High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Aperture Priority Mode | Landscape and Urban Photos That Really Pop!

Airbus Plane leaving Seattle

Ever since I got into photography with my first DSLR 6 ½ years ago, I’ve been obsessed with images of people. I became pretty comfortable photographing people in different lighting situations, but I focused so much on them that I never learned how to take good landscape/urban photos until this year! It has been one of my goals because my husband and I love to travel and I wanted to be able to better capture our adventures.

I have always known what HDR is, but never realized how simple it is to accomplish well before now. I’m excited to share this trick with you that COMPLETELY transformed my landscape and urban images within a couple days of learning it!

High Dynamic Range (HDR) Definition - in my own simplified words:

Multiple exposures combined into one image to capture the most detail in each element of the scene.

For example, imagine it's mid-afternoon on a sunny day with a few clouds here and there and you are trying to photograph the side of a building that is shadowed. The very best exposure you could manage with one image would be a balance between the darkest and lightest parts of the scene and would most likely get something like this straight out of camera:

Kauffman Center for Performing Arts, Kansas City Crossroads

 However, if you take one underexposed image to capture the detail in the sky, one balanced one like above and one overexposed image to capture the detail in the shadows…

High Dynamic Range Images

...you can combine them to create something like this:

Kauffman Center for Performing Arts | Kansas City, Missouri

Big difference, right?? Given, that last image has been post processed, but you can tell that there is no way the original image would end up looking that detailed or have as much ‘pop’ as the final one.

Things to know about HDR:

  • It doesn't work for situations with a moving subject unless you are purposely trying to achieve motion blur for creative purposes, this is for stationary scenes

  • In my opinion, it works best on partially cloudy days where you can see some of the sky through the clouds - the more depth between highlights and shadow, the better!

  • A sturdy tripod is very helpful for these, but it is a myth that they can’t be achieved without one. If you are careful with settings (not letting your shutter speed get too slow), it is so simple. In fact, I took every image in this post hand-held, except for the first example of the Kauffman Center for Performing Arts.

  • You can certainly combine more than three images at light intervals that are more spread out, but this is a good place to start

Main Street | Kansas City, Missouri


Aperture Priority Mode

In my experience, the simplest way to achieve this is to use Aperture Priority Mode (A on Nikon, Av on Canon) and the Auto-Exposure Bracketing option in your camera's menu settings. 

Many new photographers go from using Auto to Aperture Priority Mode (you set the aperture and the camera automatically selects the appropriate shutter speed to get a properly exposed image) to Manual, but when I started learning, I went straight from using Auto to using Manual mode so understanding Aperture and Shutter Priority has been an interesting challenge! Aperture Priority has already been so helpful and as soon as I get comfortable using it with my external flash, it may be my go-to!

Western Auto Sign | Kansas City, Missouri

Here is the thing about this mode that confused me at first: you set your aperture, but then your camera will often decide that the shutter speed needs to be way too slow to shoot hand-held in order to achieve the correct exposure for the scene (typically in low-light situations). I never shoot hand-held slower than 1/60 for my shutter speed and usually even faster if I’m using a long telephoto lens to avoid camera shake and blurry images. The trick to fixing this issue is to just increase your ISO because it will force your camera to speed up the shutter speed to compensate... it's that simple! 

Exposure Compensation and Bracketing

The other MUST KNOW fact about Aperture Priority comes in to play during the times when you don't agree with your camera on what it thinks the 'correct' exposure is. Every time you adjust your ISO or aperture, your camera will compensate to keep the exposure level the exact same. However, you can override this by finding something called "Exposure Compensation/Auto Exposure Bracketing" in your camera menu. It is literally just a scale that you move right to make it think the exposure needs to be brighter or left to make it darker. This is also where you will set your exposure bracketing for HDR. 


Okay, take a deep breath... I know this is a lot of information and it may not sound as easy as I said it was. I promise it is, just email me or comment below if something doesn't make sense - I'd love to chat! After you follow the process a couple times, it will become second nature.




While you have the exposure compensation scale pulled up, use the scroller at the top right by your shutter release button (Canon) to scroll two clicks to the right. You should see two extra tick marks appear on the scale so you have one in the center where you started, another 1 stop underexposed and another 1 stop overexposed. Be sure to click the enter button by your thumb to actually SET this setting (I kept forgetting that step at first). You can set them even father apart and do more than 3 images, but as mentioned above, this is a good place to start.


Be sure your camera is set to continuous shutter so it takes multiple images if you hold the shutter release button down. Now, take a deep breath, steady your shooting hand and hold down the shutter release button until you hear/feel it take three images. Check them out and you'll notice that they probably look similar to my Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts example above!! You did it!! 

