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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Shooting HDR with Nikon D3000
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.

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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