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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Down The HDR Rabbit Hole

The popular and powerful technology finds a new convert

Lansallos Church, Cornwall, England, as seen in HDR.

Like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, I came late to the tea party. In this case, it's the high dynamic range (HDR) tea party. I was probably the last guy in Wonderland who hadn't fooled around with HDR software. This wasn't due to any particular aesthetic choice or moral stand, but simply because I didn't have a need for it. Most of my clients don't cotton to it. And I'd rather have root canal than learn software programs for which I don't have an immediate need. But a couple of things changed, and I took the plunge down the HDR rabbit hole.

First, I had a three-week vacation renting a fisherman's cottage in a small village in Cornwall where my family has some old and deep roots, with some leisure time on my hands and a bit of less-than-ideal weather.

Second, Nik Software released its easy-to-use HDR Efex Pro software. Nik software is so user-friendly and intuitive that even the most software-challenged individual like me has no problem getting a grasp of its most excellent programs.

And the third element in this perfect storm, the coup de grâce, if you will, was the release of an ebook, The Photographer's Guide to HDR Efex Pro, by my friends Tony Sweet and Jason Odell, which made the program even more approachable and included some of their own favorite presets, which I love.

I wasn't planning on doing any serious work in the village of Polperro. For the hikes and sightseeing trips out of the village, I'd leave the big DSLRs behind and pocket my tiny Nikon P300, and I soon found myself shooting three bracketed exposures here and there in sometimes pretty blah weather. One rainy afternoon, I took a few of those sequences and ran them through the HDR Efex Pro program I had loaded months before—and got my mind blown.

Everything looked so interesting! I thought of the words of a buddy of mine who has a tagline for this process: "HDR: Making the boring beautiful since 2006." Yikes, no kidding! All these pictures looked great—over the top, to be sure—but better than the reality they depicted.

HDR engenders more controversy and passion than religion and politics combined. It seems like you either love it or hate it. In my experience, the general, non-photographic public just loves the look—these are the same folks whose highest compliment upon seeing a photograph they like is to tell you, "It looks just like a painting!" Um, thanks?

A large and growing portion of the photo enthusiast community seems to be embracing the look more and more. Recently, I was a judge in the travel photography contest at FotoWeek in Washington, D.C., and I estimated that fully 60% to 70% of the entries exhibited some HDR treatment. Most of it was very strong and "grungy," but some of it was very subtle.

I'm seeing HDR everywhere now—camera club print shows, Facebook and even my own vacation snapshots. And postprocessing like HDR is creeping its way into fields where you'd think it wouldn't belong, like photojournalism.


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