Postcard from Leuven, Belgium – Lessons in HDR

I’m taking the opportunity to use an image from pretty Leuven in Flanders, Belgium to provide a few handy photography tips; HDR processing in particular.

For those unfamiliar with the techinique which in full is known as high dynamic range imaging, it is a process where a number of images with high contrast levels are combined to provide a balanced photograph. The results can often be spectacular, they can also often appear unrealistic, so its use is greatly debated within the photographic community.

A HDR rendered image of the main square of Leuven in Flanders, Belgium on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Leuven, Flanders in HDR

The ability to have all areas of an image correctly exposed however is a boon for all aspiring photographers. Whether a casual snapper or professional everybody has experienced days when the contrast between light and dark is impossible to compensate for in a single exposure. It is usually the contrast between the sky and shadows of the foreground but it can ruin an otherwise well captured image. In these circumstances HDR is worth considering.

Bracketing is a technique every photographer should be familiar with and use regularly. DSLRs and even high end compacts probably have this feature. It enables the capturing of three exposures of the same composition, both under and over exposed around a middle exposure. The f-stop will usually be decided by the photographer using aperture priority and then the amount of ‘compensation’ adjusted for each exposure. The camera will then adjust the shutter speed to obtain the three seperate exposures.

On many occasions this will suffice, it will be possible to simply select the best exposure from the three, the one where the greatest detail has been retained in both sky and foreground. The other exposures can then be deleted.

Non HDR image of the main square of Leuven in Flanders with the Town Hall and St Peters Church Belgium on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Edited but no HDR, its ok but a little dull and flat, dark even brooding

However when the contrast is especially great this may not be sufficient and this is where HDR can be employed. The three images can be combined in post capture using editing software like Lightroom, Aperture or Photoshop. However the best option is to use HDR specific software such as  Photomatix which is available as a plug-in for other software.

HDR is not limited to just three exposures however, it can be used to combine 5,6 or even 9 or more exposures. The more images used the more detail that can be retained, the disadvantage is that they can also begin to take  on a more surreal effect. The software does allow options for choosing the intensity and realism of the final rendered image.

Ideally a tripod should be used especially for multiple exposures of more than 3 bracketed images. This is the limit of most cameras bracketing, so to enable more exposures the photographer will need to change settings. Without the use of a tripod, the composition will almost certainly be changed for each subsequent ‘set’.

HDR image of the main square of Leuven in Flanders with the Town Hall and St Peters Church Belgium on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Can you spot the ghosting? Look carefully

The result will be ‘ghosting‘ a problem which can also be especially pronounced if there are moving subjects such as pedestrians or vehicles in the scene. Although the software is able to align images and reduce ‘ghosting’ caused by movement, it is limited. Therefore when bracketing exposures there needs to be little or preferably no movement.

There is a way of cheating. Use one image and then save multiple copies of it under and over exposed, then using the HDR rendering software simply combine the images. This will avoid any possible ghosting and provided sufficient information was retained in the original copy the final result should be acceptable.

HDR image of the main square of Leuven in Flanders with the Town Hall and St Peters Church Belgium on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

HDR with a little aesthetic blue rinse, it looks a little washed out however

One last tip; HDR imaging will be most effective when using RAW images as these will have retained all the information from the moment of capture. It is possible to use JPEGs but as the information is compressed in the camera and therefore much of it lost, it is unlikely it will be as effective, especially if using the ‘cheat’ method described above.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short tutorial and the images from Leuven, decide for yourself which one you prefer. I suggest going out and giving HDR a try yourself, have some fun, experiment with different effects and see what results you can achieve.

HDR image of the main square of Leuven in Flanders with the Town Hall and St Peters Church Belgium on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Final adjustments can often be a matter of taste, this appears more dramatic to me


Comments 10

  1. Heike

    May I be serious?
    It was an ok photo before, but I really don’t like it with this HDR on now.
    The Shirt of the guy on the right is over-edited. To me, the image looks like a giant instagramfilter that doesn’t match the image.
    I cannot the any positive thing that HDR does to with photos. Everybody uses this technique, it seems to be hip. But it only works on certain images.

    Love you. 😉

    1. Post

      Of course you can be serious Heike. HDR is as mentioned greatly debated and as with most photography is a matter of personal choice and opinion. Many people like you dislike its use. I’ve used several versions of the image to try to demonstrate how it can be used. To be honest it is not a technique I use too often and still experimenting but it can be a useful tool in any photographers arsenal.

      You are right the original image is just ok, it is the reason that I chose it, hoping to demonstrate an ok image can be given a new lease of life. The grey day was chosen deliberately too as although there is not any real detail in the sky there is still usually much contrast. A cloud filled sky would be more effective still.

      The shirt in the last image to be fair is probably adversely affected by the blue rinse over the image. The different images were included to show what can be done and why experimenting is worthwhile. I’m leaving it to people to decide which they prefer.

      I have used HDR quite effectively at times, when the contrast is too great you often have a choice, discard the image altogether or experiment with HDR.

      Even the slightly surreal effects can sometimes be desirable.

      Lol Love you too hon 😉

  2. A Cook Not Mad (Nat)

    Iain, I can appreciate the work that goes into HDR but I’m another one of those who can’t wait for the fad to be over. Some people do nothing but surrealistic HDR, so over the top that it’s not even recognizable as a photograph of an actual place. That’s just annoying.

    1. Post

      I am not so sure it is merely a fad, it is a viable tool that all photographers should be aware of and know how to use effectively. Sometimes it can mean the difference between using an image or deleting it.

      I understand your point however some images can be overdone causing them to look unrealistic and almost cartoon like. Some photographers do this purposely, their images are deliberately highly stylised.

  3. Venkat Ganesh @ India Backpack Motorbike

    One cannot deny that some shots look absolutely dramatic with HDR and one may be tempted to use HDR just for that. Unfortunately due to lack of tripod I have not been able to try my hands at it. Definitely want to give it a try some time but not right away since right now my focus is composition (at which I suck :() And here’s one composition I totally loved. Does not matter HDR or No HDR.

    And yes I think the debate amongst the community with regards to techniques will keep going. I think its a similar thing with Lomography as well.


    1. Post

      Thanks Venky they are both tools in a photographers arsenal which have polarised opinions and the debate will continue forever most likely.

  4. Rob Higdon

    I think that HDR is not a passing fad, but will be utilized in the photography community for a while. Yes, there is a lot of overdone and surreal HDR examples out there, but there are also may fantastic HDR images floating around. I tend to use HDR and bracketing to always have an option with a scene. There is nothing that says that you can’t shoot a bracketed series and either use the shots in an HDR image or otherwise use the shots for additional editing on a non-HDR photo.

    With a little practice, it is possible to get past the hurdles that produce bad HDR images (ghosting, looks like a painting, too overblown) and can be a valuable tool in the photographer’s arsenal.

    Love the blog!

    1. Post

      Thanks Rob I agree with everything you have said as my replies to some of the earlier comments testify. Glad you enjoy the site.

  5. John Williams

    To answer some of the points raised in this post and the comments. Photomatix, one of the leading HDR software providers, now includes the option to remove ghosting, albeit at the expense of quality.
    It will also align the handheld photos effectively, so a tripod isn’t always necessary. It is always worth putting your camera on autobracket (assuming your camera has that function – most now do including many compacts) and giving it a go. You may have to wait for the final results after processing in Photomatix though, as the preview screen doesn’t show the best outcome regarding the alignment of the photos.

    1. Post

      Thanks for clarifying a few points John, totally agree every camera user that has the autobracket function should learn how to make use of it.

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