Shooting HDR with Nikon D3000

When I bought my Nikon D3000 nearly three years ago, I had no idea what HDR (High Dynamic Range imaging) was.

And yet, I was seeing these images out there on the web (many from photographers I know personally) and in some magazines that were very frustrating to me.  Even with all my years of experience with cameras and photography I just simply could not figure out HOW the photographer was getting the range of light levels in that photo.  All I could think was that, in one way or another they were digitally altered.

This bothered me at first.  I feel very strongly that if a photographer digitally alters a photo in any significant way they need to be honest about that because it is in reality a different art form.  I have no problem with it, it just needs to be noted.

(Here you will find much more detail about HDR images and here you can see some pretty impressive [and heavily processed] HDR images)

That is the puritan in me.

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One of my very first HDR Images. A coffee bus at the Rio Grande Gorge in Taos, New Mexico. August 2012

In any case, I’ve generally rejected any significant altering of my own photos simply because it doesn’t suit my art form.  So I’ve never learned Photoshop or GIMP for example.  Still, as I looked at more and more of these HDR images and then compared them to what I was seeing with my own eye I found that the HDR images more accurately reflected what I was actually seeing given the range of light intensity levels (from direct sunlight to deep shadows) we perceive in real life.  Not all the time but in general, yes.

So, I thought I’d give it a try and immediately ran into frustration.  There are a million tutorials out there about how to use Photoshop and the like to create your HDR image (tonal mapping and so forth) but I could not find a simple HOW TO guide for shooting the three to five differentially exposed images you need to combine to get an HDR photo.  Further, the Nikon D3000 does not have an “auto-bracketing” feature for easy and rapid shots at different exposures (I believe other Nikons, like the D90 do have this feature).

I won’t walk you through my whole trial and error process of how I figured this out.  Instead, I’ll just tell you what to do.

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The Union Depot Train Station. Pueblo, Colorado, USA.
Another one of my early HDR attempts. August 2012

Shooting HDR with Nikon D3000

1. You must have a tripod.  Get your Nikon D300 set up on the tripod and set the composition and the focus of your image.

2. Set your camera on the “Aperture Priority” setting.  This is the “A” on your dial. Set the aperture (a small aperture such as f/16 will get you a sharper image. A large aperture such as f/2.8 will get your main subject sharp and blur the background. Something in between such as  f/5.6 will give you an average depth of field for everything in the image). Take a few test shots to make sure you have the correct depth of field, decent lighting and a well framed image.

3. Next up, find the exposure compensation button on the right hand side of the camera near the On/Off. The button has a little “+/-” symbol on it.  You will depress this button and at the same time use the dial on the upper right part of the back of the camera to change the exposure compensation up or down.  The compensation numbers are shown on  the information screen.  For now, set it to 0.0.  (Remember, you have to do this because the Nikon D3000 does not have the auto-bracketing feature so many other cameras do.)

4. Take the first shot.

1 DSC 0044 Shooting HDR with Nikon D3000

John Dunn Bridge. Taos County, New Mexico.
Exposure composition 0.0

5. Now, WITHOUT MOVING YOUR CAMERA, depress the exposure composition button and increase the exposure to +2.0 using the thumb dial.

1 DSC 0043 Shooting HDR with Nikon D3000

John Dunn Bridge, Taos County, New Mexico
Exposure Composition +2.0

6. Again, WITHOUT MOVING THE CAMERA, change the exposure composition to -2.0 and snap your shot.

1 DSC 0045 Shooting HDR with Nikon D3000

John Dunn Bridge. Taos County, New Mexico.
Exposure Composition -2.0

7. Then, transfer all three of the differentially exposed images to your computer and use whatever application you prefer to combine them into your HRD image.  Finally, edit the image as you normally would.

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John Dunn Bridge Taos County, New Mexico
Final HDR Image. September 2012

There are Photoshop, GIMP, Photomatric and many other programs to choose from.  I’ve been playing with the FREE (yes free!) program Picturnaught 3.2.  What I like is that the final image is not distorted and over processed.  It is a clean combination of the three images that much more reflects the reality of the lighting differences that the eye sees.

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The Rio Grande Gorge of Taos County, New Mexico.
My favorite HDR image thus far. September 2012

I think there is a very interesting discussion to be had as to whether digitally processed images can more accurately reflect reality than just snapping a shot.  One thing I’ve learned over time as a photographer is just how absolutely amazing the human eye is…and conversely, how limited a camera can be.

Anyway, play with it.  Try to combine 3, 5, 7, 9 different images and see what you get.  Feel free to chime in with any advice or thoughts you might have in the comments below.

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31 Responses to Shooting HDR with Nikon D3000

  1. Bret @ Green Global Travel October 12, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    I’m like you, Jim: Because of the nature of what we do, I generally prefer more naturalistic images, and have learned over time to use simple iPhoto editing tools to make minor adjustments to light contrast and color balance in order to get the look I want. But I do admire the lush landscape work of guys like Laurence and Dave Bouskill, and have thought about giving HDR a try on occasion. It obviously won’t work for a lot of our stuff, which tends to be focused on wildlife and people, but for landscapes it does get pretty cool results. Thanks for the tips!

