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“Exercise simplicity and restraint.  Get to know how to use what you already have.  Make it work to your liking.  Only buy something new when you have grown beyond the capacity of what you already have and your inner artist is craving to play bigger. You’ll know when the time is right.”  I learned this principle from Edward Weston by reading his Daybooks. I recommend reading them yourself sometime. He’ll teach you how to see & how to simplify. ~Captain Photo

The Basics

  • HDR Camera

You’ll need a camera that will take RAW image files and has automatic exposure bracketing.  The good news is that almost any DSLR or mirror-less camera qualifies. So if you already have a camera, it will probably work just fine for making amazing HDR photos, so use it.  No added expense needed yet. Yay! I’ll go more in depth about your camera and how to use it coming up in a video on the next page.

If your camera is too old or is too basic of a point-n-shoot, now is the time to upgrade.  If you want a DSLR Stick with either Canon or Nikon. Whichever you go with will be like choosing a spouse; it’s intended to be a long-term relationship… and it’s also very expensive if you decide to change to another brand later.

If you prefer to be more hip and get one of the new, light, compact mirror-less micro four thirds cameras, then you’ll want to look at Olympus, Sony, and Panasonic. these cameras are the future and they are here now!  The great thing about these cameras, besides the light and compact form factor, is that you can use any micro four thirds lens on any body.  That’s the way it should be.

Technology changes so fast I want to point you to a website I really trust to give me very thorough and un-biased reviews of all the new gear.  Check out what Gordon Laing has to say about cameras at Camerlabs.com.  Thanks to his reviews I decided to recently upgrade to the new Olympus OMD EM-1.

The beginning of the end of DSLR’s is here,  just to let ya know. I love the smaller, lighter, quieter, more reliable mirror-less cameras a lot.  They are much easier to travel with and less to go wrong too because, with these cameras, the flipping mirror has been terminated. For a travel and landscape photographer, like me, it’s a perfect fit!

  • The Best HDR Software to process your bracketed RAW files.

I recommend Adobe Lightroom 5.  If you already have Lightroom 4, it’s just as good for our purposes.  It’s available for both Windows and Mac platforms and it’s inexpensive.  It’s also super powerful now because it’s possible to develop 32-bit HDR image files directly. Since HDR files start life as a 32-bit file, this is a HUGE advantage for Lightroom 4 & 5 users and reason alone to buy it. The overwhelming majority of photographers I know use it for cataloging, key-wording, processing and printing all their photos too. It’s quite a handy dandy piece of software. You may already have it on your computer.   If not, you’ll need it because it’s the Mothership of my entire Perfect HDR Workflow that I’ll be showing you. Amazon has Lightroom cheaper than anyplace I’ve seen and there is special pricing for students and for upgrading from an earlier version. Adobe also offers it in their creative cloud. For $10/month you get both Lightroom and Photoshop.

The Magic of HDR Happens in Photomatix

One other small piece of software is required to assemble the 3 or more bracketed RAW files into a 32-bit HDR image file.  Get the Photomatix merge-to-32-bit plugin for Lightroom.  Don’t mess around, start with the best.  I’ve already done the shopping for you and this combo is what I use everyday to make my Perfect HDR photography because it’s so easy to use and gives outstanding results.  No other software is required.

photomatix pro banner

The plugin by itself costs only $39.  Lightroom is $149 or less if you shop around for it.  So, even at normal prices, you can completely outfit your HDR Darkroom for well under $200 US!  If you are a little more advanced and want to have Photoshop too, the creative cloud subscription for both Lightroom and Photoshop is now finally affordable at only $10/month for both!  That meets my goal to get a beginner inexpensively outfitted with high quality HDR software.

I can even save you a little more money when you buy Photomatix if you use the promo code PERFECTHDR.   Use that promo code anytime for 15% off any Photomatix product at checkout.

Eventually, as your HDR skills improve, you’ll want to get Photomatix Pro 5, but, if your budget is tight now, all you really need to get started making Perfect HDR today is the $39 plugin.  Fortunately there is a free trial downloads of the Photomatix plugin and all of their software so go try it out.

no photoshop needed iconDid you notice that Photoshop is NOT required? That’s a relief. You didn’t want to have to BUY it and then LEARN how to actually USE it, did you?  “No Photoshop” brings such joy that I’m inspired to blog about it.

Beyond the Basics (strictly optional)

  • Tripod

Numero uno of this list of optional stuff is a tripod.  Photomatix does an awesome job of auto-aligning the bracketed images from hand-held shots so a tripod isn’t as critical for HDR as it used to be. Newer cameras have really solid image stabilization too. My Olympus EM-1 is amazing at hand held shooting! You will still need a tripod when you’re out photographing in the awesome softer and dimmer light of sunrise and sunset, your shutter speeds will be slower and you’ll need that tripod help to get crisp images.  Make sure it’s not a flimsy one.  A good one will set you back more than you might expect unless you find a deal on Craigslist. If you’re going to travel with it, like I do, I highly recommend carbon fiber.

  • How a Tripod Helps Your Art

Your completed masterpieces of photographic art gets an added benefit when you use a tripod because you become way more intentional in your work.  That aspect alone is reason enough to use one. When you have to be deliberate and take time to set up a tripod your vision becomes more acute and you are more likely to setup a shot with great composition. When you’re hand-held, it’s too tempting to fire off frames unconsciously which results in more garbage to wade through when you get back to your studio, not to mention the bloated library of photos to bog down your computer.

  • Wide Angle Lens

This item is a sleeper. Until you slip a wide angle lens one onto your camera you have no idea how beautifully it will enhance your work. It’s on my camera for 95% of my shots.  HDR seeimage: Olympus Zuiko 9-18mm wide angle MFT lensms to be much more effective from a wide perspective than from using a telephoto. Again, here is an opportunity to drop hundreds to over a thousand dollars on one hunk of glass.  Shop carefully. Read the lens reviews at CameraLabs.com.  You don’t want to buy a crappy lens.  It will never produce great images.

  • Wacom Tablet – Intuos 4

intuos4_pen_tabletIt was only recently I finally got a graphics tablet.  Using a mouse to make intricate edits in Lightroom is tedious.  The tablet puts photo processing in a wide open new comfortable world of creativity.  What I appreciate about using a tablet is the pressure sensitivity feature of the pen. Pressing harder on the pen either increased opacity or brush size.  I use it to vary opacity and this feature gives me infinite control over the stylization of my HDR photos. It’s actually kind of my secret weapon to stylize my HDR photos ito my finished art. I found it was easy to get the hang of using it.  A mouse doesn’t give you the pressure sensitivity control.  It’s either on, foot to the floor… or off.  You’ll love having a tablet for all your photographic work. Get one as soon as you can.

That’s all you need

We will make Perfectly Awesome HDR with this short list.   You were expecting more?  Oh, of course, there’s more you can buy to awesomize your HDR even more and we’ll get to that a little later. The first thing is to really learn what a good HDR photo is and how to avoid all the bad things that go so wrong with many HDR photographs. 

Before going on, just let me emphasize that I use this exact software setup everyday and it handles 75% of my needs. Don’t worry about anything else right now. We’ll fill in the gap of that other 25% soon enough.  This is going to be easy & fun!


Photo-bombed by Mai, Maria, and Nicole in front of the Tallin Spa.

Contact Captain Photo

If I can help or answer a question, please let me know right here. Cheers!