Stoking The Flame

In her “Ghosts of the West” project, Cheyenne Rouse reignited her love of photography by embracing HDR
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“Dodge Bootlegger.” Rouse found this red truck while on a road trip in Utah. She knew it would be perfect for an HDR photo. Regular photography would have yielded a flat image, but HDR brought the scene to life.

With winter winds blowing and the snow just about to fall, Rouse sought out this moody cemetery in Taos, N.M. Black-and-white HDR rendered a particularly haunting image.

If you would have told me three years ago when I was living in Park City, Utah, that I’d be creating HDR images, running my own gallery, living in Scottsdale, Arizona, and loving my DSLR, I would have told you that you were crazy. For over 15 years, I was a bona fide film junkie of the Fuji kind and, when the world started going digital, I dug my heels in and fought it to the point where I eventually almost hung up my camera for good—or so I thought.

It all started with an old, rusted-out, red truck that I photographed a few years ago in southern Utah. Although I had all but given up photography as things went digital, I was out getting to know a new DSLR a little bit when I saw the hulk on the side of the road. I actually passed it by on my way to shoot something else, but the truck stuck in my mind so I doubled back and shot some photos. I had really never been attracted to shooting old trucks, or any old vehicles, for that matter. As a professional, I had mostly focused on my stock photography specialty, which was adventure sports.

“Horseshoe Bend.” Just south of Lake Powell in Arizona, this roadside stop is a perennial favorite for photography. Rouse’s HDR image has a decidedly different look than all of the others.

A few weeks before I took those photos of the old, red truck, a friend and photo enthusiast asked me if I had ever heard of HDR. My response to him was, “HD what?” I think he was surprised that I hadn’t heard of it. I didn’t realize that I was that out of the photo loop, but after being out of the business for several years, I guess I was. He said I’d have so much fun with what high dynamic range could do to my photos. He gave me the name of the program that he used, Photomatix, and the website. When I got home, I immediately jumped online and checked it out. I downloaded a free trial of Photomatix Pro, then watched a few of the tutorials that they had available online, and off I went into HDR land. Of course, I hadn’t shot any photos as multiple exposures, which the tutorials suggested, so I really didn’t have any photos to play with yet. Then I passed the old, red truck on the side of the road. Instead of shooting single frames, I photographed the red truck in the prescribed multiple-exposure manner. I thought that it might make a great HDR, so I rushed back to my hotel room, downloaded the images from my camera into my computer, then quickly loaded the three bracketed images into Photomatix and pressed the “Generate HDR” button. That’s when the magic happened; I could hardly wait to see the result. When the image appeared on my monitor, I gasped. It was gorgeous and so alive with color, texture and depth. With a few tone-mapping tweaks, which I didn’t really know how to work yet, I hit the final “process” button, and what appeared was nothing short of incredible—it was as if the truck was about to drive out of the monitor and into the room.

“Heaven’s Gate.” An historic cemetery outside of Santa Fe, N.M., on a stormy fall day makes for a powerful HDR image.

I thought the truck was full of character and personality when I shot it, which is why it attracted me in the first place, but the individual digital frames that I shot didn’t do such an interesting subject justice. They seemed too one-dimensional and lacked a feel for the texture and patina of this amazing red truck. With HDR, I knew that I had found a process and program that was not only user-friendly, but would transform these relics of the West and render them the way that I saw each one when I was photographing them.

I’ve been fascinated with Western and Southwestern history for years, but the limited photography I did was mainly centered on cowboys and Native Americans and their ancient cultures, with scenic vistas of the American Southwest and West thrown in. With my newfound love of the Digital Age, I could make the historic places and things that I’m fascinated by come to life again. The red truck, aka “Dodge Bootlegger,” changed everything for me. I knew that I was on to something when I posted the “Dodge Bootlegger” on my Facebook page. The response was amazing! I don’t think any of my photographs has ever received so many great comments. This opened up a whole new world for me. Not only did it give me a reason to pick up my camera again, but it gave me a reason to follow a new path back into a creative world that I thought I was done with. It was a path that I was very excited about.

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“Pony Express Riders.” The Hashknife Pony Express Riders gallop into Scottsdale every February to commemorate the historic route from Holbrook, Ariz. Applying HDR to such a tight composition with shallow depth of field generates an ethereal effect.

Since then, I’ve been on a mission to photograph historic places and objects around the West and Southwest. My journey has taken me from Golden Spike National Historic Site in northern Utah to the Pony Express Trail to Route 66 on down to Tombstone in southern Arizona, with many stops in between. Out of this journey my Ghosts of the West: Celebrate the American West—The History, The Lore, The Culture photo series and book were born. So many of these historic places and things are disappearing, and I feel it’s my mission to document them and make them come alive again with my photographs before they’re gone and to document what’s so uniquely American about this part of the country. I love what I do and feel so fortunate to get to share my passion for the West and Southwest through my photographs, and I have HDR to thank for opening up a whole new world (again) to me.

Cheyenne L. Rouse is a self-taught photographer and has been a professional since 1989, when she felt the call of the West. She has written numerous magazine articles and monthly columns. With her unique vision, she captures the subtle moods, the textures and may-be the ghosts that somehow live on in the rusted, abandoned artifacts of the Old West. Rouse now makes her home in Scottsdale, Ariz. Go to or visit the Ancient Light Gallery in Scottsdale.

HDR Software Options

Until recently, a photographer didn’t have many choices for sophisticated HDR, but within the past year, that has changed. HDRsoft’s Photomatix Pro shares the spotlight with other options. Adobe Photoshop, for example, has built-in HDR capability, and in Photoshop CS5, it has improved significantly over previous versions of that standard image-processing software. Ever Imaging’s HDR Darkroom supports 16-bit TIFF files, and it works as a RAW converter as well as an HDR program. Their newest HDR software, HDR Photo Pro, expands on HDR Darkroom’s capabilities by adding a range of sophisticated color controls, as well as added functionality. List Price: $79 (HDR Darkroom); $129 (HDR Photo Pro); Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro brings the company’s trademark ease of use and photographer-ness to high dynamic range work. HDR Efex Pro is available as a 32- or 64-bit plug-in for Photoshop CS3-CS5, Lightroom 2.3 or later and Aperture 2.1 or later. List Price: $159; Unified Color Technologies HDR Expose works as standalone software or as a plug-in for Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Apple Aperture. List Price: $149;