Shooting HDR with the Nikon D800

Please note that this page describes the steps to capture multiple exposures with your camera with the intent of merging them into a single HDR image.  It does not describe the merging or post-processing steps  I’ll say that I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Photomatix Pro.  A tutorial is available here:  Sumptuous HDR.

Shooting an automatically-bracketed series of images for HDR using the D800 is very similar to using the D700.  You might want to check out that article for more information.

As with most things in photography, there are multiple ways to do this.  Below are, what I think, the two most useful and straightforward methods.  Please note that you can reassign buttons and change the direction of the command wheels on your own cameras so that these steps might not be exactly those you would take.  Still, an instruction like “Set the number of exposures in the bracketed set” would be the same; it’s just the specific steps to take to accomplish this might be different.

Hopefully this goes without saying, but I will say it just in case:  You need to have your camera mounted firmly on a steady tripod.  For a couple of reasons, taking a series of images for HDR while handholding the D800 is not an option.  Also, unless there is motion in the scene that you’d like to freeze, you’ll probably want to keep your ISO setting at 100.  Remember that each increase in ISO means a decrease in the dynamic range of each individual exposure.  Keeping your ISO low also helps with noise that can be more apparent in HDR images.

Preliminary Setup

Set your Auto bracketing set to AE.  Under the Custom Menu Setting, select e Bracketing/flash and then e5 Auto bracketing set.  I keep mine set to AE only.

Still under the Bracketing/flash Custom Menu Setting, select e7 Bracketing Order.  I set mine to Under > MTR > over.  This setting doesn’t affect your ability to shoot an automatic exposure bracketing (AEB) set of images, but I find it makes organizing the files easier later on.

Once you’ve made the above settings, there isn’t a real need to change them again unless you have a specific purpose in mind.  These settings probably won’t affect your general, non-HDR shooting.

For both methods, perform these steps first:

Set the exposure value (EV) spacing between images and the number of frames to capture for an automatically-bracketed set of exposures.  Hold down the BKT button and rotate the sub-command wheel (the one on the front) until the LCD screens reads 1.0 in the upper right-hand corner.  This represents a full 1 stop spacing between each exposure in your set and is the maximum the D800 allows (the D7000 allows a maximum of 2 stops).  This is also a setting I never change.  Your camera will remain at the 1 stop spacing unless you change it at some point.

To set the number of exposures to capture, hold down the BKT button and rotate the main command wheel (the one on the back of the camera, under your thumb) until you see 7F appear in the upper middle of the LCD screen.  This means that your camera will automatically bracket 7 exposures with 1 EV spacing between each one, giving a range of exposures from -3 to +3 EV.  The D800 allows you to take a 9-frame series, but I have yet to find a scene that requires the extra exposure range to capture everything.  Remember, the dynamic range of a single exposure with this camera is about 11 stops at 100 ISO.

Now that you have the camera set to take 7 exposures automatically at 1 EV spacing, all you have to do is tell the camera to take them.  You could set your release mode dial to continuous-high (Ch) and hold down the release button until all the exposures are made, but that means touching the camera during the shots.  I do not recommend this method of firing the shots.

Method 1:  Using Interval Timer Shooting (the method I always use)

Access the Shooting Menu and then Interval timer shooting.  Under Choose start time,  click past the “Now” option by clicking the multi-directional button once to the right.  Under Interval, click past all of the options by clicking the multi-directional button three times to the right.  The options should read 00:00’00”.  Select 7 shots to take by clicking to the right three more times and then clicking up until the number to the right of the “x” reads 7.  The readout should be 001 x 7 = 0007.  Click to the right and then up to highlight On and then press the OK button (bottom left on the back of the camera).  Wait two seconds and then the camera will fire off all of the exposures.

This might seem like a lot of clicking, but once you perform the above steps a few times, it’s really not that big of a deal.  You’re really just clicking through the default values and then turning the timer on.  The only change you’ve made to the defaults is setting the number of frames to 7.  This setting remains until you change it to something else, so when I am ready to fire off my bracketed set, this is what I do:

Enter Interval timer shooting by highlighting that option and clicking to the right.  Click to the right.  Click to the right 7 more times.  Click up and then press OK.  Sit back and let the images fire away.  To make things even easier, I have assigned the Interval timer shooting option to the My Menu so I don’t have to hunt for it.

Method 2:  Using the Self-timer (I never use this method)

Remember that you have already set up your camera to take 7 exposures automatically at 1 EV spacing.  This is just an alternative way to fire off those 7 exposures that some people use.  Access the Self-timer menu option c3.  Set the Self-timer delay to the lowest setting of 2 seconds (2s).  Set the Number of shots to 7.  Set the Interval between shots to the lowest setting of 0.5 seconds (0.5s).  Exit the self-timer menu option.  You haven’t told your camera to fire the series of shots yet; you’ve just done some more preliminary setup.

When you’re ready to fire off the series, rotate the Release Mode Dial (on top of the camera, on the left side) to the Self-timer setting (picture of a stopwatch).  Press the release button, and wait 2 seconds for your series to fire in its entirety.  Some people prefer this method because they don’t have to do all that clicking through the interval timer shooter.  Personally I think this method is more of a hassle than method 1 above because if you want to use the self-timer to take pictures of yourself, you’ll probably want to change all of the settings you specified for shooting HDR.  Also, this method involves rotating the release mode dial which is just one more control to have to remember to switch back when you aren’t shooting HDR.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Always use a tripod
  • Keep your ISO low (like 100)
  • Leave high ISO and long exposure noise reduction turned OFF
  • Leave Active D-Lighting turned OFF
  • Don’t forget to change your 7 frame BKT setting back to 0 (zero) when you go back to shooting non-HDR images.


This is a quick note to let you know that I import all of my images into Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.  The first thing I always do is group each series into its own stack.  Once I decide which exposures to use for the merged image (because I don’t always need to use all of the exposures captures), I export the files to Photomatix Pro.  After trying other HDR applications, I almost never use anything but Photomatix at this point.  After merging and creating a new image file (it comes back as a TIFF), I process the image in Lightroom.  Once in awhile I feel the need to move into Photoshop-proper for some final touches.

A full description of my HDR post-processing techniques can be found here:

Sumptuous HDR – How to Post-Process HDR Images

Some examples:

Tramp Harbor Sunrise

Vashon K2 Headquarters

Seattle Skyline at Sunset

Seattle Skyline at Sunset

Order a Print

Lake Crescent Sunrise

Buy the Nikon D800

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