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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

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For years, I’ve been trying to fight against the rule that says that landscape photography can only be done during magic hour. My hero Philip Hyde was also bothered by this notion and considered it cliché. With HDR, shooting outside the normal zones of best lighting becomes much more feasible and produces much better imagery.

Besides solving the problem of contrast in photographic images, HDR offers another important advantage to landscape photography: detail. Most landscape photographers are obsessed with detail. I carried a 4x5 camera all over the world just to get copious amounts of detail in my images. HDR gives me detail that approaches or surpasses the level of 4x5, both in what I see on the computer screen and what I see on the printed page and in my gallery prints.

In my recent workshops, I find many people seem to have their interest in landscape photography rejuvenated by playing (and some of it’s like playing) with HDR. Once they get past the sliders that look like graphic equalizers from ’70s audio, they find that it’s pretty easy, and that learning about HDR can help them understand other aspects of digital photography better. Also, learning HDR is best done by doing, and this means shooting a lot of images as grist for your HDR mill. You’ll find yourself shooting more often just to have new images to work with—and the images will get better.

This feature alone is enough to consider using the process for images that aren’t HDR candidates due to their dynamic range. Any image with a normal histogram can become more detailed by using the process. This was a revelation to me, and I began to at least shoot brackets for possible HDR use in almost all my work.

HDR images may even more accurately reflect reality than a normal image, at least the reality we see with our eyes. Over decades, everyone has seen thousands, perhaps even millions, of images in still and motion-picture photography. We expect a dynamic range that doesn’t match our eyes to be normal in a photo. Now, when we see a more dynamic light range in an image, it may seem alien or strange. For some of my publishing clients, this “strangeness” is enough to make them take notice of images they might have passed by. They know there’s something different about the picture, but they can’t always put their finger on it.

Part of the fun of film photography, especially 4x5, was getting the box back from the lab and looking at my work. Sometimes, when things worked just right, I gasped when I saw some of those Fujichrome Velvia images that luck had given me. The same emotion is repeated for me now when I see the HDR image revealed in all its glory. When it works right, it can be exciting and somewhat addictive.

I think the Southwest is the best place in the world to shoot. We have the best light, the best subjects, interesting weather and huge areas whose photographic potential is yet to be realized. HDR is a great tool for these magnificent places and scenes, and provides 21st century photographers with new ways to portray America’s great deserts, canyons and mountains.


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