Appreciating HDR Images

Categories: Tech Talk Events Tips

Photo Credit: Michael Downey

Many people would consider me to be a photo purist.  I still shoot large format film with a view camera and develop it myself.  When I have time, I go to a darkroom to make both black and white and color prints.  However, just like many other people I have spent the last few years using digital SLR cameras as well. I have seen several things I love about using a digital camera and certain things I loathe.  Yet even with advanced knowledge of Photoshop, I have always preached the mantra of “Getting it right in camera”.  Understanding how to react to rapidly changing conditions is always more important than being able to fix something later in Photoshop.





Yes I still shoot film :D
Photography is all about capturing light, it always has been and it always will be.  However one of the biggest problems in photography is being able to capture a single image that maintains a high level of dynamic range, having good detail in both highlight and shadow areas.  For example, you are photographing on a bright day.  You take a picture in the shade and the sky becomes completely blown out white.  When you expose for the sky, the area in shade is almost totally black.  There are several methods to balancing an exposure such as adding additional light with fill flash, using graduated filters to keep detail in the sky, and/or burning (darkening) and dodging (lightening) areas in post production.  Still even with such methods, our eyes can see exponentially more dynamic range than a camera, and the images we capture with our camera contain much more information than we are able to produce in a print.
A decent photo I took, but wouldn't it be nice if there was more detail in the highlights/shadows?
One of the more recent methods to solve this problem is called High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging.   Combining a series of bracketed exposures made of the same scene creates High Dynamic Range (HDR) images.  This can be done in Photoshop or by using other software programs such as Photomatix. The theory behind doing this is to be able to maintain levels of mid-tone, highlight, and shadow detail in one photograph that would otherwise be impossible.    The images used must all line up properly so stability is extremely important and a tripod is a must.
Photo Credit: Rick Sammon
When I first saw HDR images I thought they were really cool, but just like anything else, I began to grow tired of seeing so many images that looked the same.  This is just a personal preference of course because some people absolutely love all HDR images.  It just seems to go against everything I believe is important in photography.  Yet before I totally knock something, I have to try it out first, especially if it involves photography.  (There is still some food that you couldn’t pay me enough money to try.)
Unique Photo is taking an excursion to Kip’s Castle in Verona/Montclair, NJ with Canon Explorer of Light Rick Sammon on July 18th.  Rick is an expert on HDR imaging and while the spots for the excursion itself are already full, there is still a lecture he will be giving here at Unique Photo that will be worth checking out, even if you haven’t tried HDR imaging before. Click here for more details on the seminar!
Canon Explorer of Light Rick Sammon and one of his photographs.
I decided to check out Kip’s Castle for myself and see what I could come up with.  To make things more challenging, I went at night.  Part of the castle by the entrance was lit by bright lights and would become quickly blown out while the other side of the building was almost pitch black.  This seemed like the perfect opportunity to try making an HDR image.  I shot all of the images with a Nikon D700 and a 24-70 f/2.8G lens at f/5.6 and ISO 200.  It is important to keep aperture and consistent through all of the exposures to ensure depth of field is the same for all of the images that will be layered.  To further ensure stability I used a shutter release cable.  Here are the 6 exposures I made.  The resulting image probably could have been made with fewer images, but since this was my first attempt I played it safe.
2 seconds
8 seconds
30 seconds
89 seconds
187 seconds
369 seconds
729 seconds
So as you can see there is no way to maintain detail in all areas in one single image.  Some of the more advanced cameras (Like the D700)  have bracketing features that help make this easier, but since it was at night and the maximum exposure time on "Bulb" is 30 seconds without a cable release, I tried to space the longer exposures out by using my iPhone's timer.  Here is the result of merging the RAW files together in Photomatix.  There are many ways to process using Photomatix and Rick Sammon will cover them in his HDR class here at Unique Photo.
Final result

I like the final result I made in Photomatix much better than any of the individual exposures from that night.  It has an erie look and I think it works well.  In the future I may try HDR imaging again, but with less of a heavy hand, maybe more, depending on the subject.  There are of course other ways I could have obtained a similar result.  Bringing some lights to light the darker side of the building, using an ND filter to keep the sky from blowing out, etc... There are many ways to achieve balanced exposures and it is good to learn all of them so you can find what works best for you!

Another shot I made at Kip's Castle
Ansel Adams used the Zone System in order to create exposures that would represent how he wanted to show a particular scene.  This involved extensive research into how different films acted in different developers, with varying agitation, and what were the best papers to print on, amongst many other measured variables that Adams spent time experimenting with.  His prints are gorgeous and fetch hundreds of thousands for an original.  His goal was to capture maximum tonality and dynamic range in a final print.  That sounds awfully close to the principles of HDR imaging. It was Ansel himself that said, "The thing that excites me is that within not too many years were going to have an entirely new medium of expression, the electronic image... This is just the beginning, I've seen some magnificent electronic images. I know the potential is there. It's going to be wonderful." -Ansel Adams 1983 So if the great Ansel was alive today, would he be using HDR techniques?  Traditions be damned I think he would.  Granted I think he would be doing it in a way that was more subtle than is common practice.  Many people assume that Ansel Adams was all about technique with no vision.  It's quite the opposite.  Ansel Adams was all about learning every technique possible so he could use them to better illustrate his vision through the photographic medium.  The bottom line is, go try a few HDR shots, even if you don't think you like the look, it won't kill you and you may just come up with something you really like!