Photography: Practical use of HDR

After testing some situations that could benefit from high dynamic range (HDR) photography, we decided that the technique warranted consideration for use on a few of our travel assignments this winter. Simply put, HDR is a digital post process that combines several images to increase the amount of detail in a final produced photograph. The process is also used to create a hyper-real look that can exaggerate colors, tones and detail in an image. Taken to the extreme, this kind of imagery can look cartoonish, gaudy and more artistic than ‘real’. But we found that the process also has a practical application for use on work that calls for a more realistic representation of  your subject.

The above photograph was made from five exposures while shooting on a bright, sunny day at Hatcher Pass in the Talkeetna Mountains just north of Palmer, Alaska. We had wrapped the nordic ski portion of our day and wanted to do some work in the classic ‘A’ frame lodge. The huge south facing windows flooded the main room with hard afternoon light that brought the contrast of the scene off the charts.

Here is a single shot of the scene with the best exposure to balance highlights, midtones and shadows. Yeah, not so much, but pretty much what I saw with my own eyes. To create an HDR image, you need to bring back multiple exposures from the scene. You can run the process on a single image, but ideally you want to have at least three exposures; one best for midtones, one best for shadows and one best for the highlights. We shoot for a total of five exposures; metered, +1, +2, -1, -2. Adding in a +/- 1.5 doesn’t hurt.

Another factor when compositing multiple exposures in post is that the subject(s) don’t move in between frames. This kind of photography is well suited for landscapes or architecture shot while using a sturdy tripod. But we’ve found that by using a camera with a fast frame rate and taking a few extra measures to steady yourself, the five exposures can be made hand-held with little to no movement between frames. Back at the desk, we currently use Photomatix Pro to process for HDR. The interface includes options for correcting the slightest offset of the composite frames and ghosting. It’s easy to go on a power kick when using this kind of software. You can easily process your work into a Crayola nightmare. But after you get that out of your system, think about what you really want from this tool. For us it’s to be able to bring back high quality photography from those situations that would have been deemed ‘lame’. For this image, we wanted to see into the coal buckets and enjoy the color of the wood ceiling. The processing stopped once we reached that level and we’re happy with the results. If this has piqued your interested, a couple good places to start are Trey Ratcliff’s site ‘Stuck in Customs’ , this article by photographer Alexandre Buisse and lessons by John Paul Caponigro.