Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Making Best Use Of HDR
Tom Till is a master of Southwest landscapes. Recently, he’s been using HDR software to overcome some of the challenges of these high-contrast scenes without generating the bizarre-looking, hyperreal effect that’s objectionable to many nature shooters
Shooting the Southwest with film was difficult. I learned early in my career that when I traveled on the Colorado River through the majestic Grand Canyon, the magic sunset light was a vertical mile above me. With that sort of terrain, contrast was a constant problem and challenge. I was an early adopter of graduated neutral-density filters to tame the huge discrepancies between mesa-top sunlight and the dark shadows of the canyon depths.
I still carry a grad ND, but since my switch to DSLRs, I’ve become a fan of High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography. Perhaps no place in the world is a greater laboratory for experimenting and perfecting this new photographic tool than the American Southwest. Also, using HDR is offering me opportunities to shoot subjects I’ve brooded over since I first began my photographic odyssey.
For the first time, the subject can be shot in a way that captures most of its inherent magic. With HDR, the seven-stop difference between the continually shadowy alcove where the arch resides and the azure-blue western skies above it can be portrayed together. Also, by using the HDR controls conservatively, I can produce an image that looks natural and more closely resembles the way my eye sees the scene.
Some photographers have a built-in bias against HDR that I don’t understand. Without dredging up the old saws about Adams manipulating his images or Porter’s finely controlled dye-transfer prints, I think the argument can be made that HDR is a new frontier that isn’t inherently evil.
What’s my basic HDR philosophy? I want two things from the process: control of contrast and increased detail. I usually don’t want fake-looking images that announce to the world that HDR was used. I have nothing against the “maximum” use of HDR in other people’s work, and I have some clients who like the look of total HDR, but for magazine clients like Arizona Highways or Backpacker, or anyone looking for a straight, natural-looking photograph, I play it conservatively.
A recent book about Moab, Utah, my hometown, was done completely in low-smoothing, in-your-face HDR. The subjects were shot mostly outdoors and they weren’t landscapes and nature, but old cars and tourist kitsch. For this sort of thing, I think over-the-top HDR is perfect, although I think over time this look will wear out its welcome.
The contrast control of HDR is here to stay. I love the freedom that comes with easily controlling the dynamic range with this tool. Previously, even with digital capture, I had to consider and solve contrast problems before anything else. Some images and compositions just weren’t doable before. Now I can lay fears of blown-out skies and black shadows aside and concentrate on what really matters: composition, light, color and my subject.
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