Disney HDR Photography

HDR Photography is becoming increasingly popular, as are Disney HDR photos. The Disney theme parks lend themselves to the whimsical and vibrant post-processing style often associated with HDR photography, making this no surprise. While faux HDR is easier than ever thanks to iPhone apps and other programs, true HDR is still a challenge for many photographers. In this post I share some of my HDR photos, along with a basic look at my post processing workflow, and how HDR can fit into that. I’ll conclude with a look at Photomatix 5, including how it makes HDR easy for everyone.

I receive a lot of questions about photography (mostly people asking about my equipment recommendations) and while I’ve covered a lot of topics and offered a lot of tips in blog posts here, I haven’t really delved into post processing. People often assume my Disney photos are HDR, and that’s typically not the case.

A single blog post on my editing work flow would be impossible since what I do varies on a case by case basis. Generally, I start by opening photos in Adobe Camera Raw (many people use Lightroom–the two programs use the same processing engine, Lightroom is just a bit more robust) and applying a preset based on the type of photo. These presets vary, but the focus of each is recovering highlights, opening shadows, increasing contrast/blacks, and increasing vibrance. I’d say about 95% of my editing comes in Adobe Camera Raw, usually via minor tweaks on the presets I have saved (this phase of the editing usually takes only a minute or two!)

These steps have the impact of expanding dynamic range, even if they’re not HDR. From there, I open the shot in Photoshop CS6, and do additional tweaking as appropriate, usually with a variety of adjustment layers. These tweaks usually only amount to about 5% of the changes in the photo’s look, but can take significantly longer to complete (it’s definitely a ‘diminishing return’…I might spend 30 minutes or longer adjusting something that most casual observers would never even notice). After this, I save the full size image and a web size. For a while, this had been the extent of my workflow. I periodically tested plugins and other programs from time to time, but that was my go-to combo.

In the past year, I have been doing increasingly more HDR photography editing as I’ve strived to try new things with my photography. I had avoided HDR in the past because of the negative stigma of HDR in the photography community, which was caused by a proliferation in heavily manipulated HDR photography. However, many of my friends in the Disney photography community were creating truly amazing HDR Disney photos that worked really well with the fantasy nature of the parks.

I’ve finally accepted that not everyone is going to like every style of photography (I know plenty of people don’t like my normal style!), and just because some HDR can have halos, grungy skies, or look like “clown barf,” that doesn’t totally invalidate the style. Some people might be dismissive of any work in the HDR style, but HDR can be utilized in so many ways that it makes little sense to lump all applications of HDR together. I’ve accepted that you can’t please everyone, and, quite frankly, the opinion of anyone who dismisses an entire form of art out-of-hand probably isn’t worth worrying about, anyway.

I used Photomatix here and there last year, mostly in situations where I wanted to accentuate textures. It has never been a one-stop editing program for me, as I like to layer an HDR photo with a ‘normal’ photo produced via the above Adobe Camera Raw/Photoshop CS6 editing process and merge the two as a hybrid edit. I think the HDR layer usually brings greater texture, a soft inviting feel, and better-controlled highlights. The degree to which I use the HDR layer in the final merge depends upon the scene. Many scenes in Disney theme parks already have a fantasy-like vibe that works well with HDR. This is how I’ve edited all of the photos in this blog post. Some may barely look different than my normal style, while others are quite clearly HDR. Hopefully they all look “good.”

Last weekend, I finally upgraded to Photomatix 5, and was blown away by the improvements in the program. It’s still not a one-stop program for me, but I’m definitely impressed by its increased versatility and ease of use. Photomatix can be used for expanding the dynamic range without doing much processing (unless someone told you, you’d never know a photo processed in “real estate” mode were HDR), all the way to creating a “painterly” style heavily-edited photo. Photomatix 5′s setup makes it easy for anyone to use, although advanced HDR photo editing still has a steep learning curve. I did a ton of editing over the weekend, and posted a review of the program on my travel photography blog. (By the way, if you’re interested in me writing a blog post with tips for HDR photo editing, leave a comment on that blog post–I’m more than happy to do it, but it has the potential to be looooong and take a lot of work, and I don’t want to put in a ton of effort if no one really cares.)

