HDR Photography

Bethlehem, PA’s old steel works are a great place to experiment with HDR photography. This photo was created from three exposures -2/0/+2 and processed in Photomatix.

HDR Impressions

Back in the (HDR) Saddle Again

I’ve been neglecting my blog this week because of a sudden, uncontrollable urge to get back into digital and HDR photography. This type of thing doesn’t happen often, so it’s probably time to start merging these interests.

Last week, I bought Photomatix, one of the best known of the HDR software packages, aided by a 15% discount coupon from the Stuck in Customs website. (Thanks, Trey!)

This is the third HDR program I’ve spent some time with, so it’s time to start comparing them. I list my initial impressions below. But, first, there’s that burning question many of you are probably now asking…

What in the world is HDR photography?

HDR stand for High Dynamic Range. Very briefly, HDR software makes up for the limitations of digital cameras (and many film scanners) by allowing you to combine different exposures of the same scene into one big, dynamic file and then manipulate that file to see brilliant sky details with dark shadow subtleties – getting rid of those blown-out highlights and blocked up shadows that every photographer runs into once they leave the controlled environment of the studio.

We’ll have to wait to do a more complete (and much, much more detailed) description, later. Trey Ratcliff’s Stuck in Customs blog listed above is a good place to start learning if you are new to the concept.

Many of the techniques for HDR were developed by the movie industry, but it’s just in the past dozen years or so that software has come out to make it easy for digital photographers to use.

HDR Photography

This Grand Canyon vista was shot with a film camera. The negative was scanned three times to create a normal exposure, an overexposure and an underexposure in order to capture the maximum amount of data from the negative. The three exposures were them imported into Photomatix for tone-mapping.

HDR Software I’ve Tried, with My Opinions

Photomatix Pro – First Week’s Impressions

When professional photographers blog about their HDR photo production, Photomatix is the program they usually mention. Most of the books and blogs on HDR photography include descriptions on how they use the program – even if no two writers seem to use it the same way!

Photomatix is a very able and mature software package. For example, it handles importation, alignment, noise reduction, and ghosting all in the first step, as needed.

It has excellent tools for creating “realistic” photos with wonderful detail. But Photomatix also has tools for creating artistic work that goes beyond “realism” to colorful artistic vision, and even past that to tasteless photo manipulation if you’re not careful.

Photomatix is not perfect, as I’ve learned while using the program. The post-tone-mapping tools are not as robust as they could be. For example, there’s a tool for increasing contrast that resembles a Photoshop-like Curves tool, but it only works in one direction, to increase contrast. You can’t do the reverse – reduce contrast, as you could with a true curve tool. So I do most of my after-tone-mapping work in GIMP (see below).

Nevertheless, I could spend a good part of my life learning how to use all the features in this program.

Bethlehem Steel HDR photo

Again from the Bethlehem Steel works, this image was created from three photos, exposed -2/0/+2 and processed normally (in color) in Photomatix. The file was then exported to GIMP to convert into a greyscale image.

Dynamic Photo HDR

My previous HDR package (currently loaded on a laptop that needs repair), is also a great, and less expensive, choice.

Dynamic Photo HDR might be slightly less adept at realistic photos, perhaps, since it doesn’t have quite as many control tools as Photomatix (but there’s also been an upgrade I haven’t tried yet). However, Dynamic Photo HDR counters with more choices of tone mapping styles.

Significantly, it also has more options for changing your color pics into HDR black and white photos, including many more presets than in Photomatix (you have to hunt a bit to find them, though).

If you hand-hold your camera instead of using a tripod for your photos, DPHDR has better do-it-yourself alignment tools when images don’t line up properly (or for those rare times you want to combine different images).

DPHDR also comes with separate software for editing your 16-bit images after tone-mapping but before converting to standard 8-bit standard photo formats. This program is worth the price all by itself!

Both Dynamic Photo HDR and Photomatix have tools for creating “pseudo-HDR” photos from a single JPEG photo. These are great for processing snapshots from point-and-shoot cameras. Combining this feature with its black and white options and post-tone-mapping software, DPHDR is especially good for street photography. (Most urban street photography is still processed into black and white, part of the tradition.)

The Busy (Frugal) Bees photo on this blog’s masthead was created in Dynamic Photo HDR, from a single image file. (The bees were accommodating but unwilling to sit still for a triple exposure.)

FDRTools Advanced

Short for Full Dynamic Range Tools (not an homage to Franklin Delano Roosevelt), this is a quirky but useful program for creating HDR images with a very different look (and a very different interface).

Honestly, I haven’t had enough practice with the full-range of this program’s capabilities.

FDRTools creates images with a more muted range of color, but with higher edge definition. (You may have to try it to see what I mean.) For a particular artistic look that avoids your typical over-saturated HDR newbie images, this is a great option. If you can’t get an image you like with either Photomatix or Dynamic Photo HDR, you might want to try FDRTools.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend FDRTools as your primary HDR photo program, but I’m sure some people do use it so.

Bethlehem Steel works - HDR Photography

This detail from the Bethlehem Steel works was created from three exposures (-2/0/+2) imported into Photomatix for tone-mapping. The resulting color image was then processed in GIMP to add more contrast, convert into a greyscale image, and then tinted to imitate darkroom platinum toning.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention GIMP, the GNU Image Manipulation Program, which is the terribly-named, wonderfully-free open source program that tries to bring Photoshop-style features to the masses. The too-long dormant GIMP project has now been reinvigorated, and I found the latest stable version to be much zippier, with an improved interface that former Photoshop users will be more comfortable with. Advanced users are still waiting for GIMP to get adjustment layers, but otherwise it’s a wonderful, full-featured (and, thus, complicated) program.


Another free and useful program I’ve used is Paint.net (or PaintDotNet), which is a great Windows program, but not quite as full-featured as GIMP.

Both GIMP and Paint.net have active user and programmer communities offering help, plug-ins, and other tools to add additional features.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing recently instead of blogging. I promise to get back to writing (but the warm weather is so conducive to impromptu photo safaris).


All photos in this post were taken by the author, Andrew Brandt
and are copyrighted © 2013.

The Grand Canyon photo was taken with a Canon EOS Rebel 2000 film camera in 2001 (probably using Kodak Gold 400 film for faster exposures, since we were in a moving helicopter). The negative was scanned by an Epson Perfection V500 photo scanner at three exposures, and imported into Photomatix for processing. See description above.

The Bethlehem Steel mill photos were taken with a Canon EOS Rebel XS digital camera, all with a tripod and using triple exposures (a normal exposure, one two-stops over, one two-stops under, using aperture priority mode). 

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