Does HDR/bracketing make or break shots?

AXIS

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Its seems a lot of the pictures I see that look very nice are all captured with HDR or by using bracketing.
Almost all of my shooting now is on the move and hand held so bracketing isnt a real option (and my d3200 doesn have in camera HDR)
Is bracketing something I should take the time to learn and perfect, or am I over-glorifying it?
 

Gavjenks

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First of all, there's no reason why you can't do HDR hand held. For example, my camera has a shutter speed of 4.5 frames per second or something like that, meaning that as long as I have good lighting (small fractions of a second shutter speeds), I can do a 3 shot bracket in about 2/3 of a second. As long as you have decent HDR software, it will align the images for you in post processing, fixing any very slight movement of the camera in between shots (I have photomatix which does this. It cost like $30 or something with a student license). If you use a decent post processing program, you also don't need in-camera HDR.

Secondly, HDR only solves one type of problem: not having a big enough range between your shadows and your highlights. As in, if you have adjusted your camera for the best possible normal exposure, and your photo still has blown out highlights or black shadows, then HDR can help you. If not, it is useless and unneeded. Even if you want that "overcooked" HDR stylistic look, you still don't need multiple exposures if your camera already is able to capture the entire range. You can simply tonemap your one sufficiently exposed image instead (HDR software usually also has this option). It's literally only for that one situation of not being able to expose shadows and highlights to your satisfaction in a normal shot. So if anything other than that is wrong with your image (bad composition, bad quality or direction of light rather than just exposure, bad color, etc.), HDR will not help you make it a better image.

Thirdly, HDR is not the only way to solve the problem of blown out highlights or black shadows that you can't fix with basic exposure in camera. The other major (and often quicker and more popular) way to solve these issues is by manipulating the light yourself in the field. I.e. using flash, reflectors, altering available light in other ways, moving the subject so that the light falls differently on it/them, changing your angle, changing the time of day you shoot, etc. Skilled manipulation of the light will usually give better results than HDR, because by manipulating the light, you can create natural "sculpting" of your subject that creates new shapes and 3-dimensional interest. HDR, on the other hand, by its very nature, makes images overall flatter and more gray (that's the whole point of HDR). It will preserve detail, but not make the light more interesting. To do the latter masterfully, I'm afraid you'll have to put in the time and effort to learn all the rest of the tricks of the trade of photography as well.



Edit: This is an example of a completely HAND HELD hdr shot I took a couple of weeks ago (at the Montreal botanic gardens) and then processed in Photomatix:

$w6qQemO.jpg

^As you can see, there is not really any ghosting or mismatch from the camera slightly moving in between, because the software re-matched it up. Also, this photograph still completely relies on things like basic compositional awareness, etc. and I could have gotten the same stylistic look with just one exposure. All HDR did for me here was to let me show detail in the bright sky (the blues and the cloud shapes) while still also not having totally black shadows from the fence in the foreground.

Also, I could have accomplished those same things by using a fill flash to mute the shadows a bit in the front (I had a friend who could have held the flash opposite the sun to neutralize them), and/or by using a graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky, and/or by using a polarizing filter to make the clouds and blues pop more with a higher exposure overall. This just seemed like the easiest thing to do that would get results in that situation.
 
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AXIS

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Thanks! that was some pretty helpful info.
While I have a long way to go in learning, one of the things I have had trouble with is the range.

What method do you recommend for handheld bracketing without a built in HDR option?
I assume you would use full manual and leave everything the same except maybe shutter speed and just shot 3 different speeds (over, under, proper exposure)

Ill look into the HDR software, I didnt realize it would align images well
 

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The example given is with a pretty much static scene. There are plenty of cases where the best software cannot overcome ghosting issues... Moving car, running person etc
 

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Bracketing is always a good habit to learn and utilize in tricky lighting situations.
 

cptkid

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Bracketing & HDR are to completely different things.

Yes you bracket your shots in order to create a HDR image, however, you can also bracket for other reasons.

I bracket alot so that when I get back home I've for sure got an exposure that is going to work. It's very hard to tell using an LCD, even when the histogram says "alls okay" it may not be.

Thats why alot of the time I shoot teathered. This just isn't always possible in the field though.
 

Gavjenks

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Thanks! that was some pretty helpful info.
While I have a long way to go in learning, one of the things I have had trouble with is the range.

What method do you recommend for handheld bracketing without a built in HDR option?
I assume you would use full manual and leave everything the same except maybe shutter speed and just shot 3 different speeds (over, under, proper exposure)

Ill look into the HDR software, I didnt realize it would align images well

Trial and error, mostly, unless you just have an amazing eye for luminosity values. Take a shot, check your histogram. Adjust it and recheck until you no longer have clipping. Do this in both directions. The distance you had to go with exposure compensation to not have clipping is the distance you'll want to bracket in that scene for HDR. You;'ll want to do your final bracketing all at once in less than a second or so, though. Try to choose a moment in time when the wind is at a lull to make trees line up better.

