HDR, and just what the heck is it anyway?

Like many photographic processing techniques, when many people become aware of it, they have to ‘do it to death’. This is often done as a means of salvaging a bad photo. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because we all do it, including me… Sometimes a really bland looking image can be made…really incredible with the judicious use of some interesting processing. Now, what do I mean by a ‘bad photo’? Badly composed, badly exposed, heads cut off your subjects, etc etc. I repeat, learn the rules of composition before you ‘bend’ them. I’ve often said that you have to know the rules before you break them. Well, maybe ‘bend’ is a better word. When you break compositional concepts, you just end up with a crappy photo more often than not. When you ‘bend’ them, you are often doing something with proven compositional techniques that artistically will make a statement. I may have to try to illustrate that one later. I really meant to continue with the concept of ‘the eye’ in this post, even though I renamed the title to HDR.

HDR is just another one of those tools that one can use to enhance an image. So, just what the heck is HDR anyway. The human eye, in case you hadn’t heard this before, is just an amazing camera. Better than anything Nikon, Canon, or anyone else has been able to create. Some of us get frustrated because we can’t duplicate what we see with our real eyes on our high dollar DSLR. Well, don’t. It won’t happen…not exactly anyway. While modern DSLR’s are getting better and better, nothing has the dynamic range of the Mk I, Mod xx Human Eyeball. Nothing. When we are out and about on our evening walks in our favorite places for said evening walks, and we see something, and think to ourselves…”Self, that would be an amazing photograph”. If we brought our camera along, we try to take that photo, and then when we get home and get it on our computer, we are often…less than enthused with the result. Well, thats because that eyeball has a HUGE dynamic range. We can see all kinds of detail, ranging from the deepest shadows, to the brightest highlights, save when we are looking into direct sunlight when all we can see then is that painful yellow ball. Don’t do that for long or you’ll damage the best camera you’ll ever have.

So you may well ask, Doug…just how do I get a photo that shows all this detail. Well, dear readers, I am here to tell you that you can. It’s just not going to happen with one image, and it’s just not going to happen with out a little extra work. But it can be well worth it.

HDR, is a photographic processing technique that allows you to take bracketed images, and blend them into one image, with hopefully ‘almost’ the dynamic range that our eye can see. What is/are bracketed images you aks? I’m glad you asked. On our wonderful high dollar DSLR’s, and even some higher end point and shoot cameras (I am not denigrating these cameras at all, some are really good!), there is a feature called ‘bracketing’. This is a technique that’s been around for years. Consult your manual for specifics for your particular camera. But…you turn on bracketing, designate how many frames you want in that bracket, designate the light stops in between each bracket (.3, .7 etc.) and then fire away. Technically, you can create a decent HDR with 3 bracketed images. More is better, up to a point, depending on the lighting conditions, depending …. Well, it depends. Experiment. That’s what makes photography FUN! I might also suggest that you use a tripod. It isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary, provided that you are: steady (you want the images to be, essentially, identical, as in the identically framed sujbect). The ability to do this can vary by the levels of light, and the ability of your camera to be handheld. Higher ISO enabled cameras make this easier. If you have an older DSLR that doesn’t give you good noise reduction in low light, particularly at high ISO, then use a tripod at a lower ISO to get a better quality image. /disclaimer off.

OK, so now you’ve got all these bracketed images, now what. You do need some software magic to make this work. There are a few that I am aware of, and that I have used. In no particular order, they are: Photomatix (a very nice program, and easy to use), Adobe Photoshop (Nearly all the CS versions, I believe, do HDR. The newer the better of course), and now, my personal favorite, Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro. All of these are relatively easy to use. If you are already using some of the Nik Software plug ins for Photoshop/Lightroom, this should be a no brainer. Budget conscious folks, may I recommend Photomatix? It too is a powerful tool and easily learned, not terribly expensive either, as far as software goes. I know there are others, Google them, and you will find a metric… er, a lot of them. I am only going to comment on what I know, and that will be HDR Efex Pro at this point. The net result is basically the same, no matter what you use.

The image you see here, was combined from a 7 bracket shot (.3 stops apart) mainly as an experiment to see just how HDR Efex would work, and just how. I had downloaded this plug in, and had as yet, not done anything with it, so I wanted to see just what was up with it. This is basically straight out of HDR Efex, with only a few adjustments in Viveza (brightness, contrast, saturation and structure) applied. The area where I took this set of brackets was, in a word, a bit gloomy that day. I was trying to capture that gloom, and also to capture all the detail in the shadows. After running that range of photos, which ranged from very underexposed, to very overexposed due to bracketing, the software averaged out the exposures into something ‘resembling’ what the Mk I human eyeball ‘saw’. (Actually, it’s what the eye transmits to the Mk 1 Mod xx Human Brain which ‘perceives’ this image. But I digress…)

This was a very reasonable representation of what my eyeballs ‘saw’ that day. But it was what I envisioned in my head that I was after. HDR, in this case, gave me a starting point. In many cases, once an HDR image is created and the aforementioned adjustments made, that you will have the image you wanted. In this case, I was going for…something else.

That something else is what you see here. After the adjustments I mentioned earlier, I applied an ‘effect’, using Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro. I love these plug ins from Nik because they make my workflow so dam easy. Yes, one can replicate these effects in Photoshop alone, by creating layers, blah blah blah…but why? Nik Software does it for you. One may argue that these are ‘canned’ effects and don’t allow you full creativity. Poppycock I say. The adjustments for each of these effects are virtually unlimited, and one can do, pretty much anything you want. For the record, this effect is called “Midnight”. I couldn’t begin to tell you what else I did, because the adjustments are so flexible. I brightened it considerably because the default is quite dark. Would that have worked? Sure, but it wasn’t what I ‘saw’, when I shot this image. This is what I wanted from it, this is what I ‘saw’, and the tools I have made it possible. What more can a photographer ask for?