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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

This Article Features Photo Zoom

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 example, I’ve despaired at trying to photograph one of the world’s largest natural bridges, a short drive and walk from where I live. It can be photographed under cloud cover, but even with digital photography, the rich, reflected colors are muted and the skies are always an ugly white. Attempts to solve these problems with Lightroom controls fail.

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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