Picture of HDR photos with the GIMP
A tutorial on making High Dynamic Range photos using the GIMP or similar software.

This instructable is aimed at a range of people, so you can skip to the bits relevant to you with the information below. I apologise for the verbosity of the main instructions, but I figure you can skip parts you already understand, and I may as well put in the detail for people who don't.

If you don't know what High Dynamic Range (HDR) is or how it works, read on.
If you are comfortable with the concept of HDR and want to know how to do it in photo editing software, go to step 3
If you are familiar with the process of making HDR images and just want details of how to do it in the GIMP, go to step 4
If you are familiar with the interface of the GIMP and just want a quick set of instructions on how to make HDR (for instance if the theory bores you and you just want to make some HDR images), go to the recap stage in step 10. The details of each step are in... the relevant step.

If you know the theory, how to make HDR images and are familiar with using the GIMP.. I'm not sure why you are reading this, but hello anyway. My pitiful attempts (I'm relatively new to HDR and the GIMP) are in the later steps, perhaps you could give me some pointers? :D

Lastly, if you find this instructable helpful (or even not particularly) and have constructive suggestions for how I could improve it, let me know and I'll edit it.
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SteveD15 made it!1 month ago

third attempt .... but works

davidbarcomb9 months ago

Amazing tutorial. Thank you for this

Thanks a lot for this tutorial. I still need to think about why it works, but I was able to get great results by making copies of a ho-hum image and using GIMP to adjust the exposure levels (to artificially create over-exposed and under-exposed shots). I used the layers and masks just like you said, and it worked really well. It will be an extremely useful addition to my skill set. Take care.

in3D1 year ago

Hello. I know how to make a mix of brightness mapping and tone mapping like you said.

For each bright or dark image, make a tone mapped mask and a brightness mapped one. Then make the tone map 50% transparent and merge it on top of the other map. Use this as your mask and repeat.

I actually haven't tried it yet, but I'm pretty sure it'll work.

oshman67851 year ago

Wow!! Awesome and so easy! Thank you! After playing with this a few times, the 2.8.10 version of Gimp offers quite a few shortcuts, namely when you create the layer masks, it's now combined into a single step. There is no more need to desaturate or desaturate / invert first. Right click the layer, create layer mask, and just select the grayscale copy of layer and either check / uncheck the Invert Mask checkbox. Here's the compiled steps:

Steps to convert Images to HDR using
the gimp 2.8.10

  1. Open the middle image. Rename that
  2. Open the dark image, copy the full
    image and paste it as a new layer on top of the base. You can do
    that with the Edit \ Paste As \ New Layer option, or create a new
    layer from the layers toolbar, paste the image, then anchor it down.
    Rename this layer...
  3. From the layers toolbar, right
    click on the dark layer and Add Layer Mask. Initialize Layer Mask
    to: Grayscale copy of layer.
  4. Open the light image, copy / paste
    it as a new layer above the dark layer. Rename this layer.
  5. Again, from the layers toolbar,
    right click on the dark layer and Add Layer Mask. Initialize Layer
    Mask to: Grayscale copy of layer. One additional option is needed
    though, to check the Invert Mask box. This will make the grayscale
    mask a negative.


And, if you want to edit the curves of those grayscale masks, just right click the layer and make sure Edit Layer Mask is checked. Select that layer and have at it... :-)

cyberrian1 year ago
in Gimp 2.8.4 "Colors" is in a separate menu. Instead of Layer -> Colors -> Desaturate, it's Colors -> Desaturate.
cdubnbird2 years ago
I don't want to be rude or mean but gosh this was confusing! It took me 4 hours, perhaps I'm just a dummy with this stuff and unfortunately my finished photo is rather lackluster, nearly the same.
aoakes23 years ago
This tutorial is completely unclear from step to step, in particular from step 8 to 9 where there seems to be a step missing!
waiting19623 years ago
For those having issues using GIMP see this MOD of Gimp .. it makes it more like Photoshop's interface....


