The Sony NEX-5 Auto HDR workaround

Driskill Statue

Driskill Statue – Austin, Texas (An example of the built in HDR mode)

The Sony NEX-5 and other NEX cameras has a neat built-in HDR mode that makes it easy to create decent looking HDRs. Unfortunately, the user interface around this feature had some issues and frustrated me quite a bit. The good news is I stumbled on a workaround that makes using this feature a whole lot easier for me, so I wanted to share this information with you.

First, a little background. For those of you who do not know. HDR is short for High Dynamic Range photography which combines 3 or more photos of the same scene at different exposure levels to produce an image that give more detail and color than a typical photograph. This popular technique is a bit of a pain to do manually, requiring you to not only get the right settings in camera but requires a lot of post processing knowledge to do well. The NEX’s HDR mode does all this for you, so it is a quick and easy way to make HDRs. Unfortunately, there were a few interface issues that made accessing this mode a pain in the neck for me. Consequently, I didn’t use it as much as I wanted to. I wrote about this frustration in my detailed Sony NEX-5 review. I shoot my NEX-5 in RAW to get the highest possible quality. The built-in HDR function only works in JPEG — you can not even access the HDR settings when you are in RAW mode. Previously, I had so switch from RAW to JPEG, then get into the HDR mode, shoot the picture in HDR, then switch back to RAW again for my regular shots. Later on, when I wanted to shoot another HDR, I had to go through the same cumbersome process. After a while, I just didn’t bother.

So here is the work around. First start in JPEG mode. Click the menu button. Select “Image Size” from the menu. Scroll down to “Quality”. This is where you can set RAW or JPEG. I set my JPEG to Fine, which is the highest quality for JPEGs. Then I set the HDR mode. Hit the menu button again and this time select “Bightness/Color”. Under this submenu, select “DRO/Auto HDR”, and then select HDR. You can also adjust the level of HDR in this mode, which took me a while to find, the first time. Click the “options” button to the left and below the scroll wheel. This will allow you to choose from Auto-HDR to 6EV HDR modes by turning the scroll wheel. Choose the level of HDR you like. You can experiment with the level you personally like. I keep mine usually on Auto-HDR. Now, if you choose to shoot in JPEG all the time, then you are all set. Life is easier to do HDRs since you don’t have to switch back and forth between JPEG and RAW. I like to shoot in RAW, so I switch back to RAW through the “Image Size” menu. Here is the key part of the work around. When you are in RAW and what to take an HDR, just switch to JPEG. The camera remembers that you have set the HDR mode in JPEG. When you are finished, switch back to RAW.

The following “bug” has tripped me up, which probably added to the frustration.. When you are in RAW and you happen get into the “DRO/Auto HDR” menu, if you change the scroll wheel dial at all, even if you hit the cancel button, this takes the camera out of HDR mode in JPEG. If this happens you have to repeat all the steps above to get your camera back into HDR mode. So, as long as you don’t touch the scroll wheel, you are OK and can switch back and forth between JPEG HDR mode and normal RAW mode. I originally programmed my custom button as a short cut to the DRO/Auto HDR feature. This makes it easy to access HDR but also makes it easy to change the setting accidentally which unknowingly took me out of HDR mode. I’ve removed the HDR option off my custom button to prevent accidental changes. I wish I can program this custom button switch between RAW and JPEG but this is not available on the NEX-5.

I played around with a NEX-5n and a NEX-C3 and noticed that they act differently. Unfortunately, while there are a lot of improvements in the 5n, the switching behavior between the JPEG HDR mode and RAW is worse. Unlike the NEX-5, on the 5n, even when you set the HDR mode in JPEG, the act of switching to RAW will make use lose the HDR mode. All is not lost, however. The option button is more flexible in this newer model so that you can program on the buttons to quickly switch between JPEG and RAW. The net effect is that the behavior is different but the user interface pain level is about the same. The NEX-C3 seems to have a similar behavior as my NEX-5, though the options button is not nearly as flexible as its bigger brother.

I hope I explained this well enough so that you can follow along. The Sony menu interface is sill far from ideal but this workaround makes it better. I didn’t get a chance to test all the NEX models so please tell me what your experience is, especially if you have a NEX-7.

Here is a sample of my work using the Sony NEX-5. I’ve posted them on my one-photo-per-day photo blog, mostlyfotos. There are a lot of images so click the << Previous Photo link to see more. You can also hover over the photos to see the exposure information.

3 thoughts on “The Sony NEX-5 Auto HDR workaround

  1. or, you can just set the bottom soft key to switch between image format types.

    also you can use the OK button to have there all the extra options you use on regular bases (Focus mode, HDR, WB …)

    if you do this you will never have to touch the menu button again.

    1. Paul, thanks for your suggestions. I like to keep my soft keys programmed to other options that I consider more important or everyday use (for me) but great suggestion if that works well for your shooting style.

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