HDR Photography and Equipment

Because I lead workshops, I am often asked if a point and shoot digital camera is okay. Well, the simple answer is absolutely yes. Here is a little story to illustrate my point. Let’s say that two photographers wake up early one morning for a full day of shooting. They both want to capture HDR images during the early morning and late afternoon golden hours. Photographer one, I’ll call him Sam, has an expensive, professional grade D-SLR camera with an expensive 28-105mm f/2.8 lens but has only a moderate understanding of the camera and its functions and has generally poor technique.

hdr photo equipment

Photo by Flickr user Miwok.

Photographer two, I’ll call her Betty, is using a mid-level fixed zoom lens on a camera with some manual control options. Betty, unlike Sam, has excellent knowledge of the camera and its functions and has really good technique. If I were to choose in advance which of these photographers will return with better images I would bet on Betty. One becomes a better photographer, not by purchasing expensive equipment, but by learning how to use the equipment one has and by practicing good technique.

If one wants to learn how to shoot HDR then one must first learn technique. One need not have a ton of fancy equipment to create the drama inherent in the HDR image. Quite the contrary, one can get started with the bare essentials. All one really needs to get started is an inexpensive point and shoot digital camera so long as you have the ability to use some kind of manual exposure compensation. You also need a sturdy tripod. Holding the camera steady during exposure bracketing is an absolute must for merging files to create an HDR image. Most point and shoot cameras do not have the ability to capture RAW files but no worries. While not perfect, merging JPEGs works well in most merges to HDR.

arizona desert photo

Photo by Joel Tonyan.

Shooting handheld with a point and shoot camera, or even a D-SLR for that matter, is only possible if the camera offers an automatic exposure bracketing (AEB) feature. Even then, I tend to not recommend one attempt a handheld bracket exposure if one can at all avoid it. Without AEB the tripod is an absolute requirement. It is next to impossible to play with the exposure settings while trying to shoot holding the camera in your hand. Remember, creating an HDR image requires that one merge three to five digital exposures into a single file. While currently available software is really good at aligning images, hand-held exposures may have such a range of misalignment that the merging software cannot figure out just what to do.

When shooting HDR one is also advised to take white balance off auto mode choosing the most appropriate pre-programmed white balance setting. If your camera has an auto ISO feature, take it off auto and select the slowest (lowest) ISO setting possible for the luminance of the scene. Whatever you do, do not use your built in flash.

Here are a few tips for using a digital point and shoot camera when capturing images for later conversion to HDR.

  • Remember, a tripod is preferable to hand-held shooting
  • Turn off as many automatic settings as possible thereby controlling as much as possible manually
  • If your camera offers aperture priority mode then use it. Vary exposure by shutter speed keeping the aperture fixed. This lets you control depth of field.
  • Decide how to bracket. On a bright sunny day +2,0,-2 or a 5-stop range is appropriate range. In shadows or on an overcast day or even indoors a +1,0,-1 or 3-stop range is more appropriate. A bit of experimenting will help you decide which works best for you.
long exposure photo

Photo by Donald Ogg.

In the final analysis, equipment is far less important than learning and then using good technique. I have a black and white image hanging in my home that was shot using an oatmeal box, sheet film and a pinhole. The image is stunning and the camera was made from the simplest of tools.

About the Author:
Roger Passman is an award winning professional photographer located in Northern Illinois (rogerpassmanphotography dot net). He often leads creative photo workshops designed for beginning through intermediate amateur photographers.

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  1. I like your points about good technique. The equipment doesn’t make a good photograph, the person behind the camera does.

  2. Some really great pictures and some good tips. I can’t wait to try these out for myself.

  3. Leonard says:

    How do they do this? This is AMAZING! Help!

  4. Daniel Price says:

    I’ve had great success with Photomatix with handheld shots, even without AEB … as long as you can quickly change the exposure without taking the camera away from your eye. (I have considerable muscle memory in how far I need to spin the dial to adjust +/-1 EV).

    However, it is a gamble that does not always work out – but I feel that goes with any handheld HDR.

  5. Ron Hasty says:

    Roger, you start out by talking about knowing your camera and then take the easy way by slecting Apreture priorty and give up the the other componets of a creative photographer. Use manual mode so you, not the camera, can select all four elements of exposure: WB, SS, A, ISO

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