"GIMPshop is a modification of the free/open source GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), intended to replicate the feel of Adobe Photoshop. Its primary purpose is to make users of Photoshop feel comfortable using GIMP. It shares all GIMP's advantages, including the long feature list and customisability, while addressing some common criticisms regarding the program's interface: GIMPshop modifies the menu structure to closely match Photoshop's, adjusts the program's terminology to match Adobe's, and, in the Windows version, uses a plugin called 'Deweirdifier' to combine the application's numerous windows in a similar manner to the MDI system used by most Windows graphics packages. While GIMPshop does not support Photoshop plugins, all GIMP's own plugins, filters, brushes, etc. remain available. Host Unlimited Domains on 1 Account Due to the changes to the interface, many Photoshop tutorials can be followed in GIMPshop unchanged, and most others can be adapted for GIMPshop users with minimal effort."
geekguyandy7 years ago
Well, now that I have tried this technique with GIMP on many photos I have set up for this, I am disappointed. The final image looked roughly the same, although some dark and light spots had changed, and I can see the exact changes from the layer masks. I have no idea if this is truly HDR or not, but certainly none of the final images I ended up with were anything much better than what I started with. Even in your example image, the picture is still very poor, although you now have some really bright spots around one tree. When I search around or HDR photos, they all look amazingly vibrant and surreal, and this effect is no where to be found on my photos or your example. It doesn't help that there are no other comments from people ere who have tried it. Has anyone else tried this? It would be good to find out if I am just doing something wrong, or if this instructable is not really making an HDR image. Thanks Andy
PKM (author)  geekguyandy7 years ago
As far as I know, most of the HDR pictures posted in the web are made using software or plugins that use edge detection and do a lot of fairly involved maths and very complex manipulation that is out of the scope of using the GIMP by hand. Your HDR will only be as good as the stock images- are they taken from a stable point so they all line up, and with a large enough range of exposures? You want as large a range of exposures as you can reasonably take, but +1EV to -1EV from the best balanced exposure is a minimum. My examples weren't great because they were hurriedly hacked together on a very, very old and underpowered PC, and involve moving trees taken at long intervals because I hadn't worked out bracketing on my camera at that point. The bright spots are an unavoidable consequence of parts of the subject moving between shots, so parts of the image that were tree in one shot are sky in another, which messes up the layering. If you want the very vibrant surreal pictures like the ones on the Flickr HDR pool etc., I suggest you download some HDR software or experiment with tone mapping as described above. I do state in the Instructable that this is a subtle effect, better for evening out the range of exposures in a photo than creating an artistic or surreal feel. Other than that I'm not sure what to suggest, but if you linked me to your source images and the finished image I could hazard a guess at ways to improve it?
geekguyandy PKM7 years ago
Ok, so I messed around with it more and figured out some other issues with the pictures I am using. I need to try a new set up I think. The light seemed great for a regular shot today, so I took 3 different angles for attempts with this HDR, but one was too hard to line up, and another was just too poor color to start with. But I'll try to paste the image of before/after of the one I had the best luck with. Problems: 1) It is incredibly hard to line up pixels. I tried using HDRAlignmentTool which does a reasonably good job at getting the photos in line, but only handles 3 shots to a screen. I then put in the layers and their masks, and found that images were still 1-3 pixels off which creates odd gray ghosting all over the place. So I manually moved them until it appeared to line up. Still though, when I zoom in to a far edge, I can see ghosted outlines (rotational translation maybe?) 2) The color curves were just plain bad to start with. Without changing anything on them, I end up with very gray images. I think crummy parts just added up in the layers to make blobs of gray. I went to colors > curves and pulled the right side lower, the left side higher (not technical I know, but this was after playing around with many configurations and it seemed best). This helped a lot in removing the gray blobs and making the overall color much better. 3) The color in the final image is better, but I think due to the small 1-2 pixel translations the sharpness decreased for the HDR image. Even with a tripod, a program to line up photos, and manually trying to move them, it seems almost impossible to get them exact to the pixel. Maybe a remote on the camera would help, but I don't know if my camera can change shutter speed by remote (I have a Canon Powershot S5 IS). Anyway, the sky added real texture, the underside of the kiosk is visible, and the grass is more vibrant. The tree edges and the gravel in the road are blurrier though.
Try using a 2-3 second delay with your tripod that way the vibrations from you hitting the shutter button have time to die down before your exposure.
Having looked into HDR on the net for a bit, I have discovered this plugin for GIMP which seems to automate a lot of the process and I think would come up with better results than doing it manually.


There are instructions on the site- seems to include more options for tweaking as well. It's quite a powerful tool from what I can make out after 5 minutes of playing about!

I was looking at this tut to see if I could create a faux-HDR image from a single photo. I'll give it a go now!
This plugin is amazing, thanks for sharing it!
PKM (author)  ScaryDave7 years ago
Geekguyandy, it looks from that sample like you've got the technique right. For a dramatic effect you will need a large spread of exposures (at least 4 EV stops). My approach to lining up the images was to set one to 50% opacity and line up a spot in the centre of the image, then if the corners are out there must be a rotation, and a little trial and error with small-angle rotations should even it out a little.
Your camera will probably not have remote shutter speed control but it may well have bracketing- you set it to take a range of exposures and it takes them one after the other from one button press or remote click. Have a play with your camera to see if you can find bracketing, because it's a great improvement over adjusting the exposure by hand, meaning you jog the camera between each shot.

ScaryDave: I'll look into that plugin, it looks like it's doing pretty much the same as my technique but automating it. Call me a purist but I like the ability to tweak the curves on my images and layer masks myself.. but I will download the plugin and play with it to see if it makes the process quicker.
ScaryDave PKM7 years ago
Agreed, PKM, I like to have control too. However, the plugin does seem to be doing some other stuff to the images like applying gaussian blurs- not that that's too hard anyway.

The other sweet feature is the exposure alignment which is probably the only reason for using this plugin rather than doing it manually.

