High Dynamic Range Photography –
Introductory Tips To Help Along the Way
by Jordan Van de Vorst
August 13, 2011
Reflections of Life
High dynamic range photography or as it is commonly referred to as HDR, offers photographers the capability to take photos that they would otherwise be unable to achieve using conventional techniques. Some photography professionals would argue that this is not true photography and yes, one could easily argue that, but what is the true goal here? To create something that people would argue is not a real photograph, or to create something that draws people in and intrigues conversation about technique, style or location? I think the latter offers far better conversation and inspiration.
My goals in my photography are first and foremost to capture the beauty my surroundings offer me and secondly to capture the moment as it is. I try and minimize my footprint and work around my subjects as opposed to manipulating them to my advantage. My approach to HDR photography is pretty simple. Look for subjects that are visually interesting to me and shoot them.
Numerous factors are considered when shooting HDR photos outdoors and I will mention a couple that I consider the most important.
1. How much light is available and how wide is the range of the lighting?
Without a wide range of light available, there would be no point to taking HDR photos. With a narrow range of highlight and shadow (not a lot of harsh transition from shadow to highlight) you would likely be able to compose and expose your shots properly based on proper metering and a bit of compromising with your end result of shadow and highlights. However, if you are looking for more of a painterly style to your work as I do, a narrow range of lighting will still work as you have room to play with your auto exposure bracketing, as well as your overall exposure. Some cameras offer more than 3 exposure values. My Canon 40D has 3, but sometimes I would think that having 5 exposure values would be ideal in certain situations. Typically I will shoot -2, 0, +2 EV (EV or exposure value equivalent to 1F-stop or 1 shutter speed). but some shots I will shoot 5 pictures, but I cheat using two separate photo sequences (2 sets of 3)with slight overlap in their exposure values to get a broader range of exposures. The bottom line is shoot what you think would look good in a photograph. Look for hidden areas shrouded in shadow, or highlighted areas blown out by too much light. If you don’t try you won’t know and you would be surprised at what you can create.
2 What are the weather conditions?
For every photographer that shoots outdoors or relies on natural lighting, the weather conditions are key for making a just another photograph or work of art. With HDR, weather plays a key role when shooting nature. Generally, HDR relies on multiple exposures (sometimes single exposures will work) to achieve the results typically seen in this style (I’ll save you the technical details). Multiple exposures need several things; a steady tripod and a rock solid subject that doesn’t move.
Windy days are notoriously difficult to shoot in and you need to have patience. I can’t understate patience enough. I have literally waited 45 minutes to get a shot as it would be on a calm day (and it wasn’t even extremely windy). The rewards for your patience are worth it. The time you spend waiting for the right moment is a lot shorter than post processing all the ghost artifacts out of your image. Bide your time and that perfect moment will happen. Wait for a lull in the wind and release your shutter (a cable release is a very important tool as well). It might take you several attempts, but you will be rewarded. If you think you made the shot, quickly check a few areas on the photo to see if there was any movement in “troublesome” areas. If there was movement be a little more patient or compromise. If the movement is not substantial, it probably isn’t that critical and in some instances adds to the photo. If a key component or subject in your shot is moving, try again.
Open for Business
Shooting HDR photography on clear days is less than desirable unless you are not incorporating any of the sky in your images. I find clear blue sky boring and honestly a little bit of a pain to deal with during post processing. Shooting with cloud cover with substantial structure (overcast will work, but it has much to be desired) adds to photograph on several levels. Shoot with cirrus clouds, cumulous, stratus etc….anything is better than clear skies (other than drab single shade overcast skies). It adds several things. It gives “texture” to the shot and it aides a great deal in eliminating halo issues with the post processing. Some software allows you to eliminate the halo effect, but as with anything great, there is always a factor of compromise. What you fix with the halo, you will ultimately change the look of your photo. Sometimes it works, most often not (at least in my style I try to achieve).
From Erosion it Cometh
As with the same principles as “regular” photography, go and shoot after a solid rain. It will bring out more richness in the colours, and in certain instances reflect natural lighting to add another dimension to your photos.
A couple key points to consider when going out and taking HDR photographs are as follows:
- You do not always need to take multiple exposures. Great results can be achieved with single exposures, but if you have the time and patience, take multiple exposures. It provides much greater flexibility when it comes to post processing and I feel it offers greater depth when it comes to initial processing.
- As with any photographs, take the image from several different perspectives. Don’t be afraid to lie in the dirt, or arrange your body to get that perfect shot. You would be surprised by what different perspectives can offer in the end result.
- Shoot in RAW and bring lots of memory. You are generally taking 3 exposures, and chewing up a lot of space on your cards. It is easier to go through images after the fact then to delete images on the fly while waiting for the perfect shot you may have already missed.
- Check your histogram (if you have the function on your camera) over the exposures. Look to see it covering the full range of light.
Some equipment that I use is as follows.
- Sturdy tripod. It doesn’t matter who manufactures it, just make sure it is solid, and suits your needs as a photographer. If you are planning on carrying around your gear, the weight might factor into your decisions.
- Cable release. No required, but recommended.
- Lens hoods. Once again, not required, but may help with lens flare you aren’t interested in.
- Software: Photomatix for tonemapping and Adobe Photoshop CS4 and Topaz Denoise for post processing.
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