Travel Photography Blog

Speaking of my travel + photography blog, regular readers of this site (or those who have clicked on the banner to the right out of curiosity) might remember that I launched a companion blog called TravelCaffeine.com to chronicle our non-Disney travels about a year ago. Despite having ambitious ideas for that blog, after about a month it basically went dormant, as I simply didn’t have the time to keep up with it between my job, this blog, and other responsibilities.

I’ve since cleared my plate of some other responsibilities, and have resumed regular posts on that site. While I love Disney, I am also passionate about exploring the world both in person and with my camera, and that blog gives me a great outlet and incentive for that passion. (As crazy as it sounds, when that alarm goes off at 4 a.m. so I can go out for a sunrise shoot when we’re traveling, thinking that “I have to get up to get photos for the blog” is great motivation not to hit snooze!)

My idea at the time of starting that blog–and still today–is that most of my photography-related posts would fit better over there. We know a lot of people come here because of the photography, but we’ve noticed that the technical posts are skipped over by the vast majority of readers, most of whom are looking for Disney trip planning advice.

While I maintain that learning photography techniques is an important part of planning for any Disney trip, it seems many of you don’t think so. (I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree!) So, I want to encourage those of you with wanderlust or interested in photography to read our travel photography blog, TravelCaffeine.com! Besides photography, one of my main categories of posts over there will be tips for the U.S. National Parks. Those of you who follow me on Twitter probably know that I am a strong advocate for our National Parks (truly, America’s Best Idea). If you’re an American, these parks are your birthright, and there is no good reason for not visiting them.

Anyway, if you’re interested in learning more about Photomatix or want to see sample photos, check out my full Photomatix Review on TravelCaffeine.

Disney HDR Photos

If you want other photography advice and equipment recommendations, I suggest checking out my Photography Guide. Here are a few of my other top photography blog posts:

What’s In My Camera Bag
Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Choosing the Best Travel Tripod
Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel

For trip planning tips and comprehensive advice, make sure to read our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide and Disneyland Trip Planning Guide.

For updates on Walt Disney World, the latest news, discount information, and tips, sign up for our free monthly newsletter!

Your Thoughts…

Are you a fan of Disney HDR photos? How do you prefer to process your photos? Leave any questions or comments you have below in the comments!

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72 Responses to “Disney HDR Photography”

  1. Tiffanie says:

    LOVE the Disney HDR photos!!

  2. Rian says:

    I use photoshop with installed actions from Totally Rad actions currently

  3. Joe Diebold says:

    Currently I am using Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CC ( I couldn’t pass up on the $9.99 a month). I have never really been a fan of HDR photos but with HDR becoming more popular with many photographers I guess it might be time for me to hop on the bandwagon

  4. Kelly says:

    HDR or not, I have yet to view one of your photos that could just scroll past. I truly enjoy your photos and blog. And yes, I read the technical posts too. You inspire me to be a better photographer. Thanks for what you do!

  5. Tyler Bliss says:

    Great HDR photos! Doing a land and sea Disney trip next week and am going to attempt some HDR Disney shots!

  6. Mary says:

    Still learning photography, I really enjoyed your post on HDR. And yes the national parks are great, I visit one that is local quite frequently.

  7. Nate says:

    Great great HDR Photos. I played with the trial copy of Photmatx back while still using my D70s, did not get the best results. I am now looking forward to going back to Disney with the D600 and shooting some new bracketed sets to test, and trying out the in camera HDR.

  8. Mariah says:

    Your photos are breathtaking, and I love your blog. I haven’t read much on your other travel blog so I will have to check it out.

  9. Becky A says:

    Not the biggest fan of HDR, but if there is any place that is made for it, it would be Disney World. Always interested in trying out new photo software.

  10. KCmike says:

    Thanks for the article Tom. I’m definitely interested in HDR and have been thinking about buy from Photomatix. Maybe I’ll wait to see if there’s a chance I can get lucky with a free copy.

  11. Julie says:

    I recently got a nice camera and reignited my photography passion. I have been playing around with Lightroom but haven’t bought it yet, still trying to decide what to use. And I’d love to read and learn more about your post-processing. I enjoy your photography blogs because Disney is so much fun to photograph and there are so many ways to experiment and learn. Thanks for all your posts!

