the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “High Dynamic Range


Just a few clicks ago in time, I might have made multiple exposures of this scene, blending them later in HDR software for increased dynamic range. Now I do it all in-camera.


DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY’S EXPLOSION IN THIS STILL-FRESH CENTURY has shown itself not to be about a single, big revolution but an ongoing cascade of small ones. As more and more shooters have shifted their emphasis away from film technology….itself, admittedly a fundamental earthquake of change, they have also had to constantly adapt to a continuous flow of refinements and reinventions in the digital realm. Nothing is static and nothing will ever again be in its final form. Things that were considered cumbersome and clumsy just a few seconds ago now are accomplished effortlessly. We move from custom to standard in the wink of an eye.

A prime example of this phenomenon is the rise and not-quite-complete fall of HDR, or High Dynamic Range photography, the practice of shooting several different exposures of the same subject and melding the best of all of them into one seamless composite through software. The need for such a solution arose from the inefficiency of early digital sensors, which caused light and dark extremes in an image to be either blown out or smothered in shadow. HDR was devised as a way to imitate how quickly the human eye can adjust to allow us to see everything in about the same degree of contrast. It doesn’t actually do that, but instead presents a ton of images of varying contrast to our brains so quickly that we imagine that we actually always see everything in balance. Early renditions of Photoshop did not address this problem, nor did the earliest cell phone cameras, and even traditional manufacturers like Nikon and Canon were years away from including HDR-like modes in their DSLRs, and so editing platforms like Photomatix, HDR Efx Pro, and Aurora HDR were created in the early 2000’s to specifically blend and tweak anywhere from two exposures on upward in a work flow that came to be known as “tone mapping”. The apps sold well and addressed a real niche within the photographic world. Transitions between light and dark seemed more elastic, and textures, from beach sand to wood grain, seemed to be rendered with greater emphasis.

HDR drew both praise and poison from the start, with some photographers subtly enhancing their work while others “over-cooked” the effect, delivering surreal palettes of day-glo color and gooey skin textures surrounded by strange halos and other unwanted artifacts. The result, as is occurring with greater and greater speed in the digital-web complex, was that, just as a revolution/solution for a real problem hit the market, others began almost immediately to concoct an antidote for the wonder drug…a fix for the fix. A few scant years later, manufacturers of both standard and phone-based cameras have their own HDR-like modes, which are both more limited in precision and hellishly convenient: digital camera sensors themselves are already in their second generation, with greater dynamic range already designed in: and uber-tools like Photoshop and Lightroom have become more supple in the quick adjustment of even single batches of images. Thus HDR has gone the regular developmental route seen that all tech has across history, from balky and bulky to sleek and instinctive. We learn to do more with less, and what was once custom equipment (like radios once were in automobiles) becomes standard (like seat belts in automobiles) but with even greater immediacy in the digital era. In my own work, after years of HDR love writ large, I now tend to solve 95% of the problems that used to dictate the use of HDR with simple in-camera moves, some of them as basic as exposing for the highlights and recovering the detail in the dark areas in post editing (as seen in the image above).

I was recently toying with an old Canon A1 SLR from the late ’70’s and marveling at the fact that its owners initially had to special-order (at considerable expense) a screw-on battery motor drive that had no other function except to assist forgetful users by winding the film on to the next frame. Obviously the winder unit was only in production for a few years until the same challenge was met with less hardware, fewer steps, and a lot less cash. And so it goes. All of which goes to say, as we frequently do in these funny papers, that gear is not the primary determinant in the creation of great photographs. If equipment does not currently exist to produce the results we want, we find a way to fake it until the lab boys make it. Technology follows inspiration. Art cannot happen if things go the other way.


A two-exposure HDR image with more emphasis on content than processing.

A two-exposure HDR image with more emphasis on content than processing.


HISTORY BUFFS WHO HAVE EXHAUSTIVELY RESEARCHED THE HELLISH ANIMOSITY OF THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR, a conflict which sowed seeds of resentment that bear bitter fruit to this very day, may have some small grasp of the vitriolic divide between those who espouse High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography and those who believe its practitioners are in league with Beelzebub. Pro-HDR factions believe those who resist this magical art should be forced to declare themselves Amish on the spot, while the opposite camp believes that all cameras that shoot HDR should be pulverized and used as landfill in Hades. We’re talking irreconcilable differences here.

When HDR first came to my attention, I welcomed it, as many others did, as a way to get around a long-standing problem in exposure….how to modulate between blackout and whiteout in extremely contrasty situations in which a single exposure would either blow out the sky through the window or bury the corners of an interior in blackness. My first attempts with it were exciting, as I tried to shoot frames bracketed across a three or five shot range of exposures, then smooth out the drastic differences between light and dark in the final image. The idea of using HDR for a sci-fi look or a painterly effect never appealed to me. I was really trying to use it to make my pictures replicate more closely the adjustment between light and dark that the eye makes instantaneously.

