Ok all ready to learn with your thinking cap on? Good! I always start with a basic HDR technique. It is simple and easy to learn. If I can do it then everyone can. I will go into more advanced steps later.
The first thing you need to make an HDR image is a camera. You might be thinking that you need a big professional DSLR but you would be wrong. Although having a DSLR helps, it is not essential. As long as the camera can shoot RAW files, you are pretty much good to go. RAW files hold a lot more light information that was taken at the scene. The files are a lot larger then JPEGs but I now always shoot in RAW even on my little point and shoot as it gives so many more editing options.
Although you can make a decent HDR from a single RAW file, I recommend using a camera that has auto-bracketing. Auto-bracketing is the ability for your camera to take a minimum of 3 pictures right after one another, each at different exposures. If you have a DSLR camera, you probably already can do this.
People always ask me what camera I use. I have a Nikon D700 but I started out with the Nikon D40x using the manual mode to change the exposure. I also (try to) always carry around my compact Canon S95 so I can capture any surprise moments. Some of my best photos have come from this tiny, less expensive alternative.
More important than the type of camera is the tripod. Having a steady tripod is a must for serious HDR shooters. The ghosting problems caused by misaligned photos, takes you to the dark side of HDR. The images made on a tripod tend to avoid ghosting, so try to get your hands on a decent tripod. I started off on a small, shaky tripod and quickly learned that it is one of your most important tools in you arsenal. What? You don’t want to carry around a tripod? If you are going out to shoot beautiful pictures, you better get serious. In my opinion, all architectural and landscape photographers should use tripods all of the time. It forces you more to think about the composition of the shot as you have to take the time to adjust the tripod.
On the software side, there are many different HDR programs that are on the market. Many of them are good but also many of them are hard to get your head around. Photomatix and Nik HDR Efex Pro are my 2 favourite two HDR programs. I mainly just stick to Photomatix as I prefer the HDR effect that it produces but HDR Efex pro has some great presets for amateurs who are just getting to grips with HDR. You will also need Photoshop to make to final enhancements to the image that your choice of HDR software will churn out.
The more HDR photography you shoot and process, the more you will learn to appreciate light and the world we live in. HDR is not appropriate for all situations but you will quickly learn when is best to use it. Don’t forget that all the old photographic rules still apply. You need to use good judgment, great composition, picking the right angle and choose the appropriate lens. These all will impact the photo you make like any other situation.
After you pick a candidate for an HDR shot, set your camera to Aperture Priority so you can keep the same aperture for each image. How many exposure shots should you take? Well that is up to you. I generally use 5 exposures -2, -1, 0, +1, +2 but if I am shooting into the sun then I use 7 exposures, -3 to +3. If you shoot on a Canon DSLR then the auto-bracketing allows you to shoot -2, 0, +2. The more brackets you can get the better as it reduces noise and boosts contrast in the final image. For nearly all situations, going from +2 to -2 is enough light range. One more thing you have to remember is that you need to shoot on as low ISO as possible. The lower the ISO, the less noise you will get in the final image. No not noise from the neighbour next door but noise is a term used in photography to describe a lot of dots and marks caused by low light photography that takes detail out of a photo. This is usually 100 or 200 on cameras. 200 on my Nikon.