Printing Guidelines for HDR photography

For three years and some change I’ve been shooting HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography. I got hooked after seeing some amazing work by Trey Ratcliff and Ben Wilmore. And putting aside all of the arguments still going on in the photo community regarding HDR, I happen to like what you can do with it.

Everything starts with the shoot

HDR is not the “end all be all fix a bad photo and make it cool” technique. In the end, it’s another tool in a photographer’s arsenal and should be treated as such. Creating an HDR of everything you see doesn’t mean you’ll have a good image or print.

That means you’ve still got to do work as a photographer. Lighting, composition, time of day, and interesting subjects. All the basics are still necessary. Without those basics all you’re going to do is find yourself making highly stylized bad photos. Nobody wants prints like that.

In the case of my personal work I’ve gotten to the point that when I look at a scene I have a pretty good idea of what the HDR is going to turn out like. As you work with HDR more you’ll find the same to be true. You can visualize pretty easily how the HDR will look in it’s finished state. The more stylized you want to be, the harder it is to get that initial feel. But if you’re going for more realistic HDRs, then the scene in front of you as you see it should be what you have in mind.

Post Processing with Print Making in Mind

If you’re like me, once you return from a fun location shoot you immediately start off loading your images. Skip dinner, skip that oh so necessary shower, and sit in front of the computer in your filthy dirt covered hiking clothes. Ah, photographers are so much fun!

After getting images off loaded I’ll often do a first pass in Lightroom to see what jumps out at me. Often times I’m looking for an image that I told myself would work while in the field. Once I’ve found what I’m looking for I usually do an initial test HDR just to see where the image is going. 9 times out of 10 that test HDR is not my final selection.

Why you ask?

Simply put, I always have prints in mind. And HDR lends to a lot of problems before printing. If you’re looking to share that final image in print format it stands to reason that it should be really polished. Often times, HDR images aren’t polished. They’re processed in Photomatix or a similar program and the photographer calls it done. Big mistake.

HDR is well known for haloing, enhancing “bad features” (that dust spot on your lens is going to look very pronounced), and exacerbating chromatic aberrations like you wouldn’t believe! Now, if you process 3, 6, or 9 frames to create your HDR those small flaws on individual images will become really big flaws in the final image. Clean things up beforehand if you can.

Calibrate People!

Finally, there’s one additional step you need to take before putting HDR to Print. Calibrate everything. Your printer and your monitors. Otherwise I can assure you that what you get in the final print isn’t going to be what you thought you were getting.

Here’s a simple example of how much calibrating your screen means to your final HDR. My good friend Josh Gosell comments on my web posts regularly. Several months ago he pointed out that he could actually tell which images were processed on my home computer vs the office computer. How could he tell?

Color shift.

See, the home system wasn’t calibrated with my Color Munki until Josh made his comment. And yes, when I brought images into my shop the were always a little off from what I was looking at while working at home. Since his observation I’ve used the Color Munki on every display I own!

And finally we print

I know, you’ve been waiting for this part. But it’s relatively easy at this point. The final step in the process. And provided you’ve checked everything off getting to this point there’s little else to do. Print that image!

Currently I use an HP Z3100 and a Canon IPF8300 for reproduction work. Each printer has been calibrated, my displays have been calibrated, so I’m working in the world of “what you see is what you get.” And that’s the type of world that guarantees the best results.

Both the Canon & HP have generated amazing prints on gloss, satins, metallics, and canvases. A good portion of my work can be seen on Breathing Color’s Chromata, Lyve, Optica One, & Allure Rag. Now I’ve started working with Vibrance Rag which is a big step up from Allure, and HDRs look fantastic on it!

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  • Paul Morales

    Rich-Every time I check out your personal blog and see the new photos you post I get inspired. For the amateur photographer, can you give us an idea of your setup when shooting HDR images? What about exposure settings?

    • Digitalrv

      Hey Paul,

      I’m normally shooting a Canon 40D (older, but I still love that camera) and a 5D Mark II. Of course everything always depends on what you’re shooting, but I have saved a couple of Custom Settings on the camera.

      When indoors at old spooky ghost towns I find myself around f/5.6, 1/200th of a second, and always on my tripod. Outdoors seeing something around f/8 1/100th of a second. Of course, my favorite lenses are the 10-22mm on the 40D and the 17-40mm on the 5D Mark II. Those big wide views you know! :)

      Depending on the scene I will adjust of course. And normally a spread of 3 exposures 0EV, -2, +2. In ghost town buildings I’ll usually do 6 exposures and there’s always a window somewhere that I want detail out of.

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  • Nick Friend

    Hi Rich, in your opinion, which type (not brand) of paper or canvas seems to best compliment HDR photography? Is it a matte fine art paper, or is it a bartya fine art paper such as Vibrance Rag? Or, is it a canvas? Because each of these media options perform in their own unique ways, Im curious what the benefits/drawbacks are of each when it comes to the final look of the printed HDR image…

  • Renee Besta

    Hi Rich. I met you while vacationing in Prescott in late 2008 and really enjoy your photography. Also following you on Twitter. Thanks for writing about the topic of HDR & printmaking, something long overdue. Think it would be useful to include some information regarding color gamut and spaces, and the fact that different printers & inks vary widely in their ability to reach into the ProPhoto RGB space, if not Adobe RGB. You are certainly using high-end printers that can accomplish this. 

    However, I find that so many photographers know nothing about the fine art of printmaking, and thus think that sending me a file as an 8-bit, sRGB jpeg is perfectly fine for high quality printing. Or those that do make some prints are using inexpensive, non-professional printers that limit the color gamut and rendition. Thus they are surprised at the outcome. I have found that some color management education is very useful for my clients. I use Epson printers, and the newer models are capable of extending into the ProPhoto RGB space which, as you know, is the native color space for Adobe Lightroom. Although many photographers now utilize LR, they are unaware that ProPhoto is the native color space and thus may not keep their images in that space when exporting their files. When a photographer is shooting for HDR, it is especially important to be aware of color spaces/gamut because, as you know, HDR can often produce colors that are way out of gamut for many models of printers. I have also been surprised that many photographers do not know how to set the correct ‘Color Settings’ in Photoshop, their cameras, or how to export from Lightroom or Photomatix at the highest quality (16-bit tiff/psd in ProPhoto RGB). If left unchanged, Photoshop is applying sRGB by default.

    The ColorMunki Photo has worked well for me in creating custom ICC profiles for my printers, as well as my monitors. Due to the fact that many people do not calibrate and profile their monitors, combined with setting the brightness way too high, leads to surprising print outcomes. Also it is important to distinguish that calibrating your monitor is very different than profiling it. Both need to be done. 

    In terms of fine art papers for HDR printing, I use both matte and glossy papers such as metallic or baryta-based. It depends on the individual image and what works best in that case. There is no correct answer. It comes down to what feeling the photographer is trying to convey with that particular image. 

    Thanks again for writing this great article. I love Arizona and your photographs amply demonstrate why. 

  • Renee Besta

    Posting an HDR photo of the spectacular Granite Dells in Prescott, Arizona, “Sundance on the Dells.” 3 shot bracketed HDR sequence processed in Photomatix, Lightroom and Photoshop. See my comments on the HDR article below.