Today’s Question: I got back from a trip with far too many photos shot in bracketed sets of three for HDR in my Canon 5D MkIV. Now I have to merge them in Lightroom Classic to get an HDR image. It works great but is a pain. Should I have used the in camera HDR and ended up with a JPEG? I know this is subjective, but with too many sets of three photos bracketed by two stops, dealing with them is very slow. I’m only through about a fifth of my shots, even with not creating an HDR for many of them.
Tim’s Quick Answer: I do not recommend creating in-camera HDR images, and instead suggest that you focus on streamlining the process of reviewing the bracketed photos.
More Detail: Bracketed exposures can be helpful when you’re dealing with a challenging exposure situation, or when you want to create a high dynamic range (HDR) image. However, those bracketed exposures can also slow down the process of reviewing your photos.
I don’t recommend using in-camera HDR as a solution, because you’ll get better results with more flexibility by blending multiple raw captures in post-processing. In my opinion in-camera HDR should only be used as a tool for evaluating your photos at the time of capture, and only when the camera will still retain the raw captures along with the in-camera HDR image.
When it comes to reviewing bracketed exposures, I think the key is to not think about the fact that you have three times (or more) the total number of images to review compared to if you had not bracketed. In other words, some of this is a matter of perspective.
For example, with three bracketed exposures, you can generally make a decision based on one of the three exposures in a set (which often means the middle exposure value). Normally, after reviewing a photo, you could press the right arrow key to move on to the next photo. In the case of bracketed exposures, instead of tapping the right arrow key once, you simply tap it three times (or more, depending on how many images are included in your bracketed sets).
Another option might be to organize the bracketed exposures into stacks in Lightroom Classic. You can actually have Lightroom Classic automatically stack the images based on capture time, which in the case of bracketed exposures is actually likely to stack the sets of images correctly. Just note that the best overall exposure won’t necessarily be at the top of the stack, which can reduce the benefit of this approach.
To automatically stack photos based on capture time, navigate to the folder containing your bracketed exposures in Lightroom Classic. Then from the menu choose Photo > Stacking > Auto-Stack by Capture Time. Adjust the value for the Time Between Stacks slider, which in the case of bracketed exposures can be set to a relatively low value, perhaps as low as one second.
While stacks can help reduce clutter for bracketed exposures, as noted above when you stack images there’s a chance the top image in the stack won’t be the best image for evaluating the overall bracketed shot. Therefore, my preference is generally to somewhat quickly review the best exposure for each stack, skipping over the “other” exposures for each set. I then only assemble an HDR image from the bracketed exposures that I think have the best potential of producing a final image I’m happy with.