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Honor Nature with HDR!

I admit it. When I first saw HDR  work, I was unimpressed. The interfaces were clunky and the results could be really odd.

But George Lepp kept pushing me to try it and finally I did a few years ago. When I discovered I could show off certain aspects of nature that the camera could not capture because of its limitations, I was hooked. I could finally honor what I truly saw of nature rather than a constricted view defined by the limitations of the camera.

Still, HDR is heavily promoted with funky, unrealistic images that turn off a lot of nature photographers. A student in one of my classes called this “sci-fi photos.” I have seen some interesting work done in this manner, but for me, this is not what HDR is all about.

HDR (high dynamic range) photography, for those not familiar with it, expands the capabilities of photography to capture more tones and colors that we can see but the camera cannot (either digital or film). You take a series of photos of a scene as you change exposure so that you have a photo that makes the bright areas look good (even though the dark areas do not), a photo that makes the dark areas look good (even though the brights are washed out) and photos in between.

I like to set up my camera with auto bracketing and continuous shooting so that I just press down my shutter button and three (or more, depending on camera) photos are taken that cover the range of tones and colors (you need at least 1 f-stop change between shots and sometimes 1.5-2 is better). I will shift the exposure of the middle shot until I get what I need in the dark and light extremes. With very high contrast scenes, I will shoot more photos to handle the range.

Then the images go together in the computer. Right now, I am using Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro. This is a very powerful program that offers previews of your final HDR images and includes a whole range of options from very natural to very definitely “sci-fi.” I also find that HDR Darkroom is a simpler program (but also one with fewer options) that gives very natural results for nature photographers at a low price.

The photo at the top is of a scene in the Santa Monica Mountains outside of Los Angeles. If you have ever photographed in mountains above the clouds (this is called a marine layer here) looking toward the sun just after sunrise, you will know this is impossible to capture within the limitations of a digital or film camera.  This photo is far closer to what I really saw than anything the camera captured. The camera saw a much restricted scene. Here are the two shots at the extremes of the sequence. You can see that if the clouds and the distant mountains show up in all their detail, the hillsides covered with chaparral disappear into black. If you expose for the dark chaparral, the clouds wash out and are gone.

This is very exciting to me, to be able to bring out nature and its glory in ways that are closer to what I saw and experienced. The camera can be frustrating at times in its limitations, giving a very skewed view of what is really in the world. I don’t want nature limited by the technology of digital photography.

But HDR is just a tool. I don’t use it all the time. Often, the camera does just fine. But I like being able to use HDR when I need it or am having trouble getting what I want from a scene. That is exactly what happened here. As I started shooting, I knew it would be impossible to capture the glorious early morning scene in front of me without HDR. I am very glad I did. You can see another, totally different HDR shot that is more of a close scene at my blog, (the text is basically the same).