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Friday, August 1, 2008

HDR For The Landscape

Take advantage of High Dynamic Range software to photograph the landscape in a more visual way

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Landscape photographers have been challenged by the range of tones in real life compared to what they can capture with the camera. This was true when Ansel Adams was shooting black-and-white large-format images 60 years ago, and it’s true today for digital photographers. Sunlight and shade can be too much for even the best of sensors.

High Dynamic Range photography (or HDR for short) changes all of this. This technology allows you to take a series of exposures of a single scene and merge the range of tonalities that you get from those exposures into one image. This means that you aren’t as limited by technology, but actually can capture something closer to what you really see in the real world. It works especially well with landscapes because you usually don’t have moving objects within them. Movement can be a problem across multiple exposures.

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Auto-bracketing is a key part of HDR photography. Experiment with setting up your camera for a series of auto-exposures at one- or two-stop differences. hdr
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In many ways, this is similar to how Ansel Adams used to photograph and process his film. He’d meter the range of tonalities within a scene and set his camera to record specific brightness levels based on those tonalities. Then he’d go into the darkroom and process the film according to the range of the tonalities. Adams would vary his exposure and processing depending on the differences in tonalities for a specific scene. HDR also allows us to change the way we photograph to best capture the / tonalities within a scene.

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This is exciting to me—I’ve started to take photographs of scenes that I never would have attempted before because the light just wasn’t right. I’ve also been able to take photographs of scenes that were literally impossible with traditional means. HDR also allows photographers to take pictures of scenes during times of day that never really worked with color photography before.

HDR Software
The latest version of Photoshop can process an HDR image, but few photographers I know use Photoshop for HDR. I don’t care for it either. Most photographers today use a program called Photomatix from HDR Soft (www.hdrsoft.com). At $99, this is an inexpensive program in today’s world of photo software, and it’s easy to use.

Shooting For HDR
To create an HDR image, you need a series of photographs taken of the same scene at different exposures. While some people believe you should shoot RAW for this, I don’t think that’s necessary. You can shoot RAW, but you’ll have increased processing times and not that much extra in the final image. Because you’re combining tonalities from multiple exposures, even JPEG files give you sufficient tonalities with which to work.

Here are the shooting steps for HDR:
1 Set your camera on a tripod. You need to be able to get all of these exposures lined up identically on the scene. Using a tripod is the easiest way to do that.

2 Set up your camera for an optimum midrange exposure for the scene. Because you’ll probably be shooting a scene with a wide range of tonalities, this means that highlights are usually too bright and shadows are too dark. That’s okay because this isn’t your only exposure. I’ll often take a picture and check my histogram to be sure I have a midrange exposure. Look to see that your histogram is more or less centered in its range.

3 Take a series of exposures that are at least a full stop apart. An easy way to do this is to set up your camera for auto-exposure and auto-bracketing, then set your shooting speed to continuous. On my Olympus E-3, I can set up auto-bracketing for three or five exposures at one-stop differences. Other cameras can be set up similarly to do auto-bracketing in one- or two-stop differences. This is something with which to experiment a little to get it right for your own gear.

4 Auto-bracketing enables you to shoot without a tripod if you stabilize the camera. In the photographs you see here from Montaña de Oro State Park near Los Osos, Calif., there was no way to use a tripod. I used a beanbag on the rocks to steady the E-3 (the E-3’s tilting LCD allowed me to see what the camera was seeing). Then, by combining auto-bracketing with continuous shooting, I just held the shutter down for the five exposures that gave me my sequence, with each photo one ƒ-stop apart in exposure.


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