The image above was taken near Falls Dam in the North Raleigh area. It was a cloudy Sunday morning in November with nothing special about the light or the weather.
The first image in the rotation is exposed evenly in manual mode. The second image is the HDR version using Photomatix to process the image. Photomatix is currently one of the most popular ways to work with HDR images.
An HDR image typically starts out with 3 different exposures of the scene. One under exposed (dark) by 1 or 2 stops, one as a regular exposure like the first image in the rotation above and the other over exposed (bright) by 1 or 2 stops. Then, the three images are blended together in Photomatix or a similar software program. It's true that there are numerous FREE tools online that can mimic HDR, but it's typically with one image not three blended. The results using one image will likely not be a dynamic as blending three images with different exposures.
If you are interested in trying some HDR of your own using Photomatix, you should use a tripod. That will keep the frames of your three exposures correct when it comes to the positioning of everything in the scene.
HDR Photography is a lot of fun and can help your create something different in your portfolio. I have an HDR page on my website with some of my HDR images.
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