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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

High Dynamic Range Done Naturally

Explore the basics of HDR to get details in shadows, highlights and everywhere in between

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Dream Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. This was a once-in-a-lifetime shot, and I knew I had only one chance to get it right. I was set up to record the reflection and play of light when this bull elk wandered into the scene. I quickly recomposed and set my exposure for the shadowed area along the shore of the lake. I used a three-stop (hard) grad ND filter to hold back the exposure on the sky and brightly illuminated mountain. I was able to pull off three shots before the elk wandered off. Nikon D300, Nikkor 12-24mm, RAW capture at ISO 200

Shays Run, Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia. In order to record a very long exposure for the swirling leaves without losing all the detail in the flowing water, I needed to shoot two images. The first was made with a Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo to drag out a 15-second exposure for the swirls, and a second exposure, without the filter at one second to retain detail and texture in the waterfall. The two images were combined in Photoshop CS4 using layers and masks. Nikon D300, Nikkor 12-24mm, RAW capture at ISO 100
If you want to spark up a heated debate amongst a group of nature photographers these days, all you need to do is mention HDR. I guarantee you’ll hear every opinion under the sun, from those who feel it’s the only way to truly capture all the detail in a scene to those who place it right up there with getting a root canal. The truth of the matter is that HDR photography has been around a lot longer than most of us even realize.

Think about it! The use of grad ND filters has been a popular means of reducing the contrast in a scene for a very long time, and they’ve been widely used by almost all professional and amateur nature and landscape photographers. Even before that, the use of masking in the darkroom was an essential technique of the great masters like Adams, Weston and Cole for achieving a greater dynamic range in their exhibition and gallery prints. Things have changed quite a bit in the past 10 years with the advent of digital capture, but all we’re really dealing with here is a new set of tools and techniques that allows us as photographers and artists to achieve our final vision in the form of a well-crafted photograph.

As a professional nature and landscape photographer, I look at all of the techniques and methods as tools in my arsenal that allow me to fully realize and express my photographic vision. Whether it’s using a grad ND filter, fill-flash or bracketing exposures to combine later in the digital darkroom, I try to match each tool or technique to the scene in front of me to achieve the very best result.

HDR has come to be associated with a particular look in the past few years, a strange hyperrealistic look that’s the result of a process called tone mapping. Many nature photographers find that hyperrealistic look to be objectionable and “comic-bookish,” and because of that, you might have been turned off from the whole notion of creating an HDR image in the computer. In this article, however, we’ll explore much more subtle HDR processing, and the resulting images show detail that’s more along the lines of the range of tones our eyes can take in without looking freakish. Here are a few of my go-to techniques for taming the light.


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