You can do the prep work, by the way, for a generic lighting SITUATION. It doesn't have to be for every shot. If you're still in the same light, you can just confidently bracket at the same bracketing and leave it at that.

In terms of actual technical menus and such, most cameras have 3 shots built in, which is usually all you need. On my Canons, I hit Q then scroll to the exposure scale, and hit SET, then the arrow keys and the main scroll wheel together will set the center of the bracket and how far out the wings are. Look at your manual if you have a different model. I'm sure it's built in.

I bracket alot so that when I get back home I've for sure got an exposure that is going to work. It's very hard to tell using an LCD, even when the histogram says "alls okay" it may not be.

I do this sometimes, but I find it awkward. Most cameras don't have a very ergonomic way to change bracketing on or off with one button push (Custom modes could do this, but they are more valuable for other things). Which means I inevitably either don't bracket when I should be, or I forget it's on and only take one photo of something, which ends up badly exposed. Switching is too much of a pain to make either situation not ever happen. I find it easier to simply check the histograms instead for my exposure needs, and the blinkies.
 

cptkid

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I bracket alot so that when I get back home I've for sure got an exposure that is going to work. It's very hard to tell using an LCD, even when the histogram says "alls okay" it may not be.

I do this sometimes, but I find it awkward. Most cameras don't have a very ergonomic way to change bracketing on or off with one button push (Custom modes could do this, but they are more valuable for other things). Which means I inevitably either don't bracket when I should be, or I forget it's on and only take one photo of something, which ends up badly exposed. Switching is too much of a pain to make either situation not ever happen. I find it easier to simply check the histograms instead for my exposure needs, and the blinkies.

D7000 has a dedicated button. But I have on of my user modes set up for bracketing. =]
 
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AXIS

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Im using a D3200 which doesnt have any sort of HDR/Bracketing onboard that I am aware of but I will double check.
Most of the shots that I am unhappy with seem due to the lack of range as most of them are outdoor/landscape with some tricky lighting.
 

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Are you shooting RAW? You can get a couple extra stops by doing that.
 

cptkid

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Im using a D3200 which doesnt have any sort of HDR/Bracketing onboard that I am aware of but I will double check.
Most of the shots that I am unhappy with seem due to the lack of range as most of them are outdoor/landscape with some tricky lighting.

You can still shoot HDR without bracketing on your camera.

Just use exposure compensation.
 

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High dynamic range is a specific technique. Simply bracketing is not HDR. HDR is combining exposures to record more dynamic range in a scene than a camera is capable of recording in one shot. To do this well, you need to understand dynamic range and how to meter for HDR. Otherwise you're just guessing. But the number of frames isn't even as important as where you place the exposures. With precise metering and calculations, which a hand-held meter can do for you, you can usually capture HDR in three shots as a safety. This can be done in manual, so there's no need for a bracketing function, and automatic bracketing may not place exposures exactly where you need them. It's difficult to master HDR without knowing what the range of your camera actually is, which a meter can help you figure out (Sekonic). Once you know, you can use a meter to help calculate the range of the scene and figure out how many exposures it will take to capture what you want. Bracketing is simply a technique for getting a variety of exposures, which may or may not have anything to do with HDR. Whether either of these are worth learning is completely up to you. You can always try and see if you find it useful.
 
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HDR is a good trick to have in your line up. For best results use a tripod. Yes you can get okay results handheld sometimes but not as good or as precise as when using a tripod. So basically if you want it done right dont do it half ass. I recommend 5 shots at about one stop apart. Always remember that HDR still has to be done at a good time just like any other photos. Wait for the good light.
 

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Im using a D3200 which doesnt have any sort of HDR/Bracketing onboard that I am aware of but I will double check.
Most of the shots that I am unhappy with seem due to the lack of range as most of them are outdoor/landscape with some tricky lighting.

You can still shoot HDR without bracketing on your camera.

Just use exposure compensation.

Thats the same thing.
 

Gavjenks

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This can be done in manual, so there's no need for a bracketing function, and automatic bracketing may not place exposures exactly where you need them.
Why click 14 buttons and take your photos over the course of 10 seconds and have to consciously think about stuff that doesn't require any intelligence when you can click 3 buttons and take your photos over the course of 1 second and have the computer do things that don't require intelligence, with minimal movement of leaves, etc. and thus better alignment and a sharper, higher quality HDR? I don't get it.

If you set bracketing for about 3 stops in either direction, you can just shoot and not worry about it. Calculating things when there's no reason for a human to calculate them just means you're spending less time making artistic decisions, like where your next shot should be.
 

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