On HDR Photography

I wonder what it was like to be a photographer when color film became available: were there riots?

Heck, the artists were probably running in the streets smashing windows on buggies when photographs were invented at all. Paris has never been the same.
See, photography has always been misunderstood. I imagine that the painters were upset that the scientists were suddenly getting acclaim and hanging images on the prestigious walls of Europe’s best salons. It’s the same thing nowadays with electrical engineers buying DSLR’s. Of course, my boss was glad when I quit so he didn’t have to keep looking at all my pictures.
Photography may easily be misconstrued as not realistic when things don’t look like we usually see them. But, when was the last time you saw the world in Black and White, or the world froze and you studied a horse running frozen in front of you? Photographs are not realistic. Period.
So, I don’t know what the problem is with HDR.
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. Like that helps.
Dynamic range is the amount of light stuff and the amount of dark stuff the camera is capable of seeing. Look out the window: you can see stuff inside the building, the cars on the street, and the fluffy clouds in the sky without any trouble–there is enough light for you to see everything in doors as well as out. The camera, however, doesn’t have the capability to see both light and dark areas as well as your eyes: it has a limited dynamic range.
But, in photography we have a couple of ways to increase the dynamic range of the camera. When we shoot color film, we can waaaaaaaaay over expose the film. This cause the dark areas of the picture to become brighter, but the bright areas will not necessarily become so bright that they lose detail. It’s a funny phenomenon about color film; doesn’t work with black and white, as I understand it. I’ve never used this technique.
The HDR that causes all the stir is the style that uses multiple exposures of a single object, some very dark to make the sky dark and some very bright to make the shadows bright. then, we use Photoshop, or Photomatix, or HDR Pro software (or the myriad other offerings out there) to combine those images into one image. This is cool because we can create either an image that looks more like what our eyes see, or something hyper real that is just cool to look at. See the bridge and the car pictures above. these are combinations of 9 exposures.
This type of HDR is fun. It’s cool to see what happens and tweak settings to produce more or less supposed  “realism” in the image. I dabble occasionally, but am not a huge user at this point. For me, I don’t know how the Photoshop does it, I don’t know how it decides what to keep and what to discard from the set of exposures. So, I feel less involved in the process and am thus less in love with the result. The bridge picture is one of my favorite images, though, because after the HDR process I still created the black and white process and took ownership back. Have a look around Flickr, or just Google “HDR” and you’ll see some you like, and some you don’t care too much for. My good friend Mel Torrie shoots HDR almost exclusively and has an incredible body of work (he’s working on a new site, but check out his previous stuff at this link).
For me, there’s a third method that I much prefer and can feel great ownership in from shoot to finish. It’s something Scott Kelby and David Ziser both got me started on, but I’ve learned the most from Joe McNally. These guys showed me how to create more information in the dark areas of a picture by eliminating, or redirecting the dark areas of a picture.
We do this using light, of course. If you are looking for one tool that will improve your photography more than anything else, it’s a reflector/diffuser, and it’s less than $75 on amazon.com. This simple tool let’s you add light where light was lacking, or remove light where there was too much. It’s amazing, and it really let’s you compose the light in a picture the way you want instead of the way Mother Nature or General Electric has dictated. Buy one; or a white minivan, or a white shirt…
The tool that lends even more light shaping ability is the Speedlight. This is the flash you see on top of a wedding photographer’s camera; she can point it any which way she likes. But if she wan’t real control and artistic liberty, she will remove it from the camera entirely.
By either using a reflector or a flash to add light to the dark areas of a scene, you are reducing the dynamic range of that scene,which is tantamount to increasing the dynamic range of the camera. The two motorcycle images above and the two young ladies were all shot using Speedlights.
This is my kind HDR. It excites me to shoot it, and it thrills my clients to see it right away on the camera. Sure, you could show them the 9 exposures and describe that it will be really awesome after the photoshop work, but the squeals and wows you get with a Speedlight are a much bigger ego boost.
So, go out and try some of these methods. This is by no means a white paper on any of them, but I hope it whets your appetite to go out and find some more info. For incredible work with Speedlights, follow Joe McNally, and read his awesome book, The Hot Shoe Diaries. For HDR software, try the 30 day free trial of Adobe Photoshop CS5 from adobe.com, and the free trial of Photomatix from HDRSoft.com, and the highly acclaimed HRD Pro from Nik Software (note that this one requires Photoshop to work). For another tidbit on using Speedlights, see this entry on my blog.
Thanks for reading, and maybe next time I’ll have a little something picking up where Joe leaves off for the amateur budgets among us.


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