How to create HDR Photos - HDR/Photomatix tutorial

There has been a lot of buzz recently about HDR photography, but many people assume that it's only limited to professional photographers. The reality is that just about anyone can take and process an HDR photo with most cameras and proper HDR software.

There are plenty of explanations of what HDR is and how it works, so we won't cover that here. If you want more background info, check out HDR explained so anyone can understand or Jon Meyer's popular HDR primer.

In this tutorial we'll go through the steps necessary to take your very own HDR photo and process it like a pro. What you will need:

  1. A camera that allows you to adjust exposure settings.
  2. Tone Mapping Software (In this tutorial we will use Photomatix, which is the most popular way to create HDR's.)

Step 1: Taking the photo(s)

TITLE: Quick and Easy steps to take HDR Photos with any camera

To create an HDR photo you need at least 3 differently exposed photos of the same shot. That's not as difficult as it sounds. Many cameras give you the ability to change exposures from shot to shot. Since all cameras are different you'll have to figure out how to change these exposure settings on your particular camera. Look for Exposure, AEB (Automatic Exposure Bracketing), A-EV, BKT (more on that here and here), or a little +/- graphic.

Important: Make sure the camera does not move between shots. Use a tripod or place the camera on a stable surface, minimizing movement as much as possible between shots. Below is an example of how this works using my girlfriend's simple point and shoot camera - the Sony DSC-W50. If you click on the +/- button you will see a way to adjust the Image brightness (EV) level for your picture.

EV Exposure settings

1. Take one picture at EV 0

Exposure EV 0

2. (press the shutter halfway to clear the preview), press the +/- button again and move the cursor down to EV -2. Take a picture.

Exposure EV -2

3. (press the shutter halfway to clear the preview), press the +/- button again and move the cursor up to EV +2. Take a picture.

Exposure EV +2

I usually take 3 shots each spaced 2 EV exposure values apart - one at EV -2, one at EV 0 (which is the most correctly exposed photo), and one at EV +2. Here is an example of 3 shots I recently took:

EV 0

EV -2

EV +2

The first is exposed just right (0), the second too dark (-2), and the third exposed too light (+2).

Step 2: Generating and Tone Mapping the HDR

For this step you will need Photomatix Pro. While it's possible to do this with Photoshop CS2/CS3 or other HDR software, Photomatix is a much better tool - it gives you better results and is much easier to use. You can download a free trial of Photomatix Pro which will leave a watermark on your picture, or you can buy it for $99.

Note: You can use Photomatix Coupon Code VPG8 to get an 8% discount..

Open Photomatix Pro and click on "Generate HDR image."

Photomatix Pro screenshot

Click "Browse..." and select the 3 photos you took in step 1 (by clicking each one while holding down CTRL on a PC or Command on a Mac). Once you have the 3 photos highlighted, click "Open" then click "OK." Now you will see a set of options.

Photomatix Options

Keep Align source images checked. I also usually leave the "Attempt to reduce ghosting artifacts" option checked as well. If you have moving water in your shot, change the option to ("Background movements", otherwise leave "Moving objects/people) selected. Click OK. After a few seconds of processing you will see something like this.

Tone Mapping

It will usually look too dark - don't worry. The next step is where the magic happens. Click on "Tone Mapping". You will see Tone Map Settings panel and a preview of your HDR photo.

Photomatix Tone Mapping options

The settings toward the top will have the most impact on your photo. Adjust Strength and Light Smoothing settings to get your preferred "HDR effect."

Tone mapping controls

Feel free to experiment with the rest of the tabs, controls, and settings to get your desired results. Some people prefer a saturated surreal look, while others like to keep the photo looking more realistic and natural. After you are happy with what the photo looks like, click "Process." Once Photomatix is done processing, it will show you the resulting HDR. Click "File" > "Save As..." and save your photo as a JPEG. Voila! You now have your very own HDR photo.

Where I relax in HDR

For some inspiration, check out the following:

If you want to share some of your own HDR's, submit them to (the soon to be launching) Dynamic HDR's Photo Gallery or join the Flickr HDR Photo Pool.

Author: Markus Urban | If you want to write an article and have it published here send it via email to abduzeedo[at]