The term High Dynamic Range or HDR has become somewhat debased in recent years. The excessive use of software that mashes together photos to produce images with funky colours and surreal halos has tested the photography world’s taste for quasi-hallucinogenic art. For the most part, this psychedelic experience has been rejected as a bad dream, with those who still dabble with these techniques often critically branded as ‘amateurs’.
Purists will, of course, tell you that in the good old days when men were men and photographers used film, there was no such thing as HDR and that the quality of the work produced was superior to the digitally manipulated drivel created today. However, a frequently overlooked fact is that those who pioneered the art were usually as skilled behind the lens as they were with a light box and a chemistry set. ‘Pioneering’ was not simply confined to the field but was instead very much at home in the darkroom too.
Interestingly, a great deal of the work done by these individuals in the dim glow of a red light was dedicated to the process of dodging and burning, which, at its most basic level, is an effort to extend dynamic range. These alchemists often had the experience to delicately deploy their HDR abilities, setting themselves apart from those who own cameras simply for ornamental purposes. Even today, little has changed in this regard. The world’s pre-eminent landscape photographers use HDR methods and what sets them apart is their deft touch – their ability to be measured with their use of the skill.
Ironically, one of the best places to start when introducing High Dynamic Range techniques is with a methodology that is, in fact, not HDR at all – the practice of bringing down the highlights and lifting the shadows. Those familiar with basic image processing software such as Adobe Lightroom, Canon’s Digital Photo Professional or Nikon’s Capture NX will all have what it takes to get a real feel for HDR without needing to open the can of worms that is Photoshop.
It is worth me pointing out that I use Lightroom for all my basic image manipulation and will do so in this example too. It is nevertheless important to understand that the procedures are directly transferable between all the applications that I mentioned above as well as others that I didn’t. There may be subtle differences from platform to platform but the disparities will be easily identified and the founding principles identical.
Accordingly, irrespective of the application that you are using, all image adjustments begin with the basic panel or its equivalent. There are 11 basic adjustments that comprise the panel but the two that are of importance to this article are the sliders marked highlights and shadows. Pushing the highlights slider all the way to the left and the shadows slider all the way to the right results in what I call the HDR configuration. In this configuration, the highlights in the photograph will have been “brought down” and the shadows “lifted”, revealing colour and detail in the image that was initially indiscernible – welcome to the world of High Dynamic Range photos.
Now, while this example is strictly not the HDR I describe as images being mashed together, the effect is still very similar. When implemented, the technique results in pictures that are highly saturated and have a surreal psychedelic look to them. At the same time, however, the photos are flat and muddy, almost as if being viewed through a sheet of wax paper. There is an inescapable feeling that a scene displayed with this treatment is fake and the photograph – dare I say it – amateurish.
Yet, there is a bit of a contradiction at work in contemporary photography and indeed in society. Consumers of photographs demand vivid and highly saturated images, yet don’t want photos to appear phoney. They desire just a little more colour and contrast than nature intended but not so much that it is obvious, a very difficult balance to achieve and one that I personally struggle with. It is a skill that differentiates photographers of one competence from those of another.
Fortunately, it is in the area of adjustment flexibility that this particular HDR method shines and is hence the reason why I think it is such a fine point from which to begin a foray into the subject. High Dynamic Range systems can, very quickly, become complicated, something that doesn’t lend itself to grasping an underlying philosophy. With this method, one only deals with two of the HDR variables, highlights and shadows, and this makes for almost effortless experimentation.
In the case of the sample image, for example, moving the shadows slider back from +100 to +50 makes a meaningful impact to how false it appears. The photo is now probably a little underexposed but this step illustrates how it might be possible to retain the desirable pink sky that is the product of HDR, while still avoiding an entirely fake look. As an aside, if you ever have trouble with a picture that looks too fake, my advice would be to address the shadows first. My experience suggests that shadows are – more often than not – responsible for pushing a photo too far.
In addition, it is in matters of photo manipulation, such as this HDR technique, that the benefit of shooting in RAW reveals itself. Personally, I always advise shooting in RAW format, but, if you have not been convinced yet, it would be a good exercise to make these sorts of adjustments using JPEG and RAW photos. I am willing to wager on the fact that you will be astounded by the amount of extra detail that is available in RAW.
When all is said and done, the use of a High Dynamic Range approach for your own photography is entirely your choice. Like everything else in art, it is all subjective. For every person who argues in favour of HDR as a legitimate practice, another will argue the opposite, and, as such, I recommend forming your own opinion. Take a few of your photos and experiment. If you find yourself in any doubt as to the validity of the tactic, take a look at the work of Sean Bagshaw – an enormous proponent of the discipline and one of the best landscape photographers on the planet.