Kansas City Convention Center | Downtown


Town Topic | Kansas City, Missouri

Last but not least, I would be remiss if didn't explain how to combine and edit your images. There are a plethora of ways but here is a brief overview of three of them (I highly prefer the third so feel free to skip to that).


  • Click File > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro
  • Browse to select your images and click Okay
  • Make whatever adjustments you'd like in the pop-up window and click Okay
  • Save your image


  • Select the images you want to combine
  • Right click > Photo Merge > HDR 
  • Make your adjustments and click Merge

Lightroom + HDR Effects Pro (Google Nik Collection):

  • Download this FREE software (used to be owned by Nikon, hence the name 'Nik') via the button in the top right corner
  • Follow the instructions to install on your computer (you will be able to use this in both Photoshop and Lightroom, I just prefer Lightroom at the moment)
  • Open Lightroom and select the images you want to combine
  • Right click > Export > HDR Effects Pro 2 (not sure why you have to 'export,' but it is what it is)
  • If you took the images hand-held, be sure the Alignment, Ghost Reduction and Chromatic Aberration boxes are checked. If you shot with a tripod, you can un-check the Ghost Reduction box if you want
  • Click Create HDR
  • Select from the incredible presets on the left side and make your additional adjustments on the right
  • Click Save!!
  • The image will show up in the original folder as a TIFF file
    • To use this software in Photoshop, install it and then click File > Automate > Merge to HDR Effects Pro 2 and follow these same steps
Motorcycle in Yunnan, China
Pagoda HDR

Pagoda in Wenshan, China

I would love to see what you create (hello@kira-whitney.com)!! Was this article helpful?! Leave me a comment below! 

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Tip of the Day: One Step to Taking Better Photos of Your Kids (or fur-babies)

Sure, you get family photos taken once a year to capture the different stages of your children's’ lives...but you can’t force kids’ emotions and a photographer obviously isn’t around during daily life when they do the darnedest things.  Here is one easy step towards taking better photographs of your children, since you’re there to capture the most true version of themselves! This can be applied no matter what kind of camera you have, whether it’s a DSLR, a point-and-shoot, or a cell phone.

Unless purposely avoided for some artsy reason, the catchlight is possibly the single most important element of portrait photography. It’s the small reflection(s) of the light source in the subject’s eye that gives life to the photo; maybe because it’s what we are subconsciously used to seeing as light bounces off each others’ eyes. Listed below are some more specifics about how to capture the catchlight, but in general it is incredibly simple to achieve.


  • Face your kids towards a window to avoid harsh, sideways shadows and get a good catchlight in their eyes. Cloudy days will even out the light and also make for gorgeous skin tones and colors. If it’s too sunny out, white curtains can do an incredible job of diffusing the light as well. The closer to the the window (or even better, a glass door) they are, the softer the light will be; the further away they are from the light source, the harder the light will be. This may seem like a strange concept, but just try it and it will make sense!


  • As I’m sure you’ve heard, early morning and the couple hours before sunset are the best times for outdoor photos. When the sun is close to the horizon, face your subject towards or away from the sun so you don’t get sideways shadows on their faces. I typically arrange them with the sun behind so I don’t get squinty eyes. Once it crosses below the horizon, there are a couple minutes where you can turn them towards the spot where the sun went down to catch the last of the light in their eyes.

  • On cloudy days you can typically still tell where the sun is so if it is just slightly overcast I would position the sun behind (the cloudy sky will act as a light diffuser to light up the eyes) and if it’s too darkly clouded, I face my subject toward the brightest part of the sky.

  • The ground, especially in an open area like a field, can surprisingly act as giant softbox, helping create that catchlight that is so key. If you are in a shady area (helpful when it’s super sunny out), try to face your kids towards a sunlit area, rather than into the shadows.

*Random note: light colored eyes pick up a catchlight much easier. See the two photos below for an example, they were taken in the exact same spot, facing a glass door. You can see it in each of these cuties' eyes, but Hatcher's (right) catchlight is much stronger.

If you find or create that catchlight, not only will your portraits be brought to life, but your focus will be better as well, improving your overall photography. Good luck capturing those sweet little faces in these precious times of life...and feel free to share some photos with me at kirawgoff@gmail.com if you put this tip to use, I’d love to see them!




BOKEH - For Beginners

When I was first getting into the photography world, one of my biggest questions was how to achieve bokeh in my photos. Okay, rewind...what’s bokeh? Only the single greatest discovery ever!! Okay that’s an overstatement, but it’s absolutely one of my favorite things about photography :)

Bokeh comes from a Japanese word meaning “blur quality.”.  A little more specific definition is “aesthetic quality of blur in out-of-focus areas of an image.” Oftentimes, because of the shape of the opening in the lens, the out of focus areas (bokeh) looks like small circles.