  12. Melios says:

    visiting WDW again in the fall, and taking a road trip from NY to Moab UT to see canyonlands and the arches, I actually looked at travel caffeine the other day and saw your grand canyon post. Looking forward to more posts on that blog. I always worry that HDR looks too fake, but you are right that disney lends itself to hdr. I think some of the more interesting national parks would also do well in Hdr, Bryce Canyon comes to mind.

  13. Paul Moeller says:

    Love all the info. Bought a 8mm based on your recommendation. Hope to have some fun with it next week.

  14. Melissa says:

    Would love to learn about HDR.

  15. Derek says:

    I appreciate your HDR photos. Most of the HDR photos I’ve seen seem to be overprocessed and fake.

  16. Leigh Saleh says:

    I love ALL of your photo’s Tom! I have watched you grow into an amazing photographer! Keep it up!

  17. Jackie Nell says:

    I’m currently using Lightroom 5 and slowly getting into Photoshop Cs6. I’ve yet to mess with HDR/Photomatix but would love to see how you tackle it!

  18. Chris Irvin says:

    I love photography, these pictures are awesome!

  19. Carrie says:

    Would love to learn more about your post processing! Awesome site.

  20. Amy Buchheit says:

    Tom, I disagree that people are *only* checking out your blog for Disney advice. I see you more as an impartial photography enthusiast who is a straight shooter (ha ha) and gives good, bad and ugly opinions. I bought a Sony DSC-RX100 on your recommendation and have been THRILLED with it on my extensive travels throughout Korea. I might be in the minority of people who visit your blog strictly for photography advice, tips and product reviews, so don’t stop just because you don’t feel that it belongs on this blog :)

  21. Mary Buchanan says:

    I love looking at all your photo’s ! you inspire me to learn more and do more with photography!

  22. Patrick says:

    I’m a fan of your’s and other’s HDR work, however whenever I’ve attempted it I always come away feeling like I can get same effect or better using Nik Color Fx (sp). Maybe I’m doing something wrong, but I can’t control my hdr work as much as my single images.

  23. Carter C says:

    Stunning Pictures. I am considering attempting to pick up the photography hobby. Your information and talent are very inspirational.

  24. Anne S. says:

    I actually discovered your blog because I searched for “photography tips+ Disney.”

    As for HDR, some overdo it, and, yet, some of those overdone pics look like paintings. Call me crazy, but I like some overdone HDR pics because of that. Beautiful paintings. I’ve only ever used the HDR feature on my iPhone, but I would be interested in attempting to use it with some of my photographs.

  25. Kevin says:

    Out of curiosity, have you ever thought about selling your presets? I’d pay for them, if nothing else just ot learn better how they work.

    BTW, Disney should buy the right to the two photos of the DLP castle from you and use them in all their advertising. They are spectacular.

  26. SpenceMan01 says:

    Definitely a fan of the more realistic-looking HDR photos, especially ones taken in the Disney parks.

  27. Jon Gossett says:

    Tom, I am a photographer now because I found your trip reports on wdwmagic and fell in love with your photos. I guess I am also in the minority because I come here more for the photography centered content but I still use your reviews and reports quite a bit when I am planning a trip or looking into trying out a new resort or restaurant. I mentioned this on your other site but I would love to see a post where you just walk through the post processing of a single image. I am a Lightroom user for 90% of my post processing but I have been using photoshop cc for HDR work. My photoshop knowledge is very limited so I would love to see how you utilize the program. I downloaded the trial of photomatix after reading your review and so far I am liking what I see from it and I am considering making the purchase. I guess now I will hold out and cross my fingers to see how the contest turns out.

    • Lauren says:

      I’m not the only one! I wonder how many photographers are out there today because of Tom?

      I’d love (and pay) for a Tom HDR training class. That would be great!!

      • Tom Bricker says:

        I hear this a lot, but I don’t think I have it in me to teach. I have incredible respect for teachers, because I don’t think I have that ability.

  28. I love the look of HDR for Disney, agree that it suits the “fantasy” of it. Not too in love with HDR otherwise-but I would love to try this program!

  29. Joel says:

    I get up that early for one thing only, the mouse house. If it doesn’t have fastpass I’m not getting up for it!

  30. Shannon says:

    Just got a new camera and would love to try out the software with it!

