Tips for Great HDR Sunsets

Getting a perfect HDR sunset shot

HDR is a bit of a buzz word in photography in the last while and there is much debate about it, whether it’s good or bad, appropriate or not, or even real photography or not. Even right here on Digital Photography School, you can find articles for, and against, doing HDR. I’m not going to get into any of that today, I’m just going to speak to those of you that do enjoy doing it and would like some tips for doing HDR sunsets, which is one of the toughest subjects to handle with this technique. So if you are anti HDR, just carry on, or perhaps this may sway you a little to want to try it.

HDR or High Dynamic Range, why it’s great for sunsets
When we talk about a scene having a High Dynamic Range, HDR, it simply means that there is wide range of contrast from the darkest area, to the brightest area. HDR sunsets exemplify that because we are usually shooting into the sun, a bright light source, and the landscape is often so dark it’s in a silhouette. By shooting correctly and processing well you can achieve a result that has detail in both those areas.

Tips for shooting the right images
There are a few things you need to get right in camera when you’re at the scene so follow these tips.

    • Make sure to bracket your images far enough on both ends of the exposure scale , but dark enough and bright enough. What I mean by that is your darkest image should have a gap on the histogram to the right side (meaning there are no white areas, and no blinkies on your camera display) and your brightest image should have a gap on the histgram’s left edge (there are no black areas)
    • shoot raw files, they will give you the most amount of data to work with
    • bracket your images 2 stops apart, because assuming you followed the tip above and have shot raw files, they carry plenty of data at least 2 stops either direction so shooting 1 stop apart will cause you to shoot more images than you need and just end up bogging down your computer in processing, OR you won’t shoot enough range
    • shoot at low ISO, ideally 100.  HDR processing introduces a lot of noise into your image so start with a lower ISO to minimize that problem.
    • use a tripod as your shutter speeds will likely be fairly slow, and it also allows you to get all your bracketed shots perfectly aligned for a sharper final image.  For the image above my settings  are:  ISO 400 (I did that because the light was fading fast and I wanted to shoot a bit faster), f8 at 1/1000, 1/250, 1/60, and 1/15th of a second
    • use a remote trigger (cable release) to fire the camera, so you aren’t touching it during the exposures to reduce camera shake and a blurry image
    • change only the shutter speed, NEVER the aperture.  If you change the aperture in your bracketed images you are changing the focus from one to the next and your resulting blended HDR image will likely have some odd focus issues or halos.

This is what your bracketed set should look like.  Good coverage on both the dark and light ends of the light scale.  Notice the darkest image has lots of nice colour in the sky, whereas the brightest one has a ton of detail in the foreground area but none in the sky.  This is normal, and exactly what you want.

Read more: Tips for Great HDR Sunsets.