If you've seen a particularly eye-popping, out-of-this-world night photograph of a city skyline, or a particularly apocalyptic cloudscape with cartoonish color saturation making the rounds on blogs lately, there's a good chance it was made using high-dynamic-range imaging, or HDR software. And while these images may look like the work of a pro photographer, or at least a seasoned digital-imaging or special-effects expert, the tools to easily make your own amazing HDR images are widely (and in some cases freely) available.
So what exactly comprises an HDR image? Basically, more information per pixel. When you take a photo with your digital camera, the colors are converted to accommodate the limited palette of your display or a piece of photo paper. The human eye, however, is capable of taking in far more color and light information at any given time. This is why it's necessary to take a photo with the correct exposure settings—what your eye sees as a uniform scene with a balanced brightness and color range needs to be regulated to fit within the more limited range of your camera's sensor, or else the image will appear under- or overexposed (too dark or too light).
HDR provides a way to combine a range of exposures of the same scene into one image, adding significantly to the amount of data held per pixel (most digital images hold 8 bits of color information per pixel; an HDR image has 32). The result is an image with more "dynamic range"—in other words, the brights are brighter, the darks darker, and there's much more variance in between.
For a step-by-step guide to creating your own HDR images, continue reading below: