Life's a beach... in HDR

So I think I mentioned that last weekend I spent Sunday at the beach doing a portrait session for beach loving family.  Well, I decided to get there early and do a little HDR as I thought the situation and the environment really called for it.  So what is HDR?  Now I'm not asking for me, I know what it is-- it's a rhetorical question.  It would be weird if I asked what it was while writing a blog entry about it.  Now if I say "so what is nuclear embryonic fusion" then I'm really asking... cause I have no idea.  Is it even a thing?  I don't know, but I digress.  Let's get back to HDR.  So, what is HDR (there I go again)?

High-dynamic-range (or HDR) is a set of techniques used in photography to reproduce a greater dynamic range of light than possible using standard digital imaging or photographic techniques. HDR images can represent more accurately the range of intensity levels found in real scenes, from direct sunlight to faint moonlight, and is often captured by merging together multiple shots of the same image taken at different exposure levels. Usually a minimum of 3 shots but as many as 9 or more can be used.  Cameras take photographs with a limited exposure range, resulting in the loss of detail in bright or dark areas. HDR compensates for this loss of detail by capturing multiple photographs at different exposure levels and combining them to produce a photograph representative of a broader tonal range. Make sense?

Here is a image made up of five separate images, combined in Photomatix Pro and finally processed in Lightroom

So, what the heck am I talking about.  Well, take a look at the first five images below.  The first is way under exposed and the last is way over exposed.  The five images each differ by one stop of exposure.  The darkest shots have the lightest areas properly exposed and the lightest shots have the darkest images properly exposed.  The five shots are merged together using HDR software to give us the final image.  This final image has a much greater dynamic range so all the areas of the image are exposed "properly."

The first of five images.  This one is two stops underexposed.

Here is the second shot, one stop underexposed. 

Here is the third image.  This one is "properly" exposed according to the camera.  However, there are still deep shadows and blown out highlights.  This image will definitely benefit from HDR.

Fourth shot, one stop over exposed.

Fifth shot, two shots over exposed.  Almost everything is blown out in this image except the deep shadows.

Here is the final image.  The five previous shots were combined in Photomatix Pro and then processed in Lightroom.  Notice how even the areas that were  under and over exposed in the previous five images are now all exposed properly, colors are richer and more vibrant and the image is much more interesting.

So, how does one create successful HDR photos? It’s a question that is older than time itself.  Cave men argued about it and the battle continues today.  HDR photography is one of those never ending battle grounds in the photography world. Much like the Windows vs Apple battle of the PC world, or the Lady Gaga vs. P!nk of the music world, HDR vs non-HDR is a battle that continues to stir the pot.

Tips for creating the best HDR image

While it’s always fun to add fuel to the fire from time to time, let’s put the argument of whether or not it’s a valid form of photography aside for a minute, and simply focus on how to take the best image.  If not done tastefully and not done to extremes, it can be wonderful form of photography and can help you make stunning image with great impact.  However, just search for "bad HDR" on Google and you can see evidence for the other side of the argument.  So, how does one take good HDR photos?

1) Use a tripod

A tripod will not only allow you to stabilize each individual image (some of which may be fairly long shutter speeds), but in order to capture the full dynamic range of the scene you will need to take multiple exposures with your camera and it’s vital that these frames line up perfectly. A tripod will ensure that each frame you capture is identical to the previous one, with the only exception being the exposure times.  It is not an absolute requirement as HDR images can be made while hand-holding your camera, but it will help tremendously and make for a much easier experience.

2) Know when to walk away... know when to run

Some people use HDR for every photograph they take. Don't do this! People will probably make fun of you and you'll be know as "that stupid-head HDR guy."

HDR stands for ‘high dynamic range’ so if you’re photographing a scene where the lighting is fairly even from shadows to highlights (the scene fits nicely on the histogram, with nothing clipped at either end of the scale) you don’t need to do HDR. Your camera is capable of pulling out enough detail from the highlights and shadows to cover the scene in its entirety with one exposure. It’s also probably not worth it to try capturing moving objects or people in HDR as they typically don’t look right when they get processed.

So when should you use HDR?

If you're taking someones portrait inside, don't use it.  If you're taking picture of a flower outside, perfectly lit by the sun, don't use it.  Use it during sunrise or sunset, especially when you are photographing into the sun. Use it for a photograph taken during the middle of the day, when your image has deep shadows and strong highlights.  When you have a really contrasty image, it's a great time for HDR.  It's great for landscapes, buildings, etc.  Experiment!

3) Use great software

Once you capture your bracketed set of photos you’re going to want to put them together in the best way possible. There are a ton of great programs out there to do this.  Currently I'm using HDR Soft’s Photomatix Pro and I love it.  They have a fully functional, free demo and if you decide to buy the program it's really reasonable at under $100. There are even free alternative out there, but I find they don't do as good of a job.

4) Don't go crazy with it

This is where HDR really becomes a touchy subject. Some people say that it’s their style to create over the top, surrealistic style, HDR photography and other’s say that they are destroying the world of photography by creating these highly saturated and oddly lit photographs.

It’s easy to get carried away with the processing of your images, but if your goal is to recreate what you saw, the best way to do this is to remember to tone it down a bit before you press that process button. 

So that's about it.  It's certainly not everything there is to know about HDR photography, but it should certainly get you started.  The best way to learn about it is to go out and try it.  Go find a nice location outside and frame up a shot with a lot of contrast.  Take 5 shots, stick 'em together and see how it goes.  The worst thing that happens is you have a crappy image that's an embarrassment to all mankind.  

If you have more questions or are totally confused about the process of HDR or the software, send me a message.  Happy to talk about it.