*How to shoot HDR Composite imagery with people


Sure, we’ve all seen the images that have been run through an HDR-like tonemapping, contrast increasing filter, making the grungy, saturated and contrasty images we’ve all come to accept as HDR, or at least, HDR-like shots.  While the “HDR” look can bring about photographic debates bordering on political or religious polarity, there is a way to actually capture and process the actual dynamic range of a scene, not just try and make it look like a processed, HDR image.  If you’re not a fan of HDR, by all means, feel free to ignore this post, but to and for me HDR can be a very useful tool, and one that, in this particular situation can help stretch a limited budget by being able to get a good range of exposure for a dynamically diverse scene without tons of lighting.  Now, the trick here when wanting to do this with human subjects is that you’re needing to take multiple frames at differing exposure values, which means, in short, a person or people would need to stay statue still to make it work, right?  Not so.  C’mon in and I’ll show you how to get around this unfortunate challenge…

average metering

Above is the scene averaged and exposed as best I could in a single frame.  I lost too much in the sky which has blown out and becomes a giant area of bright, negative space.  The detail and color in the car and foreground isn’t where I’d want it either.  The building and street are pretty much where I’d like them, but I want the whole enchilada.

The key to a shot that will incorporate a High Dynamic Range capture, and breathing, carbon based subjects will be a little bit of planning and foresight, as well as a tripod.

The basic outline for a shot like this is to divide it into (at least) two separate shots.

  1. First, the bracketed shot that will later be processed as your HDR/background scene shot.
  2. Second, a shot that incorporates any people, we will call them models because it sounds way more professional.

From there, it is all about layering and masking in Photoshop, and it’s a lot easier than it may sound.

Okay, for those who aren’t already well versed in HDR processing, I have written a couple articles on both capturing (click here), and processing (click here) high dynamic range in a scene.  If you don’t already own an HDR/tonemapping software, I’ll save you some time.  Go to HDRsoft’s website and download the free version of PHOTOMATIX here to give it a try.  The free version will watermark your images, but you can see the full power of the program otherwise.  There are quite a few programs out there, and many folks have their own preferences, by all means give others a try.  I’ve used most of them, also, this is my blog 🙂 and I still feel that Photomatix is the gold standard.  You can purchase the lite version which retails for only $39, the Pro standalone version which retails for $99, or the Pro standalone with plugins for $119.  If you do purchase any version, use the code TRP15 to get a 15% discount.  I use the Pro standalone version and it works wonderfully.

Alright, back to it.  Let’s set up the bracketed shot.  After we’d parked the car (anticipating where Kate would be in the final shot) I got the camera set up on the tripod and manually shot 6 frames in single, full stop increments to capture the entire scene’s dynamic range.  Here’s the processed version (see a screen shot of the 6 frames in Photomatix a few shots below):


Next, without moving anything other than opening the door of the car and getting Kate in there, I set up a light (an Alien Bee 800 to be exact) and fired it bare, with the standard reflector, to light Kate, and the interior.

model shot

Because a singular frame (with a person in it) would be difficult to get proper exposure for the dynamic range, you can essentially fill in the range in a smaller part of the image using lights, where we cannot light the building, sky, car, scene, etc without a huge budget which is where the HDR bracketing for the scene comes in.

So, we’ve captured two shots (well, 7 technically, but 6 of them were processed in Photomatix to create a single frame).  One, the car and scene with the full dynamic range, and one with Kate, lit by a strobe.

So, how did we get the final composite?  Well, on to the processing and layering to get the final shot.

We will bring the 6 shots of the car/scene into Photomatix and find a preset to begin with, tweaking it to our liking.

Photomatix Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 9.52.59 AM

Next, we fine tune our shot with Kate in it as we would any shot, keeping in mind you will want to keep an eye on matching saturation, tone and general levels with the HDR background shot.

Now, open both in Photoshop.

  • With both open, select the move tool by pressing the “V” key.
  • Click on the shot of your model (the non HDR shot) and hold down the “SHIFT” key.  This will automatically align the two when you drop this on top of the background image.
  • Okay, drag and drop your “model” image on top of your HDR “background” image.

Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 9.57.47 AM

At first, the background image will seem to have entirely disappeared.  Not to worry.  There are quite a few ways to select and mask out the model layer. Here’s how I did it with this shot:

  •  Select the “model” layer so that it’s highlighted in your layers panel and drop the layer’s opacity down to about 50% (see the screen shot above).
  • Double check that your layers are perfectly aligned, or as close as you can get them focusing on the area surrounding your model.  Sometimes they will be slightly off as the camera can shift slightly between frames, etc.  Mine were. Use the move tool, and arrow keys to bump them into alignment.
  • With your layers aligned, turn the opacity of the model layer back up to 100% and holding your ALT/OPTION key, click on your layer mask button (the circle in a square at the bottom of your layers panel).  This will entirely hide your “model” layer.
  • Make sure the black mask on your model layer is selected and with the brush tool (press the “B” key to select) and painting with white as your foreground color, start to paint in the area where your model is (see screen shot below).

Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 10.28.58 AM

Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 9.59.15 AM

Now, things to keep in mind when you’re setting up and shooting this kind of composite are any elements that are going to vary between your HDR shot and your model shot (think the way the background will look, and need to be masked to “cut out” your model via the layer mask).  Shadows from the light can also provide a tricky task, as they will not normally look very natural against the HDR background.  I avoided this by creating a wall essentially that was going to be lit independently from the background image, and kept it so that the light wasn’t going to affect the background elements allowing me to mask out a square window  that was lit to match the rest of the scene basically.

If your model is against a wall, or foliage, etc, you may want to light that background when shooting the “model” image as well so that it will better blend when masking it into the background image.

And that is just about that.  From there, you can either flatten your image (AHHH! Photoshop purists shriek with terror!!!!) or Merge Visible via the Layer’s menu, and fine tune and process your composited image from there.  I used a variety of plugin filters on the final image (Alien Skin Exposure 5! coming soon, and the new, wonderful Topaz Clarity) to punch up the final frame.


So, there ya go.  I know this post is a bit wordy, but while there are a few steps involved, it’s not quite as complicated as it may seem.  Experiment and try compositing shots like this together.  It’s a lot of fun, and considering that for a shoot that could have busted the budget regarding lighting rigs and the like, it allowed me to lend a bit of drama to the shot that would have taken quite a bit of time and money to achieve otherwise.

This was a collaborative concept developed through Caprice Hammon for Tigi who did hair and makeup, and the ELK Collective for aesthetic styling.  Thank you to Erin Cry, my ELK Cohort, Juan Marquez for his beautiful 1948 Chevy Fleetline Fastback and to Kate Mikulic, our Model.

You may see a few more shots from this shoot on the blog in the coming weeks.  We had some fun 🙂

For those of us in the US, have a wonderful holiday weekend, and to everyone else, have a wonderful regular weekend and happy shooting.



6 thoughts on “*How to shoot HDR Composite imagery with people

  1. Great image you created Tyson , especially like how you explain the setup and post work. The 6 frames , were they 3 overexposed frames and 3 underexposed frames ?


    • Thanks Chris,

      Yeah, with the exposure swing, I just started at one end (overexposure for shadows) of the histogram and went with a single stop jump until I got to the other side of the histogram (basically until the highlights weren’t clipped). I do this more often than an auto bracket as long as the subject is entirely static as it is more accurate for me. Luckily the clouds weren’t moving and wind was calm. In most scenes, I won’t need more than 7 frames unless I’m shooting a really dark interior which has windows that I’m trying to get exposure info for.




      • With most cameras having a bracket feature now couldn’t the model hold still for the short time it would take to bracket? You no longer have to adjust the aperture anymore.


      • It’s possible, but can introduce issues. In a 6,7 or 8 shot bracket, at best (with my setup) that’s still 2+ seconds seeing as I stop down to f/8-f/11 often to get the scene in focus. The problem becomes not knowing if the or how much the model has shifted until you get them on the computer and can then actually process the HDR file. To me, it was far easier to do this than have to schedule a reshoot because the final shot didn’t come out due to subject movement.

        I think that with a fast enough bracket, you might be able to pull it off, of course depending on either subject or environmental motion, wind, etc, but this has proven for me to be a far more reliable and effective way of doing it 🙂


  2. Pingback: *An argument for, and against “going Pro” | Tyson Robichaud Photo-blography

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