cable release or wireless remote trigger if you have one.
  • Set the camera to the lowest base ISO for low noise.
  • Set a custom White Balance or pick a programmed WB, don’t use Auto!
  • Get in focus and then turn off auto focus.
  • Turn off image stabilization, you don’t need it on a tripod.
  • Aperture Priority for the win!
  • Set auto bracketing to at least +/- 1EV or more.
  • Practice, experiment and have fun!

May I also suggest my other HDR tutorial series:

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  1. modifiedphoto
    October 9, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    I thought I would leave a quick comment to clarify a few things.

    When bracketing, you don’t have to center bias the bracket. If you prefer, you can expose for highlights and bracket for shadows or the other way around. You may even want to bracket manually and shoot something like +3, +1, 0, -1, -2 or such. I frequently skip exposures in my HDR processing as it doesn’t necessarily add more detail to the final processed file.

    Experiment! Find what works best for your camera and style. The guide above is just a loose set of rules I use to capture brackets for HDR’s. You may find some of my steps unnecessary in your shooting.

    Many of the above steps are the same as what I do for shooting panoramic images. In fact, I often shoot pano’s as brackets just in case I may need or want to create an HDR from it at a later time.

    My above finished example is after further retouching. I opted to retain some of the deeper shadows in the corners and some of the bright highlights in the window to retain the feeling I had when I first walked into the barn. You CAN edit the tone mapped image and make it look how you want if you feel that is what the image needs to be finished in your eyes. Remember, just because it is an HDR doesn’t mean the majority of the image has to fall in the middle of the histogram.

  1. January 2, 2010 at 12:29 am

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