How Many Exposures to Use for HDR Photos

Aug 22, 2013 | articles


The biggest confusion about shooting HDR is how many exposures to take. In this article I’m going to cover how many exposures to use, when you need more exposures and when you need less.

Before I start I just want to say I only use enough exposures but never more. The more exposures that I shoot creates a greater chance of ghosting, and I try to avoid ghosting at all cost. Also the more exposures that you shoot the longer it takes for your camera to process each photo. Especially when you are using RAW files, it can really slow down your shooting. And nothing is more frustrating than not being able to take a photo because your camera is busy processing the images. And then there is storage, every extra exposure you create takes up more space on the computer.

wpid17495-Portland-Maine-Lighthouse-at-Cape-Elizabeth-During-Sunrise.jpgNow with that said… my “goto setting” is 3 exposures taken at 2 stops apart. I use this setup for 90-95% of my shots. Sometimes I will shoot a fourth exposure to cover the highlights and sometimes I will shoot a fourth to cover the foreground. It really depends on what I want more.

HDR-Photography-Real-Estate-Interior-Dinning-Area-During-Sunrise-Phuket-ThailandBut then there are times when I will need five exposures to cover the highlights and shadows. I mainly shoot five exposures when I am photographing the interior of the house. This method also works well when photographing a large tree during sunset or sunrise because there is a wide range that needs to be covered. I only shoot five exposures when I know there is going to be little ghosting.

florida-starry-night-under-the-milkywayThere are times when shooting at night that I will take up to 9 exposures and I do this to help reduce noise because when shooting at night you get a lot of noise from the low light. And the more exposures you take the less noise you will have.

wpid20628-Ocean-Reef-Park-Sunrise-at-Singer-Island-Florida.jpgAnd then there are times when I only shoot 2 exposures. This is when I am going for a more realistic shot or a photo that I know will result in some heavy ghosting. I do this alot when I’m at the beach trying to photograph a wave because all I really need is 2 exposures one for the foreground and one for the background. But this is only when I’m going for a more natural looking image. Most of the time I shoot three exposures so I can get the extra boost in color and detail.

Sony Nex 5 HDR Image from Juno Beach Pier During SunriseI always recommend shooting 3 exposures using RAW because this file format provides more information than a JPEG file. However if you notice that when you create your HDR image from RAW files and it doesn’t look right then it could be because the software you’re using to create your HDR images is unable to read the RAW files properly. In this case I recommend JPEG but a JPEG file has limited information which means you will need to shoot more exposures. Shooting 5 JPEG files should cover all the information you need.

American Bald Eagle Flying in Cloudy SkyI also process HDR images using only a single photo because a raw file has so much information that I am able to extract detail and color from just one exposure. Note that this does lead to a lot of noise, especially when shooting at a very high ISO. To avoid noise at high ISO I will shoot using JPEG format because I find that the cameras ability to reduce noise is way better than any software on the computer. Of course shooting JPEG will limit our information so this method is only used for wildlife like birds and animals because I don’t plan on extracting too much detail or color from these types of images.

I believe that covers all of the different scenarios when shooting an HDR image and calculating how many exposures to use. I always recommend that you experiment for yourself and find out what works best for you. The above mentioned is just from my personal experience and how I go about deciding the numbers of exposures to use. I’ll be sure to update this post if anything new comes to mind.