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My thoughts on HDR

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HDR photography has been around for several years now. In fact, I can remember when the rage started and everyone ran out and started shooting multiple bracketed exposures and posting garish, alien-looking landscapes complete with color artifacts and halos. This, naturally, sparked the expected controversy between the purists and the experimentalists, which continues to rage today.

But whichever side you’re on, it seems clear that HDR is no passing fad. It’s here to stay and has developed a solid niche following, including some professionals who have made it their bread and butter. And during that time it’s evolved, moving from an exclusively software-based process to one that’s available in-camera on several models. But do we care?

My personal relationship with HDR is not a very successful one. I bought into Photomatix Pro back when the HDR boom started and have continued with the software upgrades along the way, but I find myself using it very infrequently. The reason for this is simple: I’m not very good at it.

I’ve come to believe that there’s a fine art to making a good HDR image, one that likely requires not only a solid knowledge of the image requirements, but also a healthy does of patience. I seem to be lacking both, and my attempts prove it.

Single-image HDR of the Conowingo Dam in Conowingo, MD, on the evening of 15 January 2010.

My approach to shooting HDR is probably best described as the “shotgun method.” I decide to make an HDR capture, set the camera to auto exposure bracketing (AEB) somewhere around 2-3 stops apart, set the burst rate to high, and hammer the shutter. The camera sounds like a deranged hornet, and I wander around for an hour or so capturing three exposures of every scene I see. Later, at the computer, I start running HDR merges through Photomatix, applying settings at random until I either like the results, or hate them. This fairly time-consuming process is usually aborted around three-quarters of the way through, when I get fed up and delete the remaining sets.

Not very scientific. Nor very successful. I think some of the fault lies in my bracketing; rather than set intervals, I wonder if I’d have better luck pre-metering the different parts of the scene (highlights, mid-tones, shadows) and then composing and manually shooting an exposure for each?

The photos in this post prove that I sometimes get it right, albeit tending towards the over-processed look. But as my 6th grade math teacher was fond of saying, “Sometimes even a blind squirrel will find an acorn.” I was lousy at math, too.

Despite having seen excellent, well-balanced examples of HDR work, I can’t seem to get the hang of it. I lack subtlety. And while the solution is self-evident – more practice and study – the truth is that I’m just not so in love with this technique that I spend much time on it. I shoot it now and then for myself, and have on very rare occasion provided it to a client as an option. But overall, I lack the HDR gene.

Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try it for yourself. Heck, I strongly encourage every photog to give it a try. Who knows, it might really click for you. Photoshop has the ability to generate HDRs and there’s some free software out there as well. It’s a good way to stick your toe in and test the waters.

[Probably the only HDR image I've shot that I really love.

As a final note, it’s also worth trying psuedo-HDR, or HDR generated from a single image. Photomatix will do this automatically from a single RAW file, but you can also use ACR to save three (or more) different versions of an image, at different exposures, and then blend them. It’s not as accurate due to the increased software interpolation, and will result in a noisier final image, but it may also be better than nothing.

Your mileage may vary, but I hope you have better success than me!

Brent Pennington

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1 Comment to My thoughts on HDR

  1. April 4, 2012 at 07:15

    There are times when using the HDR technique can make a difference. I’m thinking primarily about real estate photography though. For example an interior room where you would want to have the curtains open to allow as much light into the room as possible. You don’t want the windows to be blown out so HDR could help. I have tried it with some nature scenes and, like you, have gotten okay results. I merge the photos using Photoshop CS-5 but then I get lost. I don’t know enough about tweaking a photo in Photoshop to get decent results out of it so usually I don’t bother with it. IMO if you can look at a photo and immediately tell it’s HDR then it has been processed to the extreme.


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