The Joy of HDR

The Joy of HDR

Although the concept of high dynamic range (HDR) imaging has been around for a long time, the applications of it in the digital world has vastly improved in recent years.  What is HDR you might ask?  Creating images using HDR techniques allows cameras to see a scene the way our eyes do.  For landscape photography, long before digital, the best way to do this was with a graduated neutral density filter.

Estimates are that the human eye can see 19 stops of light; that is, the eye can see extreme ranges in the highlights and shadows and still see detail.  Compare that to the range of slide film which is about 7-8 stops, and digital cameras which top out at about 10.  When you are standing in a deeply shaded canyon, you can see details in the dark shade as well as the brightly lit areas where the sun is striking.  That is why, when you take a regular point and shoot and use it under such circumstances, one area of the shot will either be really bright or really dark – not quite the way you saw it.

So the graduated neutral density filter was created to balance out that exposure, to darken the area – without adding color, hence it is “neutral” – that is receiving the bright highlights so that the camera, with a single exposure, could take a picture that more accurately rendered what our eyes saw that film could not.  The same problem exists with a digital camera – the electronic sensors used to render digital images similarly lack the range of the human eye.  While you can still use a graduated neutral density filter with a digital camera and go “old school” for those landscape images, it only works if you have a separating line that is relatively straight across the horizon.

Very rarely with any of my commercial clients does such a straight line exist.  Before HDR rarely made a showing in the digital realm, the old way to photograph building interiors where windows were involved was to either close the drapes or blinds, or to use really powerful strobes and lighting to make the interior light comparable to the power of the light coming in from the outside.  As mighty as we may think we are, the power of interior light simply cannot compare to even the flat light of an overcast day.

Now, with recent improvements in HDR technology, the old school methods are no longer necessary.  And it has been recent, too, that the technology has been good enough.  The “Merge to HDR” feature in Adobe Photoshop CS2 simply was not up to the task of creating a quality HDR photo – the blending did not work well and you still ended up with an image that had areas that were too dark and too light.  Now, I am using the Photomatix Pro 3 software, and it has opened up a whole new area of creativity and opportunity.  One of my clients is Business Interiors Northwest, who provides everything from planning to installation services to business and government agencies for interior spaces.  All of the spaces I photograph for them are interior, and most have windows. Another recent client, Grand Duchess, a high-end furniture store in Anchorage, also has displays with windows and lots of sun coming in.

Prior to using Photomatix, I had to rely on the “old school” methods for interior photography.  Not anymore.  And now, I have even better tools that can help me produce creative and quality products for my clients.

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