HDR Photography involves shooting multiple photos of the same image. But sometimes capturing more than one exposure is impossible. When the subject your photographing is a moving car or a flying bird, there’s no way to photograph more than one shot of the same image.

The three photos below is a result of me shooting from within a moving bus. The camera was hand held and the clowns were riding a moving scooter. Not the ideal situation for shooting HDR!

Picture of Clowns Even Exposure HDRPicture of Clowns Under Exposure HDRClowns Over Exposure HDR

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that if you merge the exposure above, the results won’t be pretty. But just in case you’re the type that needs to see it to believe it, I’ve included it below.

Picture of Merged HDR Image of the Clowns

But we can still create a decent HDR image of the photo above. Instead of using all three exposures to create the HDR photo, we’re only going to use one. The exposure we’re going to use is the the over exposed image which I posted below.

Clowns Over Exposure HDR

The photo above is a perfect candidate for creating a HDR photo. Notice the blown out sky and the extremely dark foreground. HDR will bring back colors in the sky and the details in the foreground.

There are two techniques for creating a
single exposure HDR photograph.

Picture of Costa Rican Clowns Tone Mapped in PhotomatixTechnique One

Photomatix will allow you to tone map a single RAW file to create a pseudo HDR image. You can do this simply by opening your RAW file in Photomatix. Once your RAW file is open you will be able to tone map your photo into a HDR image like you would normally.

Personally I don’t use this technique because Photomatix doesn’t have any way of separating the light areas from the dark areas. This results in a very flat image with little definition. That’s why I prefer the second technique, which does a much better job of creating a single exposure HDR photograph.

Technique Two

The second technique is my preferred method. I developed this technique because I was unhappy with the results of the first process. This method allows me to tell Photomatix how to separate the light and dark areas. I do this by manually creating my light and dark exposures from the single photo selected above. These exposures are created in Photoshop using the RAW converter. Below is a step-by-step tutorial to show you how to create your exposures.

Step 1 – Opening RAW in Photoshop

When you open your RAW image in Photoshop you get the Camera RAW window. This window will allow you to adjust your exposure. This is how we will be able to create our digital exposures.

Single Exposure HDR Step One RAW

Step 2 – Saving Your First Exposure

The first exposure we will create is our standard exposure. Adjust your settings so that this exposure is evenly lit across your entire image. Click on open image once your done adjusting the exposure. Save that file as a TIF file. You should name it EVEN or anything that will remind you that this file is the evenly exposed photo.

Single Exposure HDR Step Two Even

Step 3 – Creating Your Under Exposed Image

The second exposure we will create is our under exposure. Adjust your settings so that this exposure is underexposed by 2 stops. Focus on getting any over exposed areas dark with color and detail. Click on open image once your done adjusting the exposure. Save that file as a TIF file. You should name it UNDER or something that will remind you that this file is the under exposure.

Single Exposure HDR Step Three Under

Step 4 – Creating Your Over Exposed Image

The third exposure we will create is our over exposure. Adjust your settings so that this exposure is over exposed by 2 stops. Focus on getting detail in your dark areas, mainly the foreground. Click on open image once your done adjusting the exposure. Save that file as a TIF file. You should name it OVER or something that will remind you that this file is the over exposure.

Single Exposure HDR Step Four Over

Step 5 – Merging Your Exposures in Photomatix

Once you are done creating your exposures you can use them to create your HDR image in Photomatix. Proceed like you normally would when creating your HDR photo. You will get a new window were you will need to input EV settings. Set them to 2, 0, -2 if you aren’t sure.

Single Exposure HDR Step Five Setting EV

Step 6 – Tone Map, Process, Save and You’re Done

Proceed to tone map your image like you normally would. Once you’re satisfied with your tone mapping, process your HDR image, save it and you’re done. Most likely you’ll need to run your image through Topaz DeNoise cause single exposure HDR is notorious for producing grainy images.

Single Exposure HDR Step Six Tone mapping

That’s it for this tutorial. I hope this information on single exposure HDR was helpful. Drop me a comment if you have any questions.

21 Responses

  1. Bill, I really didn’t choose it. It came with the Topaz Photoshop Plugin Bundle. After using it I was super impressed with the results. Fantastic! I wouldn’t use anything else.

  2. Captain, you use Topaz DeNoise. Have you ever done an evaluation of all the de-noise SW out there? Why have you choosen Topaz? Thanks for all your work on this great website.

  3. Great tutorials and very good website …… thanks for posting this stuff…



  4. Tell you what Martin when I have some time, I’ll do a post with my default Photomatix setting which works pretty well with most images.

  5. Hi Captain,
    Your site is an excellent place to learn HDR photography and a ready reference. What would be the ideal settings on Photomatix ? Its bit confusing..I know different photos have different settings..still..
    All the best Captain for your future endavour..
    Warm Regards,

  6. I’ll have to take a look at your techniques the next time I try HDR! I was never able to get anything really satisfying before. I suspect my problem is that I need more tweaking of the initial photos in PS before I go to Photomatix. I’ve just used the trial version because I wasn’t ever able to get satisfying results…

  7. Tom,

    Thanks for letting me know how you found me and thanks for the kind comments on my website. I do appreciate it, took over a month to complete but it was worth it.

    Thanks for dropping by,


  8. I just discovered your site through Youtube as I was reviewing videos about Topaz filters. You have done a terrific job! Your tutorial made understanding HDR very easy. I also appreciated the instruction on converting a single RAW picture to HDR. I will now purchase Photomatix and Topaz filters since you have taken the uncertainty out of using this software. You site is nicely laid out and I am sure to send your address of friends.

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