  31. M says:

    Cool, I am finally getting a camera capable of HDR this year, so it would be awesome to get the software to play around with it! I can use your photos as inspiration :D

  32. b.a. says:

    Thank you for hosting! I love most of the photos you guys post! I think fish eye lens is my least favorite… but I think as an artist you know the medium that will best represent your vision, so if you love HDR then I love HDR!

  33. fraucow says:

    Long-time lurker, second-time commenter. Just wanted to say that I’m a huge fan of your photography-centric posts, and definitely appreciated this post for stepping through your workflow. I’ve slowly been honing my skills, thanks in large part to your tips. As someone with the great fortune of being within driving distance of the parks, photography has given me a way to enjoy the parks differently. I understand if the site metrics show differently, though, and will make my way over to Travel Caffeine to get my photog fix. Either way, thanks for all of the great information you put together here. I know it’s a lot of work, but it’s greatly appreciated.

  34. Matt says:

    I’m always blown away by your Disney photography, Tom. Incredible work!

  35. Gregory says:

    Love your Disney HDR photos. I used Photoshop CS2.
    Extremely ready for an upgrade.

  36. mallory says:

    I use photoshop. I am veryyyyy amateur in my abilities, but i am learning!

  37. Marisha Gordon says:

    I don’t know much about photography at all, but I LOVE your shots and am trying to learn more. Thanks so much for offering such a fun giveaway!

  38. Jeff Thomas says:

    I have been taking pictures for 30+ years, and have often had positive comments about them. However, I continue to learn new things about all aspects of the art. Thanks for contributing to that.

  39. Nate says:

    A couple of things: 1) I am definitely interested in you writing a blog post with tips for HDR photo editing, so mark me down for that.

    2) My original reason for following this blog (after I found you on WDWMagic.com and then Flickr) was for the technical, photography related posts. I love the entries regarding best tripods, photo backpacks, and lens reviews.

    While I enjoy the restaurant & hotel reviews, I have noticed a drop-off in the number of technical photo posts and am saddened to find out that nobody else reads these.

    In my humble opinion, the technical posts are more meaningful because they’re based on tangible substantiations and can be validated (“I like this lens/it is good because…”), whereas the reviews of restaurants and hotels are more based on personal preferences, which you always do a great job of prefacing; but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve disagreed with your assessments of these things.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong: I realize that our tastes differ (especially when it comes to food). But what I am saying is that I hope you keep making the technical blog posts on this site, even if you have to just copy and paste from TravelCaffeine. :-)

    • Tom Bricker says:

      To be clear, I’m not beholden to the statistics. If I were, all you’d see here would be WDW posts. The Tokyo and Hong Kong posts perform terribly, too. But they won’t stop anytime soon.

      The difference is that those posts have a clear fit here.

      Photography posts were a huge draw when I started this blog and it was because of people like you who knew me for my photos. To a great degree, the blog has gone “mainstream” since. Normally, that’s a negative buzzword, and maybe it’s negative here, too. Personally, I don’t think so.

      As the blog audience has expanded to people who have no clue who I am, the photography posts have become sort of “???” I’ve also seen this same attitude from people who like photography and find the site via search (and link to it), with many comments along the lines of “I have no clue how a Disney fan would know this, but here’s a good review…” I’ve seen that type of snide preface at least a dozen times.

      So moving these posts to a standalone travel photography blog (the kind where photography advice is common) just makes sense to me. It doesn’t harm the experience here, and I’ll still do occasional photography posts specific to the parks. Those regular readers who love photography may not like it, but it’s not as if those posts are ceasing (they’re actually increasing), but they just now have to go elsewhere for them. I consider it a win-win, but maybe I’ve just convinced myself of that!

  40. Mark says:

    I just upgraded from the Sony DSCH-1 to a Canon 7D. I have not had a chance to explore HDR but I am very much intrigued now. Hoping to get some great shots down in the everglades and the keys in a couple of weeks. I would definitely be interested in a post on HDR.

  41. Greg says:

    I love your photography. I often wonder how much work goes into making them that spectacular in post-production. Would you ever consider doing a before and after blog of some of your photos?

