When to Use HDR Photo Processing Technique

June 06, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

HDR photo of old truck in Coloradop1259669642-5

Old mining truck in Colorado

In the past couple of years photographers have seen an overwhelming number of new digital tools and techniques for “enhancing” and manipulating their images. One of the most popular techniques is called High Dynamic Range photography. Most of you have seen images using this technique and most of its users are producing images similar to the one seen here.
Like most new things we have to play with this technique has been used too often and to poor effect far too much. But that’s the way of new tools. They are overused at first until the artists work through the mechanics and positive and negative effects of the tool. Only after playing with and exploring the tool for a while are we able to fully embrace the usefulness of the technique and understand when we should, and more importantly, when we should not use the tool. Like other photographers, I think its fun to play with.
As I’ve said before, I think most images need an incubation period where the artist comes back and looks at it repeatedly over a period of time before sharing it with the world. This incubation period helps me to view the photograph without being affected by the emotions present when the image was captured. It helps me to see the photograph the same way a viewer in a gallery would see the image. Most of my HDR images don’t stand this “test of time” very well. While they look pretty cool the first few times around they eventually just look strange and lose their coolness.
I think I have a few exceptions though. The image to the right is one.

Lupine in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Parkp1259669656-5

Black Canyon Lupine

Sometimes the range of contrasts within a scene are far too great to create a printable image using traditional techniques. This was an even greater problem when we photographed with film. Today’s digital techniques provide greater opportunities to create successful images than the “old days”. The most aggressive of these techniques is HDR and, as I stated earlier, usually gets out-of-hand. However, with patience and some practice, the technique can be controlled in a way to create an image that looks much more “normal”. These more normal looking photographs stand my “test of time” much better than those wild and crazy photos. The image at right was made in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Even though the park is only 100 miles from my home I don’t get to photograph in the summer there very often.

The color of the Lupine was amazing and I had to figure out how to save this image. The picture was made in the middle of the day with harsh and boring light. Direct light on the flowers was intolerably harsh and contrasty but when clouds came over they became too dark considering the direct light on the canyon wall and the distant clouds. What to do? I photographed a series of exposures from two f stops underexposed to two stops overexposed using a split neutral density filter to pull the exposure of the clouds in the distance down to a manageable level. The bracketed exposures were accomplished by changing the shutter speed, not the aperture. These were combined and blended in Photomatix software. The results were terrible! But I couldn’t give up. Through much experimenting with the many controls of the software I was able to create an image that captured the full tonal range in a way that could actually be printed.
I love to travel and discover the visual treats the world has to offer. Unfortunately, this often places me and my camera in an awesome location with mediocre light or at an unflattering time of day for the subject at hand. Good HDR technique can help provide interesting images when I can’t come back to a location at a better time of day or even time of year. By controlling difficult shadows and highlights this tool can save the day but like many of our digital solutions it can be overused. Like Vincent Versace says, Photoshop (and other software) should be used like an emery board, not a jack hammer.

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