Recently, one passion of mine that has really taken over my spare time is photography. I have been interested in photography for some time now, but earlier this year I really stepped it up by purchasing a DSLR (a Nikon D40 to be exact). I am the type of person who learns by doing, so I purchased this camera not knowing what Aperture, Shutter Speed or what an 18-55mm lens was. These are all terms that I have learned since my purchase, but one term that I only recently started to research is HDR.

HDR means High Dynamic Range, and in photography, is when you combine multiple images with different exposures to create one master image (For examples of HDR images, check out the HDR group on Flickr). When I started to look for software that would help me create HDR images of my own, the one that seemed to come up the most was Photomatix. Unfortunately, I didnt have $99 to spend on it. One day looking through an issue of Macworld, I saw a program called Hydra, which did the same thing as Photomatix, but at a more affordable price.

To get started with Hydra, all you need is your 2 or more images you want combined. Hydra supports all RAW formats that Aperture does (outlined here). Hydra is split up into 2 windows, the first where the photos are displayed, and the second an inspector window.

Creating an HDR image with Hydra can be broken up into three steps. Importing the images to be combined, aligning those images, and then the final merge.

To import photos into Hydra, you can drag and drop them onto the Hydra window, open them from a folder, or use the media browser to find your images in iPhoto or Aperture.

The next step is aligning the images. The neat thing about Hydra, is that it claims you do not need a tripod when taking your images with different exposures. Hydra uses advanced aligning techniques to make sure that even if you didnt use a tripod, your images are perfectly aligned. You can align the images yourself, or have Hydra do it for you.

The last step, and the step that will affect the final outcome of your images the most, is the merging. There are two types of merging that you can do, each with their own options. 8-bit Blend takes 8-bit jpegs as input, and outputs an 8-bit image. You can adjust the smoothness of the blend, and how much of each image is used in the final output. HDR Merge allows you to take 8 or 16-bit images (RAW images) and outputs EXR. EXR carries much more information than even 16-bit images, and preserves every bit of dynamics.

Hydra also comes with an Aperture plugin when you download it, so you can create your HDR images right within Aperture. After you install the plug-in (move the plug-in file to ~/Library/Application Support/Aperture/Plug-Ins/. Create the folder if it is not already there), you just ned to select your image in Aperture, right-click, and select Edit With>Hydra. A box will pop up, and you will be able to edit and save your final HDR right within Aperture.

Now I am no expert at creating HDR images, but so far the results of my testing have been pretty neat. Hydra allows you to export your final image as a JPG, TIFF or EXR. You can pick up Hydra for $59.95 from Creaceed software.

What are your favorite examples of HDR images?