Dabbling in HDR

HDR Photography or High-dynamic-range imaging (HDRI) is technique I would often have laughed at in the past. In fact, I was a frequent visitor of the subreddit /r/shittyHDR for quite some time. One of the most controversial photographers in this space seems to be Trey Ratcliff. Although I like some of Trey Ratcliff’s photography and I very much admire the job he is doing and the places he is visiting, I’ve always felt his photos just look too unrealistic to my eye. I always get the impression I’m looking at a photograph that’s meant to show all the colours my screen can produce.

Despite all of that, I was recently in a situation, where I had no choice but to use HDR for a shot I was trying to create. The resulting photo looked great and I think it’s about time I write a short apology to HDR photography.

What is HDR photography

Digital cameras are still inferior to the human eye when it comes to dynamic range. For example, the camera I use (a Samsung NX1) can capture a maximum of 13.2 stops, which is quite high, but not even close to the 20 stops the human eye can sense. In a real-life scenario that means that my camera is not capable of capturing the beauty of a sunrise behind a mountain while keeping details in the darker areas (the shadows). So what might look like an amazing landscape with a sunrise to my eye will either look like a sunrise with a muddy, dark landscape or a sharp landscape with a blown-out sky to my camera. To capture as much information as possible, the camera needs to take multiple exposures: At the very least one exposed for the landscape with the sky blown out and one of the sunrise with missing details in the shadows. This process is called exposure bracketing. By varying the shutter-speeds I can create multiple photos with plenty details in each area of the photo. These exposures will later be merged in post-processing.

The exposure could also be varied by adjusting the aperture. However, fiddling with the aperture will result in different depth-of-fields and that’s no good. When creating HDR photos, only change the shutter-speed! One other thing: You will need a tripod to take multiple exposures. The exposures have to line up perfectly.

Why I chose HDR for this shoot

A couple of weeks back, I decided to take a short hike up to a lake in the mountains to try out my new Phantom 4 Pro. Of course I couldn’t just leave with one camera in my bag so I decided to pack my NX1 aiming to capture the sun rising from behind the mountains. Along the way I was looking for possible subjects that would make a nice foreground and found a small wooden barn that fit the job perfectly. While the sunrise lit up the mountains on one side of the valley, my side was still in the shadows. I wouldn’t have been able to capture the full detail of my trusty wooden barn while exposing for the sunrise and the sunrise would have been one blown-out mess if exposed for the barn. There was only one solution: I had to take multiple exposures! Luckily I had my tried and tested Manfrotto tripod on me and the photos lined up perfectly in post-processing.

A small hut in front of a mountain covered in snow during the Swiss winter

How I created my first HDR photo

As you might have guessed, I’m not very educated when it comes to HDR photography. The obvious choice for me was to work with what I’ve got, so I decided to simply merge the multiple exposures in Lightroom. Since Adobe introduced HDR merge in Lightroom it couldn’t be an easier process:

  1. Select your (unedited) exposures.
  2. Press Ctrl+H
  3. Select your settings (I disabled everything because I knew my photos lined up perfectly and I wanted to do the editing)
  4. Wait for your processor to chew through the photos and spit out a merged HDR photo
A small hut in front of a mountain covered in snow during the Swiss winter

I’m very pleased with the result and will certainly be using multiple exposures in the future. I still firmly believe that HDR is only useful in a handful of situations (e.g. sunrise and sunset) and the “halo-effect” is still something I hate to see. But I now know that not all HDR is bad. In fact, I was so pleased with the result that I decide to put the shot into my portfolio. Want to share your thoughts on HDR photography? Leave me a comment down below!

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