  42. Jennifer says:

    Hi I have never tried HDR photos. I use iPhoto for all my photos and truthfully I am still elarning about that. I used to do A LOT of photography before I had my kids (back when my camera was a film camera) I must admit I have been really lazy…but your photos inspire me!

  43. Andrew says:

    Hello there I’m going to disney land In oct I got a canon 60d 18mm-200mm lens just asking what setting would I have to have to take firework picture in front of the castle.
    Thank u Andy

  44. Michael Carter says:

    I would love to see a walkthrough (especially a screencast) of your HDR (or even regular) post processing workflow. I know you mention over and over you don’t see yourself teaching, but I would definitely pay to spend 2-3 days at Disney with you taking pics, post processing. It would be a great package deal – Disney, Hotel, Listening to you talk through your thinking… especially if we could get a connection to enter the park early or late.

  45. Dana says:

    I have used an older version of Photomatix in the past and loved it! But, when my PC crashed last summer and I upgraded to a Mac, I haven’t had it in the budget to get Photomatix yet (PS and LR came first). I’d be elated to win a copy!

  46. Melanie says:

    I use Photoshop currently but would love to try this program. The Disney photos are amazing!

  47. Rachel says:

    Nice photos!

  48. Annie says:

    I love your HDR Disney photos. I’ve been to Disney world many many times but the HDR photos take something that I think is beautiful in person and make it stunning!

  49. nadia_ka says:

    I’ve always been a fan of your work. Your HDR pictures are exceptionally beautiful. Makes me feel like I never left Disneyland!

  50. Courtney Pamela Catelli says:

    I love your work; been an avid fan of your photos for awhile. I wish I had the skills you do as well as the opportunity to visit the parks more! Lovely photos as always!

  51. James says:

    Great photos,new to editing using photoshop 11.

  52. kim sowell says:

    love these

  53. Chris says:

    Love Disney and love photography but I am new to DSLR and photo editing.
    I appreciate the time taken to pass on your knowledge.

  54. kristen says:

    Lightroom 4, cs4

  55. Janet M. Lunn says:

    I’ve been using Corel Paintshop Pro x5 for my HDR but am open to trying another program. There are parts of the program I like but a few things are very tedious.

  56. Sandy says:

    I adore the HDR photos you post! I hope I win a copy so I try my hand at it. Thanks!!”

  57. Andrew says:

    Great pictures! !

  58. Ruth Craig says:

    Just beautiful! But then, how could they not be with DISNEY as the subject?! :)

  59. T.Jolley says:

    I absolutely love all your disney HDR photos!

  60. Sophia says:

    I love your photography, it’s all so beautiful with unique angles.

  61. Tiffany says:

    I think hdr photos are absolutely beautiful. I hope to win so i can take my own hdr disney pictures!!!!

  62. Shelby D says:

    Your photography is simply stunning!! On your recommendation I am working my way through Understanding Exposure and the Scott Kelby series. Do you have any recommendations for learning photoshop?? Thanks so much!!

  63. Bob says:

    I always wondered how you two got such amazing effects on some of your pictures…I’m definitely going to have to play around with some of those programs sometime soon. Question though, do you have some before and after edit pictures you could share?

  64. Chad E. says:

    Hi Tom -

    Count me as someone that enjoys all of your Disney posts along with the technical ones. Great stuff all around.

    Question – For your Disney HDR photos, generally how many exposures are you taking to create your finished image?


    • Tom Bricker says:

      For HDR, I typically do 2-3 exposures. Some people do way more than that, but I think it’s overkill.

  65. Dave Lyons says:


    Have you tried out the free trial version of Topaz Adjust? I started with Photomatix last year as well and tend to stick with the fusion options. You mention using layers and that is what led me to try Adjust. I only wanted to tone map a portion of the image and Photomatix is too early in the workflow (unless I run it through w/ two sets of options). I’ve started using Photomatix for fusion only and then I tonemap with a selection as needed in a smart layer in CS6. I don’t do HDR and tonemapping all the time but use it as needed. Thought I’d mention it since you seem to be aiming for a similar style.

    Heading to DL/DCA later this summer and I’m scouting with your blogs / photos. Thanks!

    • Tom Bricker says:

      I haven’t tried that–at least not with a more recent version of Topaz–I will have to give that a try. Thanks for the heads up!

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