In this lesson we'll teach you to recognize perfect lighting situations and locations for HDR.

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As we’ve discussed in several other posts and lessons, HDR is designed to help you take better-looking images in high contrast lighting situations. So what are some examples of perfect high-contrast lighting situations? Here are just a few. We will dive into some thoughts about each of these situations and give you some tips for making sure you capture the best photos possible while there.


Everyone loves a nice landscape photo. If you were to ask 1,000 people what types of photos they prefer to view, a majority would respond “landscapes” (and a majority of photographers would reply that they want to take photos of landscapes). There’s just something about a beautiful nature scene that we all are drawn to. Luckily, they are also perfect for capturing in HDR.

Why? Well, as we discussed in previous lessons, there is usually a big difference in the light levels between the sky and the ground and this contrast is where HDR comes into play. Since a camera cannot capture the full range of light in a single shot, take some brackets and merge to HDR so that you photo will look like what you saw with your own eyes.Also note that the best time of day for shooting landscapes is in the soft light at the edges of the day. This means either early in the morning leading up to sunrise (and through sunrise into the golden hour afterwards), and at the end of the day leading up to sunset (and the following blue hour). Another great time is when the skies are cloudy. A little drama in the sky is always a good thing.During these times, the light is softened up a bit (as opposed to the harsh light of midday) and everything is bathed in it. This is also when there is a larger contrast between light and dark, and thus HDR can harness of it.


While probably everyone would love to be in New Zealand, Norway or Iceland firing away at the amazing landscapes there, it’s more likely you are near a city and thus you are taking a lot of cityscapes. Many of us travel to or within cities and know that it’s a rich visual playground with a lot of variety. You can shoot wide for skyline photos, or focus in tight on architectural details. Shoot some street scenes, with some long exposures to capture the light trails of passing cars. Visit a church or cathedral - these are GREAT in HDR. The opportunities are really only restricted by your imagination and willingness to explore. Once again, the edges of the day are best in cities, too. The sparkling lights of a city come on around dusk and the entire scene takes on a magical glow. If you happen to be in a city with a river running through it, that’s the perfect location for taking in the skyline in HDR. The lights reflect in the water and it’s just absolutely gorgeous. You might want to try shooting cityscapes at sunrise so you can avoid traffic and crowds. Everyone shows up for sunset. Get up early and bag your shots without the distraction of tourists!Even if you are in a city in the bright light of midday, you have ample opportunity to take photographs. The vast interiors of museums and churches are great subjects anytime, and when it’s too bright outside for anything else, head inside and fire some brackets of an architectural masterpiece.

Portraits in Bright Sunlight

Lighting is one of the most critical aspects of a great photo, but having too much light on someone’s face can cause dark shadows, reflective glare, and several other unflattering aspects. HDR can help you even that harsh light out making your subject look better and more realistic and natural in the scene. Just be very careful about applying HDR effects to a person, because it can cause them to look dirty and grungy pretty easily, and it’s doubtful anyone wants that in a portrait! This is where Layers come into play. You can apply the effects to the background without applying them to the people in the photo.

Low-Light and Backlit Scenes

When the sun is coming right at the camera, it is very difficult to get visible details in a foreground element without HDR. Using HDR techniques can help brighten key parts of the image and show foreground details that would otherwise be lost to shadow - all while preserving a nice balance of light across the image.

Just make sure you capture a full range of light across your brackets (check your histogram) because you can’t return and duplicate the same environmental factors. It’s better to get it right the first time! This may require you to take a larger group of exposures, such as 5 or 7 instead of 3.

Additionally, you can position the sun behind an object in the frame - such as the arch in this photo - and use it to diffuse the incoming brightness of the sun. Here the photographer positioned himself so the sun was behind the left side column, allowing him to avoid having the sun glaring right into the camera.

Interiors and Urbex with Views through a Window

Most real-estate photos are taken quickly by homeowners and agents during the day with mixed light situations leaving strange glows, blown window views or interiors that look dark and very shadowed... basically unflattering. Using HDR can leave you with an image that’s both warm, flattering, and natural looking.Urbex, short for urban exploration, is basically photography of old, abandoned locations. It can be a real gold mine for HDR. While it isn’t something you may come across very often, when you do you will likely have a lot of fun shooting it. As you know by now, HDR can really bring out a lot of details in a scene, and an urbex scene is always full of crazy, odd and interesting details. If you can find one nearby, find a partner to join you and explore it with your camera. Just be sure to be safe and alert at all times, because you never know what might be hanging out there.Another really fun subject for HDR is graffiti. In many cities, there are designated areas for graffiti artists to express themselves with spray paint, and it can be downright beautiful. Don’t hesitate to wander in some alleys and deserted streets wherever you are. You are likely to come across interesting subjects and scenes that are somewhat urbex in nature, as well as copious amounts of graffiti.

Night Time Photography

HDR photography is really about capturing light, so it may not register that HDR done at night would be a good thing - but it is! Especially in cities where there is a lot of light coming from lamps and buildings, properly shooting HDR nightscapes can be very rewarding. Once again, a tripod is of paramount importance since all of your exposures will be longer. Using a tripod also allows you to keep your ISO at the lowest level so as to reduce noise in the image.

Look for scenes with a big contrast between bright and dark areas, which should be easy considering there is no sunlight. Be sure and take plenty of exposures to capture enough of the dynamic range of the scene, but some photographers don’t like to use too bright of a long exposure in their night HDR work. They want a little mystery in their nighttime HDR photos instead of a fully and evenly lit scene. It keeps it more in line with what you would expect to see. But then again, it’s up to you to process to your liking!

Don’t forget to show us what you’ve created in the Aurora HDR facebook group!
Be sure to tag your images with #aurorahdrlessons

Missed the previous lesson?
Check out the link below:

Lesson 1: The basics of HDR Photography
Lesson 2: Merge the brackets
Lesson 3: Tripods vs Handheld
Lesson 4: Exposure for HDR
Lesson 5: Aurora HDR Presets

HDR Tutorial - Lesson 6 - Perfect Location | Skylum Blog(2)

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