Balcones Canyonlands Sunset in HDR

After my recent hike at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, I stopped on a part of the ridge with an overlook to the west. There were some high clouds on the horizon and I thought that there might be a nice sunset. I had about 10 minutes to walk around and try to find a nice vantage point before I watched the sun disappear beyond the horizon. After that, it was a wait for 5 or 10 minutes for the clouds to begin to go from white to orange.

I initially chose an area with trees to either side to add some framing as the horizon is a little flat. With such a bright sky and darker landscape, I set up to take a series of images to make an HDR merge. Without the multiple pictures, it would not really be possible to capture everything in the sky and the land without some really noisy dark areas. Below is one of my merges.

HDR Sunset from Balcones National Wildlife Refuge
HDR Sunset from Balcones National Wildlife Refuge

For this merger, I took seven exposures of 1/3s, 1/6s, 1/13s, 1/25s, 1/50s, 1/100s, and 1/200s. I did this by increasing the shutter speed by a stop each time. The shutter time is roughly halving with each image, which equates to a stop of exposure. This is easily done shooting in Manual mode on a Nikon and rolling the shutter dial 3 clicks for each stop of exposure.

Below are the longest and shorted exposure from the series followed by their histograms (I didn’t include all seven base images). The 1/3s exposure is enough time to get a good exposure for the darker landscape of the image, but as you can see the sky is completely blown out with no information. If you look at the histogram you can see that the dark content on the left of the histogram is available and not clipped.

HDR Bracket at 1/3s


The 1/200s exposure preserves the brightest highlights in the sky, so I can have those deep oranges in my image. But the landscape is completely black. Even if I could pull up anything from the shadows it would be terribly noisy. You can see on the following histogram that there is nothing clipped on the right side of the histogram where the highlights reside and the darker area are pressed against the left side. I probably didn’t need this exposure for my merge as there is plenty of margin on the right.

HDR Bracket at 1/200s


The HDR merge gathers detail from each of the seven images and  you get an image with a much more dynamic range of data that you can manipulate. Below is the histogram of the final merged image. You can see that there is no clipping of highlights or shadows.


One issue to look out for when merging is any motion in the trees. This can show up ghost images around the leaves and branches. The tools I use (LightRoom in this case) have the ability to detect ghosted sections and choose to select a base image to get the information from to avoid ghosting.

The line of orange clouds reached far across the sky and I used a 20mm focal length to try to capture as much of it as possible. Even at 20mm, I couldn’t capture all of it, but going to a wider lens would have resulted in an even more compressed landscape and I didn’t think that I would like the way that would look.

In my final image, I really didn’t want the landscape to be too bright and look fake. The foreground trees are very dark compared to the more distant landscape and are really not much more than silhouettes, but there is some detail there.

HDR Sunset from Balcones National Wildlife Refuge
HDR Sunset from Balcones National Wildlife Refuge

I was able to keep the texture in the high orange clouds. You can tell how humid it was from haze on the horizon. I have found that more humidity leads to a more orange sunset. Not sure if it is true, but it is my limited observation. This sunset was the color of fire.

I find that it is very difficult to accurately portray a sunset in a photograph. These were my attempts.

With light waning, I still had quite a hike back down to the car but I made it back before twilight had faded too much. You can see the parking lot just left of center in the above image though it is mostly obscured by trees.

Thanks for reading.


4 thoughts on “Balcones Canyonlands Sunset in HDR

  1. What an involved process. Thanks for going into all that detail, explaining it. I’ve tried merge techniques, myself, but have never been very successful, but maybe next time I’ll go with halving the exposure over seven or so images, like you have done. If my camera will allow it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This was kind of an extreme situation. You probably just need enough images such that you have both ends of the histogram taken care of and all stops in between.

      I have used LightRoom and PhotoMatix Pro to do this, but there are lots of tools out there.

      Liked by 1 person

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