High Dynamic Range Imaging

One of the primary complaints from photographers unwilling to embrace digital technologies are the lackluster results they achieve from even the most high end of digital cameras. It is hard to argue the point when many cameras do produce flat images, but just as no traditional photographer worth the price of a roll of Reala knows you don’t trust your work to the photolab at Sam’s Club, digital photographers know you their worth isn’t done until they take their files into the digital darkroom.

The human eye is capable of registering extreme light and dark within a scene and can appreciate these contrasts in ways cameras have never been able to do on their own. Gustave Le Gray reconciled this limitation of film in the late 19th century by taking two pictures of a scene and combining the negatives to create a composite image. Charles Wyckoff advanced the technique by creating film that could capture nuclear explosions in te 1940s and 50s. Film and camera technologies advanced and more contrast could be captured on film, but it has always been a challenge to capture with a camera what our eyes take for granted.

Large Wave, Mediterranean Sea, created by Gustave Le Gray in 1857 captured the brightness of the sky and the detail in the ocean in a way not seen before.

Large Wave, Mediterranean Sea, created by Gustave Le Gray in 1857 captured the brightness of the sky and the detail in the ocean in a way not seen before.

Digital photographers began to embrace High Dynamic Range Imagining a few years ago as a way of resolving this limitation with their equipment. Just as Le Gray took two photos and combined the negatives, digital photographers found they could take two digital images and combine the files to create a composite image.

Anybody can create an HDR image with the right tools. You will need camera with the ability to adjust exposure settings and access to photo editing software. There are several types of digital SLRs that can automatically adjust exposure settings, called bracketing, and several types of software that will do the digital editing for you. While these two alternatives make the process easier, they aren’t necessary for the photographer with a lot of creativity, but not a lot of money.

The building of the former Kansa-yhtymä insurance company, Sörnäinen, Helsinki, Finland by Matti Paavonen under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

The building of the former Kansa-yhtymä insurance company, Sörnäinen, Helsinki, Finland by Matti Paavonen under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

Here are some websites you can visit that will walk you through the process of creating HDR images:

HDR101 offers some tutorials, but will also try to sell you their Photomatix software for combining the digital images into a composite HDR.

Stuck in Customs author Trey Ratcliff has some wonderful examples of his HDR work along with his detailed tutorials.

Visual Photo Guide has a few beginner tutorials.

Cambridge in Color has some excellent technical information in its article on HDR and Adobe Photoshop.

The Royal Photographic Society Journal in the UK (link in PDF form) had an excellent history and how-to in its November 2006 issue.

Like any new toy in the toy box, HDR photography takes some work to master. Hopefully these tutorials can help motivate even the most skittish of photographers to try out this exciting new trend in digital imaging.

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