While at Adorama discussing the next workshops I’ll be hosting, a bunch of ideas were thrown around: modifiers for portrait photography, long exposures with ND filters, time-lapse photography, macro stacking, light painting . . . and the list goes on. When “HDR Photography” slipped from my lips and the workshop coordinator excitingly requested it, I felt something I haven’t felt in a while: a sense of terror!
Why would HDR engulf me in fear? Because the hundreds of thousands of articles and blog posts written about HDR are either praising the technique or cursing it to eternal damnation in the fiery pits of hell! (Yeah, some people really go off the deep end about HDR) And of course being who I am, I agreed to hold the workshop. But first things first, let talk about what HDR is.
WHAT IS HDR?
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and it is a concept, not a technique. There are many ways to create an HDR image. The basis of this concept is to take multiple photos of the same subject at different exposures and merge them into one to create one image with an increased dynamic range. HDR images were first created in the 1850’s by taking multiple photos of landscapes at different exposures and combining the negatives to form a completely well-exposed photo. (Check out this article about photo manipulation before Photoshop)
WHAT DO I USE HDR FOR?
(Well aren’t you asking all the right questions. Gold star for you!) When shooting urban and landscape photography, you will often come across scenarios where a picture is almost perfect, but when you take a picture, one part of the image is perfectly exposed and the other is either too bright or too dark. It may not look that way when you look at it, but when you look through your viewfinder, it looks different. Here’s why. You pupils are constantly dilating and constricting when looking at something to allow the right amount of light to be seen. Your brain also processes a whole scene, instead of pixel by pixel and “fills in” some information based on the entire scene, such as texture. A camera shutter does not constantly open and close, nor is it attached to a brain that helps “fill in” information. Taking one picture for each section of your scene at a “correct” exposure and combining them is an attempt to make the final photo look more like the way you saw it with your eyes.
Now there are ways around HDR. 1) You can always wait for the sun to shift. Depending on the scene you are trying to photograph, simply taking a picture at a different time of day can remedy the situation. 2) You can introduce light into the dark portion of the scene if the area in the photograph is small enough. But what if you’re traveling to a foreign city and you don’t have the time to wait for the light to change? What if the dark portion of your scene is a mountain. Do you have a flash big enough to light a mountain? Shooting multiple exposures and merging them becomes very handy!
WHY IS THERE SO MUCH DRAMA ABOUT HDR?
(Ugh, here’s where the opinions come in) In my opinion, the drama seems to come from two different extreme types of “photographers”:
- The Naturalist: Some people believe that once a photograph is changed in any way, it is no longer a photograph. I have heard and read a lot of opinions that state that HDR is easy to spot and destroys an image by making it look like someone ate a box of crayons and puked them on a photo. The staggering amount of over-processed HDR images just fuels that fire. What they don’t realize is that they are noticing over-processed HDR photography. Not all finished HDR images look like you’re on an acid trip.
- The HDR Fiends: On the other end of the spectrum are the photographers that will go to extremes to make their photography look different by means of HDR editing (because HDR can make any picture look better, right?). These people are the sources of those pictures that make Naturalists want to gag. What they don’t realize is that over-processing an image does not make your photography different. There is an entire planet of over-sharpened, halo covered, super saturated images out there. (Try looking at a Google search of bad HDR)
SO WHEN SHOULD I USE HDR TO PROCESS AN IMAGE?
Well that’s entirely up to you, sparky. It’s an opinion and everyone will have their own. From what I have seen and experienced, some photographers get excited once they get the hang of HDR processing and start to get a little heavy handed with it for a while. I’ve also noticed that when you post these images on Facebook or Instagram, it’s staggering how many more likes you will get on the image because people think it’s cool. This is where the split happens.
Some photographers will take their new found knowledge of HDR processing and run with it. Some will get over the phase. Me? I shoot a lot of architecture and have quite often found myself in the scenario where the building in my scene were eclipsed by other buildings, causing the sky to be perfectly exposed and the buildings to be too dark. Trying to fill the shadows and increase the detail would sometimes cause my image to look grungy and I didn’t like it. In these scenarios, I would use HDR . . . with caution. However, upgrading to a Nikon D800 with a higher dynamic range eliminated the need for HDR in most scenarios.
Now it’s a year later and I have purchased a new Fuji X-E1 to keep with me at all times. Since this camera doesn’t have the dynamic range of the D800, I may find myself in scenarios where HDR can come in handy. Can’t hurt to practice since I’ll be hosting an HDR Workshop anyway! If you’re in the NYC area and want to attend, check out the event registry on EventBrite or see the MeetUp event. I’ll be going over how to take pictures for better HDR images and the processing using Nik HDR Efex Pro 2. Feel free to leave a comment down below.