    • Jim O'Donnell October 16, 2012 at 6:00 am #

      Thanks Bret! And have fun in the great white North!!

  2. Micki @ The Barefoot Nomad October 12, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

    Thanks or this, Jim, especially for the Picturnaught tip. I’ve thought about trying out HDR for a while now, but was commpletely overwhelmed by the complexity of most of the tutorials. Love what you said about the camera limiting what we see in the final image; I definitely find that to be true as I’m learning more about photography.

    • Jim O'Donnell October 16, 2012 at 6:00 am #

      I’ve been a photographer since I was like 10 Micki. Always had a camera, always playing and always struggling to capture the image I wanted. Its a non-stop learning process.

  3. John Mata October 12, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    I've played with this free software quite a bit:

    http://qtpfsgui.sourceforge.net/

  4. Kiva Duckworth-Moulton October 13, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    nice. you are a determined learner.

    • Jim O'Donnell October 16, 2012 at 11:55 am #

      I need more play time with all this stuff!

  5. Vera Marie Badetscher October 24, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

    I really like your examples above. It makes me re-think HDR, because I’ve seen too many bloggers who use HDR to get what seems to me a garishness that would only be appropriate for shooting the Midway at the County Fair. Pop Art instead of a photographic image of what the eye saw.

    • Jim O'Donnell October 25, 2012 at 10:56 am #

      Vera, I totally agree. I don’t like the garnishness of many of the images I’ve seen but, used skillfully and thoughtfully I think it can be a valuable tool in how we see and then help others to see, the world.

  6. Natalie December 21, 2012 at 11:47 am #

    At least a tutorial on the shooting part of it. Read so much on post processing but nothing on how to start with the best images. Do you think I need one of those timers as well. That will take the picture without moving the camera. Even if I use a tripod, photomatix is still saying the photos are not aligned.

    • Jim O'Donnell December 21, 2012 at 2:27 pm #

      Natalie, I’m a little confused by your comment. Are you asking for some more help with actually taking the shot? Yes. A timer is a good idea although I havent actually used one for this kind of shot. I just make sure to NOT move the camera. That is the downside with the D3000 bracketing feature. Its all manual. It would be great if they had made it auto so you could get all three shots in less than a second. You gotta have the tripod. I havent used photomatrix so I’m not sure about its parameters. I will give it a try tho.

      • Natalie December 21, 2012 at 3:28 pm #

        Yeah that is right Jim – My camera is the D40x which lacks the auto bracketing as well. I have always used a tripod but when I put the photos in Photpmatix, it still says they are not exactly the same in terms of where the subject is. I was wondering if a hand held timer would help. Either that or my tripod is crap!! Thanks for the tutorial anyway. Helps to know the basics before I start with the post processing

  7. Matthew Urdan February 7, 2013 at 3:20 am #

    Jim, I've rafted the Taos Box, and we use the same camera. Thanks for posting the HDR info!

    • Jim O'Donnell June 21, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

      What a great ride the box is! At least it used to be. The water has been so low the past few years…this year too…that it is very hard if not impossible to raft!

  8. Viktor Kolev June 21, 2013 at 8:37 am #

    But all this fidgeting with the exposure button and the thumb dial slightly move the camera, and the 3 images could be slightly miss aligned?

    • Jim O'Donnell June 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

      Viktor, that is exactly the problem and the frustration I have with the D3000. Otherwise it is a great camera but there are a number of other cameras that will auto bracket. The D3000 does not have that feature. Obviously, I have been able to make it work but it makes many HDR shots impossible.

  9. Linda McCormick October 28, 2013 at 7:48 am #

    Thanks Jim.
    I have a Canon so will have to have a fiddle and see what is similar. At least I have an idea of what is required.
    Cheers!

    • Jim O'Donnell October 28, 2013 at 8:38 am #

      Yes. The main points are the same. You have to figure out how your camera brackets and then work wiht that. But the picturenaught program I link to there is free and very good so you dont have to go to Photoshop unless you want to.

  10. Andrew Devlin@Olympus Pen January 12, 2014 at 5:29 am #

    Thanks for posting the HDR info! I’ve rafted the Taos Box, and we use the same camera.

    • Jim O'Donnell January 12, 2014 at 8:04 am #

      Andrew, would you have anything to add? If so, I’d love to know what your hints and ideas might be that could further help me and the reader. Thanks for coming by!

  11. LARRY KING February 1, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    The water has been so low the past few years…this year too…that it is very hard if not impossible to raft!

  12. Jenni March 11, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    Thank you for this info, I was trying to figure out if the D3000 had bracketing and couldn’t find much info out there. I have played around with photomatix and lightroom and while they are pretty user friendly IMO, sometimes my pictures look too overdone and unrealistic with just a small change made. I like your example above, so I think I will check out Picturnaught.

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