Thanks for the guide by the way- was very helpful =]
I am amazed how much stuff one has to wiggle through just to get to be making a HDR image!! Or" To just to make a Colour Photo to be partly Black and White. Trying to follow some of these instructions are just plain difficult. This is mainly because it is often assumed that one knows where to look for what button or icon to press when an insttructions says; Paste image on to layer" Ok" Sounds simple. But wait! Now show me where to go to do this and what sequence to follow instead of just written basic intructions. They are ok if you know the Gimp program. What about the ones who are trying to make sense as to where everything is and what sequence to follow! Gimp is obviously a fairly loaded Software with all sorts of goodies. Just not user friendly. No wonder it is Free! I have a paid version i use to do HDR images with and it works great. Easy to follow and simple! It aslo has all the funtions one needs to make great HDR images. I was curious to see how Gimp would be for me. I'll stick to my paid Program. As i always say" Keep it simple. The world is complex enough as it is. Cheers" I have a HDR
No wonder it is Free!

Yeah, cause professional-grade, feature-rich programs that took years of volunteer time to develop are obviously worthless!
sp_key Scwounch5 years ago
Like linux, drupal, php and almost all programming languages?

Gimp might be free but it only needs a skilful OP to produce good work.
"Skillful OP" is someone who takes time to learn to use any programe. I believe GIMP is a masterful piece of software, made an enthusiastic community, and most of the beau tiful creativity comes from tenacious people.

If you're used to eat only steaks, you will never understand the healthy fish for your diet.
gimp is awsome, but this new version kills me, idk where half the stuff are :S
zerolols6 years ago
I would love to be nice about these directions, but I cannot be constructive because I did not find them useful. I have effectively produced an image worse than the 3 I started out with using your directions, because they are not clear.
Its a poor workman who blames his tools...
PKM (author)  zerolols6 years ago
I wrote this Instructable ages ago, and coming back to it I sometimes think "How on earth did I write so much about such a simple process?" I'm probably going to strip out and rewrite the instructions, in a simpler manner.
joshmatix PKM6 years ago
These instructions are great for someone who is familiar with GIMP. Thank you. I think you should state that upfront, so people have their expectations set right. Thanks for taking the time. I found it very usefull.
rmfought5 years ago
Make sure you have the new layer mask selected in the layer window. Then paste the mask layer and hit anchor.
endolith5 years ago
Just use File --> Open as Layers and select all the pictures at once
arewealmost5 years ago
Photomatix is way easier than Gimp. In Photomatix it does everything for you. all you have to do is load the images and it blends the images together. Then you hit tone mapping. Just move the sliders backwards or forwards to change the image. I've even got it to work about 100% on Ubuntu 10.04. I just think it is better and easier and simpler than gimp or photoshop.
PKM (author)  arewealmost5 years ago
Perhaps- but buying a pre-built PC is easier than building one, getting takeout is easier than cooking, buying a postcards is easier than taking your own holiday photos. You might notice the "getting one somebody else did vs. doing it myself" mentality isn't that prevalent on this site :) I posted this because - doing it yourself is rewarding and fun - you have more control over the eventual result, which is important if something like Photomatix produces unwanted results that you want the ability to fix - it teaches some useful techniques (layer mapping etc.) Simpler, yes. Easier, yes. Better? I don't personally think so.
dscotthep5 years ago
Many (even most?) digital cameras will do 'exposure bracketing'.  They will automatically take three pictures; one at the [camera determined] optimal exposure, one over-exposed and one under-exposed. 

This is an easy way to get your shots without a lot of the work.
pr3tard5 years ago
You can also open as layers the three photos that will make up the composite.  My camera (Canon Rebel DSLR) takes the pictures in the order of 0, -2, +2 so they open with the Original as Background layer, the Dark one as the next, and the Light one as top most layer.
pajoohesh5 years ago
Perfect tutorial although did not understand the the other way that you described (tone mapping). I tested the procedure on some photos and works perfect.

thepaul936 years ago
this is great, but you can do it in adobe cs3/4 in 2 steps.
that's great for commercial use but for home use gimp's free.
raudibert6 years ago
This is very well done. I will be attempting an HDR process in the next few days using these instructions. If I have problems following the instructions, I'll let you know. Thanks very much!
Right click on the layer in the layers window, make sure edit layer mask is selected, then go into the edit menu, paste into.
EOBeav6 years ago
Comment about layer masks: When I was doing this at home, I experimented with one more step after desaturating the mask. I used a threshold filter on it so that I could get entire sections that were either opaque or transparent. This seemed to work when I had, for example, a cliff, part of a river, and a sky. Each one of those three items were exposed at different levels, and I wanted to get the best ones compiled into one picture. This gave me a more pronounced HDR effect, but not so much that it didn't look realistic. What are your thoughts on using the threshold filter after decomposing? BTW, this is a great tutorial, and one that has really got me going in HDR images. It's a great way to improve your own photographs.
eat_squids6 years ago
Well, here's my attempt at it...it actually turned out pretty good.
zoom1236 years ago
Qtpfsgui is a great program for doing this, despite having the worst and least memorable of any software name ever. I would still rather do HDR in gimp, but I am not sure how to do the tone mapping. I think it is the tone mapping part that makes HDR images look so different.
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