Practical HDR

Sooner or later, a photographer will run into the brick wall of the limitations of the digital camera sensor. Sensors today are very good, but they’re incapable of capturing the full range of tonality—from extreme shadow to bright highlights—that our eyes can see. While RAW capture provides greater flexibility in adjusting what’s captured, it’s still limited by the sensor’s capabilities. For the best exposures, we have to pay careful attention to what the camera can and can’t do with the light in a scene.

HDR, or high dynamic range, is a digital imaging technology that allows us to go beyond the limitations of our cameras and their sensors. With this technique, we can make pictures that are closer to what we actually saw with our eyes—photographs that represent the world in more realistic renditions that simply weren’t possible in the past, even with film.

There have been two directions with HDR photography: realistic and unrealistic (though imaginative) interpretations. In my work, I’ve been less interested in the unrealistic, more illustrative types of HDR. I’ve also found that many photographers are more interested in simply getting better images of the real world that they see around them; we’ll look at using HDR for this more practical purpose.

How HDR Works

With HDR, start by taking multiple exposures of the same scene—exposures that vary from underexposed to overexposed—then use software to combine the tonal information from that range of exposures into a single final image. This allows you to capture detail, color and tones and merge them into one image that couldn’t be captured by a single exposure.

This changes what a photographer can do with real-world scenes. You now can shoot a scene that has dark shadows and bright sunny clouds in the same composition and show off detail in both areas. This is more than simply fancy digital technology; it actually changes the way we as photographers can look at the world for our photography, and it gives us new opportunities for getting better pictures.

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