HDR photography is a very popular topic and style trend in contemporary photography. For an old school photographer like myself, with my quarter century of darkroom experience this is a familiar technique, albeit with a new name and some upgraded tools. The idea of using multiple exposures to capture a wide range of luminance goes back to the origins of photography. In the 1850’s Gustave Le Gray (French Photographer 1820-1884) combined two negatives – one exposed for the sky, the other for the sea to create a single seascape photo.
In the black and white darkroom the HDR photography tone mapping process was a manual operation. A standard print made with a uniform exposure had a limited dynamic range. With burning and dodging we could select particular areas of our negative to change the exposure of. Making a print could be a ballet of blocking wands and shadow puppets (I told you I was old school).
Today with digital cameras and software the HDR photography process is lot more efficient. The question for photographers is why deploy this technique? In my commercial photography work I use it for primarily practical purposes along with creative considerations.
HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography is a solution as well as a springboard to far more expressive image making. It solves the problem of photographing scenes with a wide range of luminosity. The process involves capturing a series of photographs with exposure bracketing and combining them into a single image that holds detail from the brightest highlights to the deepest shadows.
It is a work around for the confines of digital camera sensors. The human eye can perceive an extensive range of contrast in a scene while our digital camera sensors have a limited dynamic range that it can record. In photography, the dynamic range is the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of your scene, measured in units of EV (aka stops of exposure).
The camera records most scenes well but it hits its limits with contratsy scenes, with bright highlights and deep shadows. When we make a standard exposure we end up losing detail in the far ends of the dynamic range. For example if you are shooting a dark interior of a room with bright windows and exterior views. If you expose the shadows correctly your highlights will get “blown out” (overexposed). If you record for your highlights accurately, the brightest parts of your shot, your shadows loose all detail. A standard exposure is a compromise. When you shoot a HDR image you can achieve detail in the highlights of the window to the shadows of the room interior by combining your bracketed exposures.
Achieving detail in the highlights and shadows of your scene is the practical use of HDR. You can render a very realistic version of your scene that mimics the contrast range we can perceive with our eyes. Making a shot that presents the scene as you saw it is just one option. With the HDR processing software now available you can get a lot more creative and experimental with your results. You can manipulate the tone map of your image rendering highlight, shadow and colors in wide range of interpretations, from hyper-colorized to subtlety de-saturated and everything in between.
How far you go with these manipulations is a matter of taste. I pride myself in deploying this technique so that my viewer detects no distinction from reality. For me it is an updated version of an old familiar tool in my bag of photo tricks. Others have taken HDR photography in a whole new direction of creative expression- stretching the boundaries of visual interpretation.
IF YOU WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HDR PHOTOGRAPHY
I will be presenting an HDR Photography Workshop on April 12, 2014 in York Maine from 3 to 6 pm. This is a hands-on field photography class and we will be covering the camera techniques for creating HDR images. Grab your tripod and join us. For complete details and registration got CLICK HERE.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Photographer and photo educator Dan Splaine has more than thirty years experience producing photography for public relations, marketing and editorial clients. Based in Nashua, NH he provides commercial photography services in studio and at client locations all over the world. Dan is a photo educator and presents a program of digital photography workshops and photography tours for adults throughout New England. For more information about his photo education program go to the photo workshop and tour schedule page.