This is no new concept, but when I kept running across this word and even understood what it meant, the most frustrating thing was not understanding HOW TO ACHIEVE this effect! Bokeh is determined based on the Depth of Field, the distance (or seeming distance) between the closest and farthest subjects in a scene. Throughout the past few years, I have come to understand 3 basic ways to produce and adjust bokeh and depth of field: aperture, distance of the subject from the camera, and lens focal length.


Let’s break down these terms a bit.

  • Aperture is the size of the opening in the lens when a picture is taken and, therefore, how much light is let in to the sensor.  It is characterized by “f-stops” (focal ratio) which describe the ratio of the lens’s focal length (described below) to the diameter of the lens opening. Don’t freak out if you don’t understand this.  It takes practice to really understand how this works in correlation with the other settings on your camera and honestly you don’t have to fully understand it to use it!  I just felt the need to describe it so that you can know what to look for on your camera and eventually realize what is happening when you change certain things. Here is just one more thing to confuse you: the lowest numbers represent the largest apertures, while the largest numbers represent the lowest apertures.  For example, many kit lenses (the usual ‘starter’ lenses that come with SLR and DSLR camera bodies) only open up to f/4, while many (usually more pricey) lenses can go all the up to f/1.2, allowing for better low light shooting and the look of distance between the subject and background.  Just remember: APERTURE = OPPOSITE as far as numbers go. The smaller the number, the larger the opening will be, therefor blurring out the background more. This places more focus on the subject and helps them "pop" from the scene.

    • Random tip - At higher apertures you typically want to be closer to your subject as it affects the range of focus.  For example, a full body shot might not appear fully focused at apertures below 2.8 or so and both eyes on a head shot may not be in focus as wide open as f/1.2 if the plane of focus is not exactly straight on (ex. head tilt).

Canon 60D camera, 50mm lens, f/1.4, 1/80, 100 ISO


  • Distance - This one is much easier to understand!  The farther your subject is from the background, the more blurred out the background will be (I wish I had learned this sooner!).  For example, instead of putting a model directly in front of a cluster of trees, try moving them 10, 20, even 50 feet in front and he or she will stand out because of the increased blur that will appear behind them.  

    • Random tip - If the sun is close to setting and you can get some nice backlighting through the trees, the bokeh will have a lovely variety of colors and brightnesses.  This is my favorite situation in which to utilize the wonders of bokeh!!


  • Focal length is commonly thought of as the length of a lens.  But in actuality, it is the distance (in millimeters) from the optical center of the lens to the focal point (located on the sensor). Telephoto lenses each have a maximum focal length where it is zoomed in all the way, and a minimum, where it is zoomed out completely.  For example, a 70-200mm lens has a maximum focal length of 200mm and a minimum of 70mm.  With the camera settings the same, telephoto lenses at maximum focal length tend to produce more blur because of their narrow angle of view. This means that you will have to back up (quite far in some cases) in order to zoom in far enough.  

    • Note - the further you zoom in, the more problems you will have with stability, resulting in completely blurry photos. I would encourage you to brace your lens somehow, even if it has IS (Image Stabilization) built in.  Sometimes I crouch down and rest my right arm on my knee as I shoot to prevent shakiness and improve sharp focus.

Contrastly, for a fixed lens (50mm, 85mm, etc), the closer you (the photographer) are to the subject, the more blurred out the background will be. In other words, a wide angle lens (like a 35mm or 50mm) can fit more of a scene into the field of view but naturally detects less distance between objects (deeper focus - more details are sharp and background isn’t as soft/blurred) while the view through a telephoto naturally increases the seeming distance.

Tamron 90mm macro lens on tripod, f/5.6, 2 second shutter speed, ISO 400

Tamron 90mm macro lens on tripod, f/5.6, 2 second shutter speed, ISO 400


So...how do you even begin to put these ideas into action?? My suggestion would be to find the “Aperture Priority” on your camera and shoot in it until you get comfortable with the other settings.  What this setting does is automatically set everything except the aperture, the most important setting for creating depth of field and bokeh.  As you increase or decrease the aperture, the shutter speed and ISO will automatically adjust to create a “properly” exposed photograph.  I use quotations for the word properly because there is no one right way to do photography...that’s why it’s a form of art!! But sometimes you have to learn the “rules” of photography before you can understand how to break them creatively...stay tuned for a blog about this!! Once you get comfortable enough with Aperture Priority and you want a bit more artistic opportunity in your shooting, you can switch to Manual!