HDR Photography

Ron Niebrugge Alaska, Chugach, How to, Photos, Travel 8 Comments

Barber Cabin, Lower Russian Lake

In my last post I wrote about using graduated neutral density filters to overcome scenes with extreme dynamic range.  If there isn’t a nice straight division, filters aren’t much help.  In these situations, I have started using a process referred to as high dynamic range photography, often called HDR photography.  This is the process I used to capture this image of the Barber Forest Service Cabin at Lower Russian Lake, Alaska.

In a nutshell, High dynamic range photography involves the combining of images captured at different exposures with a computer post-capture.  The above photo of is a good example.  To expose for outdoors, I needed a setting 1/13 of a second at f/9 of which left the interior far underexposed as you can see below.

 Cabin-outside.jpg

 To expose for the inside, I needed about 5 more stops of light for an exposure of 3.2 seconds at f/9.

Cabin-inside.jpg

 By combining these two images, along with 3 more captured at exposures in between these two, I was able to get the top photo. 

I first experimented with HDR photography a couple of years ago when it was included in PhotoShop, but was always disappointed with the results.  In the past few months there has been a “buzz” over HDR, in fact there was even a story in our Alaska newspaper.  I figured I better find out what I’m missing.  Well it turns out there have been great strides made in the software now available for HDR and some do a far better job then PhotoShop.

The software I have been using is called Photomatix Pro.  I can’t tell you if it is the best, because I haven’t tested the other options, but I can tell you it does a great job – far better than PhotoShop.  At $99,Photomatix Pro isn’t cheap, but you can download it and try it for free.  The free trial version puts a big watermark on the final image making it unusable, but at least you get a feel for how effective the software can be.  For someone like me who has spent hours trying to blend images of different exposures by hand in PhotoShop, without success, $99 seems like a bargain!

I won’t try to go into detail on how to work an image with Photomatix as others have already done a great job at it, but I will point you in the right direction for more information.  This tutorial by Royce Howland on HDR photography and Photomatix Pro is probably the best one I have read – it covers all aspects including a lot of important details.  Beware, it is 17 pages long.  Here are two more valuable resources, HDRI for photographers by Uwe Steinmueller and How to Create Professional HDR Images by Ryan McGinnis.

I will add a couple of tips.  A tripod is a must so that the different exposures line up properly.  Besides using a tripod, try to capture images in one stop increments – going two or three stops between images doesn’t leave enough information for the program to work with effectively.  The process works far better with non-moving subjects like my example.  It it very difficult to use on a field of flowers for example even if there is just the slightest breeze because the different exposures won’t line up perfectly.

My last tip is true for most photography related tools, and that is less is more.  Overdoing HDR will leave you with a photo that almost looks like a cartoon.  Even if your images aren’t cartoon like, HDR photos can have a certain “look” that can be hard to avoid.  I would rather give up some highlight or shadow detail then have that “look”.  The image in this example was one of my first attempts and I would say it is borderline on being overdone.  As they continue to improve on this software it is becoming easier by the month to create natural looking HDR images – it certainly will be another important trick of the trade in the future. 

Comments 8

  1. Frank

    There is a lot of buzz on the internet on HDR photography.Many photographers think HDR photography is a party trick but this is defiantly not true. High Dynamic Range Photography is a major part of the future of photography. HDR photography is a new technology so many photographers are skeptical or unfamiliar with it. Like in any business you have to learn the new technology or trends, ignoring it or being scared to learn something new will just get you left behind. Information is power. I found these great video tutorials on creating HDR images….
    http://www.str8photography.com/str8photography/Process_and_Merge_HDR_in_Adobe_Phtoshop.html

  2. Nick Fankhauser

    I made a HDR timelapse of a whole year passing in my garden:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqRdD7Wum2o
    Initially, it was not planned to create HDR images from the timelapse photos. But because the camera was set to “auto”, it used a different shutter speed for each photo. And as it took photos every 5 minutes, there a lot of photos to choose from when creating a one minute timelapse and by selecting series of similar but not consecutive photos, it was possible to create HDR images from them by using sliding window of three.

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