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The Art and Science of HDR Photography

San Fransisco after HDR enhancement.
San Francisco after HDR enhancement.

The digital equivalent to paintings that look more like photos may well be the surreal and super realistic images being created by today’s digital photographers using digital cameras, a personal computer and something called HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography processing.

Photos of dramatic landscapes with greener than green grass, or lavender bushes with purple flowers that almost look three-dimensional.  These are often created from multiple photos that are merged using computer software to pull out highlights, saturate colors or tweak the overall tone so the final image looks nothing like the shot you get from a single click of a camera shutter.

“HDR photography is a technique of taking digital photos and then bringing out the details that are normally not captured in a single photo,” explains Mike Fard, an amateur photogragher who works at Intel and spends a lot of time taking and manipulating pictures in his spare time. “The HDR technique let’s you capture a scene’s depth and color the way your eyes would see it, vibrant and full of detail.”

San Fransisco before HDR enhancement.
San Francisco before HDR enhancement.

“Cameras, by their basic-machine-nature, are very good at capturing “images” – lines, shadows, shapes — but they are not good at capturing a scene the way the mind remembers and maps it,” wrote HDR pioneer Trey Ratcliff in his blog StuckinCustoms.  “You will find that as you explore the HDR process, photos can start to evoke those deep memories and emotions in a more tangible way. It’s really a wonderful way of “tricking” your brain into experiencing much more than a normal photograph.”

Increasing the dynamic range reveals details in shadow areas while retaining details in the bright highlights. These photographs are generally created using several consecutive – or bracketed — shots of the same scene taken with a variety of exposure settings. The shots are then “fused” into one image and enhanced using computer software that boosts color saturation, tones, contrast and brightness, resulting in photos that are amazingly life-like or otherworldly, and sometimes mystical or even haunting.

HDR image of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
HDR image of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

But this form of digital enhancement may not be for everybody. Internet blogger Mike Panic says he doesn’t like HDR photography, especially when it’s taken to the extreme. “I’m fine with HDR as an art form, but perhaps the purist in me deems that this much manipulation to a photograph no longer makes it a photograph,” writes Panic on his Photoletariat blog.  “I’ll freely admit that every single one of my digital photos has some form of digital retouch, I don’t think any of them push the limits as far as some will in HDR.”

It may be art, but there’s also a science to HDR photography that is brought to life by software and computer processing, which creates an image that resembles what meets the eye more than what’s actually captured by a digital camera.

“Digital cameras can meter a scene the best it technically can, typically in the range of 4 to 9 f/stops,” wrote Kevin L. Moss, publisher of Digital Photography Daily. “Our own eyes and brain view a scene, and can interpret approximately 9 to 14 f/stops. That’s quite a difference. This is the primary reason, as you recall, that you often shoot scenes that appear to you straightforward, but when you view them on your computer or LCD screen, the image lacks detail in shadow areas, or has blown out highlights in the lighter areas of the image. An HDR image, when shot and processed properly, will give you detail in a much larger dynamic range than a normal photograph can present.”

This is exactly why Fard spends time processing his favorite travel photos using HDR.  “I like to extract all of the details, as much of the fidelity of a scene as possible so it resembles how I really saw a place and how it made me feel when I was there,” he said.

One of the first credited with developing HDR imaging is Charles Wyckoff, whose detailed pictures of nuclear explosions appeared on the cover of Life magazine in the mid 1940s. HDR has come a long way since then, considering that today a much scaled-down derivation of HDR is available on iPhone 4 and other smartphones, helping bring new interest in HDR photography from people experimenting with photos they shoot, edit and upload from their phones.

While some may discover HDR first on the phone, the most amazing works today are created using digital cameras and computer software.  “The raw image straight out of the sensor has much more detail than you can observe with the eye, and that can be extracted from the HDR software on a PC,” says Fard.  “When I’m really cranking, I have multiple instances of the program running at the same time, allowing me to enhance and process many images simultaneously.”

Fard’s tips for creating HDR photos include:

  • Use a digital SLR camera with wide angle lens to capture landscapes and buildings. A point-and-shoot camera will work, but you need to be able to shoot in “manual’ mode.
  • Use a tripod whenever possible, or use any stable surface when you’re outside.
  • Always shoot in RAW format (not JPEG or another compressed format) so the digital camera can capture as much data as possible to create the image being shot
  • Use the camera’s exposure bracketing function(using shutter speed) to capture a rapid succession of shots that include an under-exposed, normal, and over-exposed photo, which will be fused together by the HDR software.
  • Use the lowest ISO setting as possible and shoot in the afternoon as the sun is going down to capture beautiful colors and clouds.
  • Experiment with different free HDR software, which can be downloaded from a variety of Websites, such as Photomatix
  • Create an online photo account like Picasa Web Albums or Flickr to store and share your images.

This content was originally published on the Intel Free Press website.

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