HDR: An Introduction

Many of the photos I post here are HDR images–HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. In a nutshell, HDR combines several exposures of the same scene in order to give photographs more oomph, by making them more like what the human eye can see in terms of detail across a range of light levels. That’s something even the best cameras and imaging sensors still have trouble with, a fact you’ll likely have noticed in photos where, for example, a properly-exposed foreground subject results in an overexposed white sky. Using the HDR process can help with that, but that’s certainly not all it can do. HDR can preserve details in shadowed areas of a photo, when some parts of a scene are brightly-lit and other areas aren’t. HDR can add drama to cloudy skies, and it can make certain textures and materials–woodgrain and shiny or patinated metals, for example–really stand out. HDR can work magic on indoor scenes. HDR can be amazing for photos of vehicles, whether of the wheeled or winged variety.

So those are the benefits. But as in all things, nothing is free and the benefits do come with some drawbacks. Such as:

-The HDR process relies on taking multiple exposures, which means more time when shooting, more wear and tear on the camera, and more data-storage space both on-camera and when you transfer to computer. Especially if shooting RAW (and of course you should be shooting RAW, though that is a subject for another day).
-Since multiple exposures are needed, shooting HDR doesn’t work well with fast-moving subjects or dynamic scenes. This can be mitigated somewhat in the processing part, but HDR still works best when shooting a mainly static scene. For the same reason, HDR also works best using a tripod, though with steady hands and other cheats that can be optional.
-Combining the raw exposures to create an HDR image means specialized software, of which there are several options, each with its own strengths and weaknesses–and cost. It also adds additional steps and precious time to your editing workflow.
-The HDR process can introduce some nasty artifacts of its own: noise and grain, halos around objects, partial ‘ghost’ bits of moving objects, and other distractions.
-It’s very, very easy to overdo the HDR effect. When cranked up, HDR can be used to create surreal, posterized, hypersaturated images, and some people go for the gusto and end up with some crazy-looking images. However, getting relatively natural-looking HDR images requires some restraint, some experience and know-how, and no small amount of patience.

The man perhaps most responsible for popularizing HDR photography is a gentleman named Trey Ratcliff, whose amazing Stuck In Customs blog/site has been around for years and is a constant source of inspiration. I hesitate to send you there since he’s many times the photographer and traveler that I am–but hey, we all have to start somewhere, right?

So that’s a short introduction to what High Dynamic Range photography is about. It can be a valuable tool for creating images that stand out, and really capture the special flavor of the places to which you might wander. In future posts I’ll write more about how to do it, how to do it well–and how to do it as simply as possible. Stay tuned!

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