High Dynamic Range Photography

High Dynamic Range photography is a fun technique that has been made fairly easy by the software that processes our digital images.

Even if you’ve never heard of HDR images, you’ve seen them —

They are the hyper-realistic and super-contrasty photos that really pop. You can make these images using specialized software and you can even make them on your iPhone!

Traditional photography is limited by the photographic process.

Normal Image of HDR image of Allegheny River, Trolley & Downtown Pittsburgh Skyline

Original Pittsburgh image before HDR processing

For a typical photo, you would set your exposure to whatever your subject is. If exposed correctly, your subject will generally occupy the midtones of an image. There will also be highlight areas — white spots where you start to lose detail, and shadow areas — black spots that are too dark to see detail. Traditional photography has a limited range of tone from highlight to shadow, allowing a limited amount of detail to be shown in photos.

For example, when you take an image of a landscape with bright sky, you can expose for the sky and get nice, well defined clouds and bright blue hues behind them, but everything below the horizon is too dark to make out. Or, you could expose for the land and have the clouds and sky be completely blown out and looking all white.

HDR finds a way around this problem by using several images and compositing them into one image.

HDR image of Allegheny River, Trolley & Downtown Pittsburgh Skyline

HDR image of downtown Pittsburgh

You can take one image for the sky and another for the land and blend them together to get something that looks a little more like what your eye sees, or sometimes even something from fantasy, with unreal looking color and definition. For other images, you may use three, four or 10 different images to get the exact look you want.

I first started creating HDR images in Photoshop by overlaying several photos over one another and then masking out the very dark shadow areas or very light highlight areas to create a composite image. After that, I would use a high-pass filter to create some additional contrast and drama in my images.

Currently, I typically use RAW files and HDR specific software for creating these kinds of dramatic images. Using RAW files is simple because you can make the exposure variations after you’ve taken the photo. Before, when I only used Photoshop, I would have to use a tripod for the shot and make sure each exposure was framed exactly the same way, otherwise the compositing wouldn’t work. HDR software, like HDR Efex Pro or Photomatix, allows you to take the RAW image and choose the levels of dynamic range, color contrast, and high-pass (along edges) intensity, among other things.

Of course, it’s much easier to describe using pictures.

The example at the top is a shot of Pittsburgh. In the original image, the bright sky doesn’t have much detail and the shadow under the funicular does not either. Running the RAW image through HDR Efex Pro lets me bring back some of that detail, while adding detail to the midtones as well. Everything looks clearer and the software is even able to add some color saturation — notice the different between the rail car color, the bridge color and the water color. What a difference!

For the set of images below, you can see a dramatic difference in the texture of the sea and the rocks and the detail in the clouds.

HDR is like magic, once you start playing with the settings, you start to see things that you weren’t able to see before, especially with RAW images. And the more you practice, the more you will understand what will work before you take the photo.

HDR Image of Rock Formations in Water, Grey Skies

HDR image of Channel Islands National Park’s Anacapa Island

Normal Image of Rock Formations in Water, Grey Skies

Original image of Anacapa Island

This type of photography has become more and more popular over the past few years, and so many new pieces of software and apps have come out.

What are your favorite methods for getting HDR photos? How do you get the best results?

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