High dynamic range photography, otherwise known as HDR, has become extremely popular these days given all of the tutorials, videos and books I see more and more of on the internet. I’ve even seen other photographers denouncing hdr as though somehow it’s “cheating” or not worth the time and effort to learn. Yet as I’ve repeated here many times, any tool is worth learning as long as it helps you achieve your creative vision or goal in a way that remains true to your ethic. Regardless of whether it’s a traditional technique, or a new piece of cutting edge software, I embrace all with enthusiasm, then decide if it can help me in my personal vision.
For those unfamiliar with hdr imaging, is a technique that allows a greater dynamic range to be captured than with normal photographs. This is accomplished by taking anywhere from 3 to 7 exposures of the same scene, then combining them using specialized software. Then the image is tone-mapped (a form of tonal compression) so that it can be displayed on a traditional monitor which does not have sufficient dynamic range to display the hdr image. So though you may see an image labeled as being “hdr”, what is really meant is that it was created using hdr techniques, but the image you actually see is a representation of the original. Tone-mapping is the creative step which ultimately decides the “look” of the image, and where there seems to be a wide variety of experimentation being done today. I’ve seen everything from barely noticeable to images that look like impressionistic paintings.
Because of my focus on landscapes, and an emphasis on veracity together with artistic interpretation, I tend to use hdr sparingly, and only when the situation calls for it. Situations with very deep shadows, as in hard light, or overly bright skies are examples when I might use hdr. Architecture is another situation where it can be very useful. It really all depends on my intended purpose of the image, and if I think hdr will help me achieve my goals. Over time I’ll be showing examples of how I’ve used hdr for both personal and commercial projects, and share how I’ve learned when and when not to use this very powerful tool.
My recent visit to Bannerman Castle is a perfect place to start, since from the beginning I knew hdr would be the only way to capture ruins on a sunny day. Below are some of the images I made using hdr, and these were all composed of 5 exposures, separated by 1 stop increments. While a traditional image may have 4-5 stops maximum of dynamic range, these contain anywhere from 8-10 stops. In tone-mapping, my goal is to create an image that looks realistic and keeps the viewer focused on the subject, not how I created the image. HDR can look real, again it all depends on the approach and processing. I’ll talk about the software and provide some tips in my next post on hdr.