Measuring & Exposing for Dynamic Range

Reader, friend and fellow photographer Todd B asked me to go into more detail on how I measure the dynamic range of a scene and then decide how I will shoot the exposures for that scene. 

What I do is quite simple. I set my camera to Aperture Priority mode and the aperture and ISO I will be shooting with. I then set my metering mode to spot. I use aperture priority for this instead of Manual because I am just looking for numbers (shutter speeds) right now. I may, and probably will, end up shooting in a different mode, most likely manual. 

I then seek out the brightest and darkest areas of my scene. If the sun is in the shot, don’t measure it for many reasons. First off it’s not good for your eyes or your camera and secondly because of its brightness you will end up with exposures that in reality have very little use. If the sun is just at the horizon line you may be OK, but anything above that you are asking for trouble. But in most circumstances if the sun is in my image I will meter slightly to the side or above it. 

Also make note of one phenomenon, just as the sun hit the horizon it is not always the brightest region of the image and the clear sky above or a reflection off a cloud may actually register higher 

So setting my spot meter on the brightest area I will take note of the shutter speed at that point, I then search my field for the darkest area of the scene and take note of that shutter speed. Now the only thing I need to do is connect those two with a number of exposures 

So we know that using our camera’s reflective meters (or even a handheld reflective meter) that meter is going to meter for a midtone and that’s OK because we really don’t want that brightest or darkest area to be anything but a midtone at the most. There is no point in taking a highlight and making it a shadow nor a shadow and making it a highlight. 

Shooting exposure beyond those two measured midtones will lead us to shooting way too many exposures which lead to problems with alignment and processing speed later. Also, shooting exposures beyond what we measured leads to problem with noise in shadows and loss of detail in highlights (Bloom)

Deciding on Exposures

 The first thing I will think about in my head is, how many stop range is the dynamic range of this scene. Luckily since we are using shutter speed it’s easy to think in your mind how many stops. A doubling or Halving of Shutter speed is one stop. 1/100 to 1/200 = one stop. 

If I have less than 4 stops, I probably won’t shoot an HDR at all. There really is no point; our cameras are able to cover that dynamic Range. 

If I measure at or around 4 stops I’m probably just going to use  AEB (Automatic Exposure Bracketing) with  a shutter speed in the middle of the two ends as my starting point and just do 3 exposures +-2EV(stops). This is really sufficient for 1/.2 of the scenarios we come across outdoors. 

If it is beyond that I will shoot 1 step exposures going from one end to the other, no matter what that number of exposures is. And I don’t sit there and calculate it out. I start with my camera set at one end of the range and then just turn my shutter exposure dial 3 click for every stop (my camera is set for 1/3 stop intervals) Until I see my final exposure is at the other end. 

Some of the newest camera on the scene now allow for 7 or 9 exposures AEB, if you’re lucky enough to have one you can set yours up instead of the method I use. This also helps eliminate and camera shake even on a tripod as moving a dial can cause. 

After I shoot my first series, I will go through and check my histograms and make sure I have pretty much pegged each end. If I see one or either end not quite to the end I may add an exposure or two 

The only thing left to do if you are shooting close to sunrise or sunset is to keep an eye on the starting point of your exposures as the light changes every 10 minutes or so. This is when I have my handheld exposure meter handy so I don’t need to take the camera off the tripod to get a reading. 

Then after the sun sets,  you should measure the entire range again as it will change quite dramatically shooting into the Blue Hour as the Dynamic Range lowers considerable although the first 10-15 minutes of Blue Hour the DR of the sky is still quote high. 

And that’s all I do



  1. Russ December 12, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

    Hi, Thank you, you cleared up a question I always have in my head, Where to meter towards the sun.
    May I ask why when you have a hand held meter do you use the spot meter option on your camera? as normally hand held meters will give a more accurate exposure and you never have to move your camera from your composition to take another exposure.

    • Peter December 13, 2012 at 12:40 am #

      My Hand Held Meter does not do Spot Metering so my camera actually is more accurate. The Meter I have would do more averaging, it is however good enough to just keep track of the changing light at sunset.
      Also If I said I just used a Hand Held meter people would think they were necessary to meter an HDR, they are not, your camera’s meter is sufficient

  2. Dale Smith December 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm #

    Thank you. Another very nicely done piece. Your gift for breaking these things down and leading us through the process step by step is awesome.
    All the best,

  3. JuanMi September 3, 2016 at 11:42 am #

    Hi there Peter,
    Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. Your tips and advice are easy to understand and very practical.

    Thanks again, and greetins from Spain,

    Juan Miguel

    • Peter September 3, 2016 at 12:49 pm #

      Thanks very much Juan. Say hi to your beautiful country!

  4. Steve July 25, 2018 at 7:47 am #

    Peter, I’ve just started shooting HDR with the knowledge gained from your site I’m getting some great results. Your style of writing really does break it down to make it easy to understand. I very much appreciate you writing this site. HDR photograpy is a blast.

    • Peter August 4, 2018 at 9:47 am #

      Thanks a bunch Steve. Mush appreciated. I have some new things coming up after a Hiatus from the site. Tune in 🙂

  5. Brian Lewis July 29, 2018 at 7:05 pm #

    Still relevant and helpful in 2018. I shoot real estate and use HDR a lot. Measuring the DR quickly is a skill I have needed for awhile and your tips are eminently practical. I find that color and haze slow my workflow the most at this point. Covering the whole DR in 3 shots usually requires starting at the center of that range, which requires proficiency in determining where that really is. The payoff is that when HDR images are properly exposed, color is easier to adjust against dehaze in Lightroom. Over time, I’ve seen this on mixed-light rooms pretty consistently. So, I always knew what I needed to do mathematically, but it never occurred to me that metering the two exposure extremes and counting the dial clicks would solve for x in seconds instead of minutes. Thanks Peter!

    • Peter August 4, 2018 at 9:49 am #

      Exactly Brian. Determining that “0ev” exposure really is the crux of it all. If we don’t do that we will overshoot the DR in one direction or the other and not have the final results we want. And as you said having it right to begin with leads to a more beautiful product. Great comment and much appreciated!!

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