HDR Is The Question

You’re reading this article because you want to learn more about high-dynamic-range photography. Cool. HDR photography rocks.

But here’s something else that’s important to know about HDR photography: There’s a time and place for it. For example, check out this image. It’s a sunrise photograph that I took of the Two Mittens in Monument Valley, Utah. I could have used HDR, but by opening up the shadows for a high-dynamic-range image, I would have lessened the effect of the dramatic silhouette.

In the following illustration, you’ll see how using HDR on a similar scene wasn’t the best idea. You’ll also see two more examples of dramatic non-HDR pictures.

Use HDR wisely, in the right situations, and you’ll be a more versatile photographer. But remember that a photograph is all about the light—the light that illuminates the scene and the light that you create in the digital darkroom.

No Substitute for Good Light

Here are three images that illustrate HDR vs. non-HDR photography. The image far left (created in Photomatix Pro) is an HDR shot, made from several pictures taken at and over the average exposure. Sure, the dynamic range of the image is greater than the two photographs on the near right, but this image has no drama and looks flat compared to the other two images. When a dramatic silhouette is your goal, HDR is a no-no.

By the way, I increased the dynamic range of the image on the bottom right in-camera by “painting” the tree with the light using the headlights from our guide’s Jeep®.

Here’s another thought when considering HDR or non-HDR photography: There’s no substitute for good light.

RAW Files Are Packed With Data

RAW files are packed with data—data from which you can expand the dynamic range of a single image. Note that you can expand the dynamic range of a RAW file only a few stops. That’s compared to many stops when taking a series of pictures for processing in software like Photomatix.

We’re back in Monument Valley. The bottom image is a straight shot that was processed in Adobe Camera Raw to expand the dynamic range. The top image is a Photomatix HDR file. Both images look pretty much the same when it comes to dynamic range because the contrast range wasn’t tremendous. However, it was wide enough to warrant expanding the dynamic range because the foreground and part of the background was in the shadows, while the butte in the far background was in strong sunlight.

When you want detail in both the shadow and highlight areas of a scene, you’ll need to think HDR, expanding the dynamic range with skillful processing of a RAW file or from a Photomatix image.

A note on the color difference between the images: I find that Photomatix tends to oversaturate strong colors, like the orange buttes in the background. Oversaturation can cause a loss in detail. Notice that the RAW-processed image shows more detail in the butte than the Photomatix-processed image.

When HDR Rules

I created this image from several images that I took in Upper Antelope Canyon in Arizona. What a magical place to photograph! Getting an even exposure in this cool location isn’t easy, however, due to the wide contrast range in the scene.

When the contrast range of a scene is very wide, HDR rules. However, just because you can almost completely open up the shadow areas of a scene doesn’t necessarily mean that you want all that detail in an image.

For this image, I wanted to include some of the shadow areas in the scene because shadows can add drama to an image.

Check out the files in the following illustration from which I created this Photomatix image.

More Exposures Mean More Data

Here are the four exposures I took to create the previous image. The top right shot is the average exposure of the scene. The highlights are blown out, and the shadows are too dark.

For my HDR image, I wanted to maintain some of the shadows. Had I wanted more detail in the shadow areas, I’d have taken additional exposures, overexposing them to the point where I could see the details on my camera’s LCD monitor.

I took the image on the left in Lower Antelope Canyon. The contrast range wasn’t as great as in my Upper Antelope Canyon image, so processing the image in Adobe Camera Raw did the trick of bringing out the shadow details and toning down the highlights.

HDR Is Not a Magic Fix

Here are two HDR images from a 2009 trip to Horseshoe Bend, which is near Page, Ariz., about a 10-minute drive from the slot canyons. In both images, HDR was used to avoid blocked-up shadows and overexposed highlights, which were caused by the strong shadow of the sun.

The pictures are okay, but personally, I don’t like the shadow in the scene.

The Right Light for the Situation

Here’s my favorite photograph of Horseshoe Bend. It isn’t an HDR image. It’s a straight shot, actually taken on a 2002 trip to the site, before HDR was available for amateur and professional photographers.

This image is a success because the contrast range is much less than in my previous images of Horseshoe Bend. That reduced contrast range was created by an overcast sky. In other words, there were no strong shadow areas and no bright highlight areas.

For scenes like this one, there’s really no need to shoot HDR because you can expand the dynamic range, if you want to, in Adobe Camera Raw.

The message: You need to wait for the right light, be lucky and get the right light, or pray for the right light. Amen!

Strong Light Might Be the Right Light

Here’s an example of when strong, direct sunlight can be the right light—again, no HDR required. The shadows in this case, created by late-afternoon light, add definition to the scene. Remember: Light illuminates; shadows define.

Often, we’re tempted to use HDR to open up shadows in a scene. Sometimes that’s a big benefit. At other times, it can cause a shot to fall flat, if not used correctly. However, soft light can be nice, too—as illustrated in the next example.

Soft Light is Nice Light

Here’s another non-HDR image. I took this photograph after sunset of the same scene as the previous image. I love the soft quality of light in this picture.

Due to the low-contrast range in the scene, HDR wouldn’t have done much, perhaps opening up the darker areas of the picture just a little, which is something that’s easily accomplished in Photoshop.

The i
dea is to keep HDR in mind, but don’t make each and every one of your images an HDR image. In fact, only use HDR when you need it or want to create a special effect.

Always Be Prepared for HDR Photography

Because we often find ourselves in high-contrast situations, we should always be prepared for HDR photography, even if we don’t set out to create HDR images. Being prepared includes toting a tripod and having enough memory cards for all your sets of HDR images. HDR photography sucks up memory because you need to take several images to create one HDR image.

For this HDR image of Lower Antelope Canyon, I took five different exposures and “crunched” them in Photomatix.

In closing, it’s important to keep this expression in mind: To HDR or not HDR? That’s the question.

Rick Sammon is the author of 35 books on photography, digital imaging and nature. His upcoming HDR book—HDR Secrets for Digital Photographers—will be published in April. Visit with Rick at www.ricksammon.com.

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