Creating HDR Images with a Free HDR Program

Creating HDR Images from your bracketed photographs can be fun and create a wonderfully detailed photograph. Imagine creating all of the highlights, mid-tones and shadow details in your HDR image. Here I will show you how to create an HDR image from bracketed photographs using a free software program.

How to Bracket for an HDR Photograph

This is a good question and I’ll try to answer this with my recommendation on how you should do this.

If you are new to bracketing your shots or need a refresher, follow this link to my article, “How to Use Exposure Beacketing

Many cameras allow you to bracket for 3, 5, 7 or more images so your first decision is, how many images.

Bracketing stops in your camera may appear as -2, -1, 0, +1, +2

The bracketing set that is common is neutral/normally exposed which is 0, +2 (2 stops overexposed) and -2 (2 stops underexposed) This gives you 3 images with a wide range and generally produces good results. Of course, you can set the bracketing to anything you wish.

Think about your aperture and shutter speed. How much depth of field? Adjust the aperture. Is the wind blowing and causing in the scene? Find a setting where if properly exposed will freeze the motion. Check the three exposures for excessive motion in 1 or more images and try a faster shutter speed if there is.

What Photos are Best for HDR

Not all images will look good in HDR. My advice is there should be contrast in the scene. Architecture, inside buildings, cars, machinery all can look very nice as an HDR image. Portraits not so much, unless it is a black and white.

Landscapes are visually appealing as an HDR with the fine details and preservation of highlights, darks, and mid-tones. This is especially suited for those clouds and other land features. Again a scene with good contrast is important.

57 Chevy in HDR
1957 Chevy in HDR

Easy HDR

It doesn’t get any easier. Easy HDR is a free HDR program for download which is available for PC and Mac.

The Basic Free Program has some limitations as you will see if you clicked on the link above. To purchase the licensed software is relatively inexpensive compared to other programs I have used. For 39.00 I think it’s a bargain. The free version will give you a taste and help you decide if you want to upgrade (you don’t have to).

Key Features I Think Worthwhile in the Paid Version

Some of the key features I think are more essential in the paid version is ghost removal, image alignment, and file formats.

Ghost removal is a tool that allows you to remove ghosted parts of your bracketed images. The images you import are laid on top of each other. Movement in one photograph will be seen as a ghost image when laid and aligned together with another image.

For example, A tree limb off to the side of your photo is showing two images of the same leaf as the wind was blowing while you captured your bracketed photos. This goes for people walking on the street. Although you are snapping your bracketed photographs quickly, each image will show a slight change in anything moving. The Ghost Tool in Easy HDR can help fix this.

Image alignment is important, which is all the more reason you need a tripod. With each of your photographs being imported into Easy HDR, it can auto-align the images so they are perfectly aligned on each other. Without it, any micro-movement can make your final image less sharp.

Finally, the paid version offers you to use full resolution images of RAW files and additional image formats. Most of you will be using full resolution JPG and RAW files. I use RAW files to create HDR images, but you can still do this with great results from bracketed JPG images.

After Download and Installing

The download and installation are very straightforward. When it is finished it can create a desktop and/or Start Menu Icon if you selected that during setup.

Tab 1: Generate HDR

Finish the installation and you can now click on the desktop icon. This opens the main interface and you will see an “Open” button on the right side

Easy HDR Main Window on Opening

Click on Open and select the folder where you stored your bracketed images. From there select the images and they will be brought into the Easy HDR program.

After selecting and adding the bracketed images to Easy HDR a new dialog box pops up. If you are just learning I suggest you keep the current settings as this is sufficient to get you started. All of the red checks I have made are the ones I would leave as is.

Clicking on some buttons or boxes you will get a popup that will tell you that option is not available in the free version.

Tab 2: Tone Map

Click on “Generate HDR” and you will be taken to the 2nd tab, tone map. If not then just click the tone map tab.

Default Image Created after Generate HDR in tab 2, tone map

Once you generate HDR you will be presented with an image that you can now start applying the sliders on the right to. You will also see 3 tabs at the top right above the sliders: 1. generate HDR 2. Tone Mapping (where you are now) and 3. Process

If you hover over each slider it will give you a description of what it does. Don’t be afraid to test each out. I recommend starting with the top slider and work your way down. Adjust each slider as you think it should look with the goal of your final image you visualize in mind.

This is my Image after adjusting the sliders to my satisfaction.

Once you have finished tone mapping (adjusting the sliders) click on the button above the sliders, “Process All”.

Tab 3: Process

This is the final area to finish off your image. You can add blur, unsharp mask filters, but in general, I would leave these alone for now.

In the Color Adjust, you can make adjustments to the white balance. I found the Color Tone section useful and added more color to the highlights and shadows as well warmed up the image a bit by moving temperature slider to the right.

Under Transform, you can rotate, flip or crop your image.

Save File

To save your image go to the toolbar and select the blue disk icon for “save”, or if you want to rename the file and save elsewhere, use the green disk icon as “save as”.

Marsh Sunrise HDR
Final HDR Image with the Free Version of Easy HDR

I think Easy HDR is one of the easiest HDR rendering programs I have used and produces pretty good results, even with the Basic Free Version, like the image above.

Having used the paid versions of Easy HDR, Photomatix and Aurora HDR has given me the opportunity to evaluate each of them.

Easy HDR

The easiest and best for beginners, especially if you are not ready to commit to buying software, is Easy HDR. It’s intuitive and a pretty good fuss-free layout. The paid version interface will look different but ghosting, image align and other features will be activated. The results are good and it does come with some presets you can experiment with.

Aurora HDR 2019

Aurora HDR boasts a powerful tone mapping tool and many presets you can view samples of before applying to your image. The interface is more robust than what you will see with Easy HDR, but that translates into a better image quality in my opinion.

This software also includes plugins for Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop if you are a user. For 99.00 it seems fair given all the features and the quality you can produce. It doesn’t really have a free version, although there is a 90-day money back guaranteed. I’m just not sure how that works. Overall I was satisfied with it, but it’s not my primary editor.

Photomatix

I’ve been using Photomatix for about 14 years and have been really impressed with the updates and features offered. This is the best HDR software I have used, and why I have stuck with it so long after trying many others. You can develop your own style of HDR from the more surreal, contrasty to more realistic.

There are plugins if you use Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. This makes it easy for me to export directly to Photomatix from Lightroom and back into Lightroom again when I’m finished.

At 99.00 it is priced to match Aurora HDR, and it includes a free trial so you can evaluate it. It has a learning curve but as you become more experienced you can turn out some truly stunning HDR.

Conclusion

Now that you know how to create your HDR images you can get started. The creativity and developing your style of HDR can set you apart where people come to know this is one of your works of art.

As you gain familiarity with the software read the guides about how to use the other features. It takes time, but it’s well worth it.

As always, if you need help use my Contact Form on the page.

Creating HDR Images with a Free HDR Program
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Jimmie

Welcome! My interest in photography spans 40 years and started with the purchase of my first SLR. Since then my passion has grown to landscapes, beach scenes, and travel photography primarily. Photography techniques I particularly enjoy are long exposures, and what I call splash art. You can see these on my gallery page if it interests you. Currently, I live on Amelia Island in Northeast Florida with my beautiful wife and our wonder dog, Fuji.

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