Over the last five years, however, as I review images I’ve made with HDR software. First, I use the program less with each passing year, and second, I no longer use it to retrieve “lost” tones in dark or light areas of an image. The program I have used since day one, Photomatix, has two main choices, Detail Enhancement and Tonal Compression, and, at first, I worked almost exclusively with the former. For wood grain, stone texture, botanical detail and cloud contrast, it’s remarkably effective. However, it’s also easy to produce images which are too dark overall, and accentuate noise in the individual images. Overcook it even a little and it looks like a finger painting done with hot lava. It thus actually works against the original “looks more like reality” objective.

On the other hand, producing the blended image in the Tonal Compression mode retains most of the sharp detail you get in Detail Enhancement without the gooey consistency. It has fewer attenuating controls, but as I go along, I find I am using it more because it simply calls less attention to itself. In either mode, I have made a conscious effort to throttle the heck back and under-process as much as I can. I’m just getting sick of shots that announce “hey, here comes an HDR photo!” two blocks ahead of its arrival.

I’m also in the middle of a back-to-basics phase based on getting things right, in-camera, in a single frame, and learning to be more accepting of dark and light patches rather than artificially mixed goose-ups of rebalanced tones. Anyway, as of this posting, I’ve taken down the original selection of images that was in the HDR gallery tab at the top of this page and loaded in a new batch that, while certainly not a “final” word on anything, shows, I think, that I’m still wrestling with the problem of how best to use this technology. Give them a look if you can, and let me know your thoughts on the use of HDR in your own work. We all have to figure out our own way to be home, home on “the range”.


Along came a (light) spider. Intense mid-day light on Summer Solstice 2012 creates dramatic shadows and heightened texture in this HDR image.



SOME SUBJECTS SEEM AS IF THEY ARE GOING TO FOLLOW A SURE PATH, then dog-leg on you in the doing. Last week I was fascinated to attend a celebration of the summer solstice in a building designed to highlight the drama of its unique light. Phoenix’ Burton Barr Library reading room, an enormous space bordered by shaded glass  on its north and south faces and slab concrete for its west and east walls, has, since its opening, hosted an annual midday demonstration by its architect, Will Bruder centered on the longest day of the year. First, a capacity crowd watches intense light crawl dramatically down the library’s west wall, seeming to sweep shadows downward like a rapidly descending curtain until the entire west surface fairly glows with light. For a few minutes, under this enhanced illumination,what normally appears as a seamless monolith of concrete shimmers with a million tiny fractures, creases, and flaws, rendering the usually dull surface alive with small but perceptible dances of color.

Immediately following this subtle but sweet show, as the sun travels to the west over the top of the library, the same display begins in reverse on the east wall, as shadows begin to crawl up from the floor and eventually confine sunlight on the concrete surface to a narrow slit at its top. The same intense reveal on every facet of the slab’s surface is seen again, and, along the ceiling, the library’s carefully designed support pillars, all positioned under individual circular skylights in the reading room’s roof, begin to resemble glowing candles. The entire phenomenon, subtle and quiet, yet beautiful in aspect, is all completed within a half hour.

In that half hour, my original shooting strategy, an overall wide shot to show the amazed onlookers inside the vast room, craning their necks to observe the miracle between rows of book shelves, moved from “sure thing” to “what was I thinking”? As it turned out “the story” was too big to be trusted to a big picture (!), and I came to realize that the heart of the light effect might best be told, for me, in one part of one wall. All the other props inside the structure provided so much visual information that nothing true was going to emerge in any attempt at an overall “coverage” image. I decided to show the shadowy tendrils trailing from a single part of the ceiling structure, but to shoot a three-shot bracket of exposures, all at ISO 100, to be combined later in High Dynamic Range software, to glean as much information (and the widest range of tone) on the texture revealed by the travel of the light across the wall.

The result was a shot that eliminated the rest of the overall solstice story as I tried instead to show object, shadow and detail combining as elements in one integrated design. It’s up to anyone as to whether I made the correct decision, but it’s safe to say that it was correct for me at the time. Sometimes a thing is interesting to look at by itself, for itself, without context or alibi. Of course I realize that I have provided both those things by writing this, but this forum is dedicated to the urge that makes us all throw something at the wall (excuse the expression) to see if anything sticks, so maybe it’s not wrong to give this a bit of backstory. Eventually, however, it’s either a picture or it’s not.