HDR, or High Dynamic Range, photography seems to be all the rage right now. Actually, I think it has been for quite some time, but as usual I am quite some time behind the curve. I have been interested in it, but never investigated it much until last night.
That was when I found out how (theoretically) easy it is. Photoshop has an automated process for it which you can read about here. The trick is to make sure you are getting several exposures of exactly the same scene at different exposures. The only difference being the amount of light let into the camera. This means that the shutter speed is the only thing that’s allowed to change, because obviously if you change the aperture, you will also change the depth of field, so you won’t be photographing exactly the same scene even if your camera is absolutely stationary. Some objects will not have the same focus from frame to frame with different aperture settings.
Based on what I’d read and seen around the Web, it appeared to me that the best sort of image to experiment this technique on was something with brilliant color and perhaps a bit of a gloss. So I went off to my local playground, where I happened to know there was a very colorful set of equipment.
With some patience and tweaking in Lightroom it is possible to make adjustments that will get a tolerable picture out of this (granted, this is not award-winning composition – it’s just a test). But let’s see what happens when I combine these three images into a single HDR image:
Now, rest assured that I did fiddle a teensy bit with curves in Photoshop, but not nearly as much as if I had tried to edit any of the three original photographs above. There are a couple of things that strike me immediately about the HDR image.
- The sky is a much more natural blue than any of the original three.
- There are details in the shadows that are lost in the originals
- There are details in the trees that are lost in the originals
- The sand is a much warmer tone
- The colors are much more vibrant and much closer to how they really looked to the eye
- The tree branches have a slight double-image look in the HDR (there was a small breeze the day I was shooting).
In short, it’s easy to see why HDR images are so attractive to create. For relatively little effort, you can get very striking photos. The same effect might take an enormous amount of time to adjust manually. I achieved the result above in about 10 minutes start to finish.
Of course, this technique only works well on a non-moving subject (as even the slight movement of the tree branches in the small breese above will attest). It’s not exactly a great technique to use for a family portrait or your hyperactive puppy.
I’m still playing around with some techniques, but it is possible to use the same HDR effect on non-stationary subjects. The trick is that you have to assume you’re not going to get the work done in the camera, but rather on the computer.
I pulled out a recent self-portrait of mine (not perfectly in focus, so not an ideal example to use) for the purpose of seeing if I could convert it to HDR. My process was simple. In Lightroom, adjust the Exposure slider up and down in increments of 1. After each adjustment, export the photo as a DNG file. This effectively gets you identical photos at different exposures. Run the HDR magic on them in Photoshop, and voila! You have an HRD portrait!
Now again, this is not an idea picture to use. At almost one-half second exposure, it is not reasonable to expect that my face will be perfectly stationary, and this image proves that even when using the exact same image at different exposure edits, it’s absolutely vital that it be in sharp focus. There are all kinds of little artifacts in my hair and forehead that will make you cross-eyed with double vision.
On the other hand, the HDR image in general is much nicer over all. There is no loss of detail in the darker areas of my hair, the texture on the wall behind me is much more clear, and the HDR image in general does not have the “washed out” grayness to it that the original had. My face doesn’t seem as flat and the picture in general is more interesting to look at (though there are some small “blown out” areas on my forehead that I haven’t taken the time to address).
But I am convinced that with better pictures this is a technique that can easily be used to create striking, vibrant portraits with a minimum of effort around color correction. I’m looking forward to playing with this technique more. It’s given me a reason to open Photoshop again after working almost exclusively in Lightroom.