What is High Dynamic Range Photography?

Remember those Ansel Adams’ landscapes that leave you breathless? The skies that range from one end of the light spectrum to the other with the ground below showing fine detail where shadows are never too deep and highlights are never blown out? How the heck did he capture those moments?

Whether amateur or pro, every photographer has come across something truly mystifying and so awe inspiring you are left breathless, much like the Ansel Adams’ photograph but in real life. But before you even take your camera from its bag, you know there is no way you can do it justice. How do you capture nature in all its perfection when the human eye can ‘see’ so much more then that little black contraption your hold in your hands?

The other painful scenario is finding yourself standing in front of a nightmare of a high contrast scene that you must shoot to earn a buck but you know there is no way you can properly capture the mess without those deep shadows and telltale blowouts. These are usually the photo shoots where the client is standing nearby as well, just to add extra pressure!

High contrast subjects are a nightmare to shoot. Either you underexpose and hope to lighten the flat, dead shadows or you overexpose and hope you can fix the blown out highlights. Either way, you have lost data off one end of the histogram and, once gone, there is no way to retrieve it.

High Dynamic Range photography (HDR) is the solution to this all too common problem. The theory is to shoot multiple images at various exposure levels and merge the photos in HDR editing solution to best reveal the full range of highlights to shadows in a single image.

Although digital photography and modern editing software have made HDR more readily available, HDR photography was developed over a hundred and fifty years ago. Back then it was a process of using multiple negatives and increasing or decreasing the exposure of regions during the development process called dodging and burning. However, it was really Ansel Adams who brought dodging and burning to an easily recognised style and took landscape photography to a new level of art.

HDR Photography for the Beginner

With the right equipment, High Dynamic Range photography is not above the skills of a beginner photographer. What is the ‘right equipment?

All DSLRs fit into this criteria as well as the majority of higher end compact cameras capable of shooting in either Manual or Aperture mode and with Exposure Bracketing capabilities. Nikon’s Coolpix P7000 and L100, Canon’s Power Shot S95 and G12, Pentax’s X90 fit into this category.

The other necessary piece of equipment is a tripod.

The simplistic theory behind HDR photography is that several identical images are taken but with different exposure levels. The easiest way to do it this by using Exposure Bracketing, a way of taking the same photo at three different exposure levels.

The steps:

1. Set camera securely on tripod and compose the photo.
2. Using either Manual or Aperture priority, set the camera to the ideal exposure level.
3. Under menu, find the Exposure Bracketing function and set the exposure for +2 and -2 exposure settings respectively. +2 means the image will be twice as bright as the ideal and -2 means it will be twice as dark as the ideal or, more accurately, be shot with half the amount of light.
4. Snap away. For every finished HDR photograph, you will have 3 images – one overexposed, one ideal and one underexposed.
5. Download images to your computer and import to either a stand-alone HDR software or to your photo manipulation software that is HDR capable (more on this to come).

Three images can give provide enough contrast for an impressive finished HDR image.

In Camera HDR Editing

Cameras with built in HDR editing capabilities are becoming more common. The Pentax K-5, the Canon G12 and Power Shot S95 all offer an acceptable in camera three-image HDR merge.

The K-5 marginally improves on this feature with the ability to microalign images meaning that a tripod is not always necessary on fast exposure images. To add greater user control, the K-5 offers a variety of settings – Auto, Standard, and three Strong modes that affect the merged image in different strengths.

Easy HDR Photography Editing Software

There is a wide range of editing HDR photography software available and part of which one you choose is dependent on your background with both computers and photo manipulation. Beginners are best to choose software that does the majority of the work for them with the options resting more in the choice of filters and artistic tools available for various effects.
Do you already use Lightroom, Aperture or Photoshop? HDR EFX Pro offers plugins for these programs, taking the already adaptive and complete software programs to a new level of HDR capability in a streamline and user-friendly package.

Other options for beginners still using basic editing software such as iPhoto or Photoshop Elements, stand alone HDR software programs are available. A few worth downloading a trial version of are:

1. Essential HDR (Windows only) (http://www.imagingluminary.com/)
2. HDR Darkroom ( Windows & Mac) (http://www.hdrdarkroom.com/)
3. HDR PhotoStudio (Windows & Mac) (http://www.unifiedcolor.com/)

Photoshop also offers built in HDR editing. However, if you do not have it already, the price tag may be a shock!

Most of these HDR editing software programs offer a highly recommended downloadable trial version. Although they are not that expensive, finding what works the way you expect it to is vital as is how well the interface works with your background and experience.

Watch out for Part Two: The Advanced Guide to HDR Photography, Techniques & Advanced HDR Editing Software.