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Tame Your Dynamic Range

HDR Au Naturel • Hybrid Lenses • Pros And Point-And-Shoots

HDR doesn’t have to be obvious. This HDR image was taken in Yellowstone National Park on the Yellowstone River using a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II with a 17-40mm lens set to 17mm. Three images taken two stops apart were used to make up the HDR. The three were processed in Photomatix software.

HDR au naturel

Q When photographing a deep canyon, with dark shadows at the base and bright sky above, is there a way to capture the entire range of light-to-dark tones? I’ve tried HDRs, but it’s a lot of postprocessing time, and I don’t like my results. Is there a neutral-density filter that will render that “V” of light in the background in a natural way?
K. Collard
Prince George, B.C., Canada

A A neutral-density filter is used to darken an image to allow increased exposure time. Graduated neutral-density filters are half clear and half dark, with a narrow, graduated transition between the two areas. The dark portion, positioned against a bright sky, for example, “holds back” the sky and allows sufficient exposure for the darker landscape below the horizon. The problem with graduated neutral-density filters is that the dark area can be positioned in limited ways: high, low or at an angle in the frame. There isn’t a filter specific enough or versatile enough to cover the shape of every blown-out area of every photographer’s image. In film days, we just lived with it. Now we have HDR (high dynamic range) to solve the problem.

Anytime we get a new digital tool, you can count on some photographers to take it to the max and beyond. (Think saturation!) The HDR process can be used to resolve high-contrast subjects and render them entirely natural—that is, as you saw them. Or you can take it many steps farther and create something slightly enhanced or entirely new that no one has ever seen before. The choice is yours, and that’s what I love about digital.

HDR isn’t really difficult if you plan ahead and let the software do the work. Whenever you face a high-contrast exposure problem, take at least three images in increments of either one or two stops apart. In the case of your canyon, you’d be working from a tripod. But you can accomplish this process handheld by setting your camera to multiple-exposure and auto-exposure bracketing, and firing the three images in quick succession.

I’ve used three different HDR software programs. The most difficult, and perhaps the one you already have, is a component of Adobe Photoshop CS2-CS4 and the least controllable. I typically use HDRsoft’s Photomatix ($99) because it gives me a full range of options, from very natural to highly creative (even bizarre). Photomatix is easy to use, but the multitude of output options can become overwhelming. For your purposes, you might look at the inexpensive and simple Pangea Bracketeer ($29.95). The results are quite natural, with only a few options for enhancement, including saturation and contrast.

The bottom line is that you must recognize the problem in the field and capture accordingly. If you want to keep up with the competition, blown-out highlights just won’t pass muster anymore.

Hybrid Lenses
I have an old manual-focus Nikon-mount Tokina 400mm telephoto that I’d like to try on an APS-C Canon body. I’ve been very pleased with the sharpness of this lens, and I’ll probably only use it wide open. If I can get a mount for the lens, will it work?
G. Corbett
Via the Internet

A I can think of two reasons to couple one manufacturer’s lens with another’s camera body. One is that you might already have invested in a series of quality lenses that you want to use with an upgraded camera system. Another is that another manufacturer offers lenses that are superior to those offered by your camera manufacturer. Notice I use the terms “quality” and “superior,” but I know there’s a third reason for commingling: economy.

The Canon lens corresponding to your Tokina is the EF 400mm ƒ/5.6L; it runs about $1,300. Sigma offers a 120-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 zoom that costs about $900. A comparable Tokina 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 with a Canon lens mount runs $550. The advantage of purchasing one of these lenses for your Canon body is that they will maintain all of the electronic connections and automatic functions of the lens and the benefits of
new technology.

If a new lens isn’t the answer, you can order an adapter that mounts Nikon lenses to Canon bodies from several sources, as long as you understand you’ll lose the automatic functions of the lens. (Just to make it clear, I haven’t tried these personally because I don’t use Nikon lenses on my Canon cameras.) The least expensive option is from CameraQuest ( at $175. A similar mount from HP Marketing (, made by Novoflex, is about $200. A slightly different adapter, made for Nikon “G” lenses (no aperture ring), is available for about $266 from Ken Rockwell (
). This one is designed particularly for the 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G Nikon lens, which is a useful conversion because it covers a full-frame sensor.

Pros And Point-And-Shoots
Do you use a point-and-shoot camera, or is there one that you can recommend?
Via the Internet

A My wife Kathy is so glad you asked that question. The short answer is yes, I use two: the Canon PowerShot G11 and PowerShot SX1 IS. I recommended them both to my wife, and we bought them, and she’s hardly been able to put her hands on them since. It’s a common story. We pros buy the best compact camera we can find for our partners and then use them ourselves.

Why do we buy them for our partners in the first place? I did a little survey, and everyone said the same thing. Everywhere we travel, our partners are helping carry our big, heavy pro gear. All the carry-on capacity on the plane is taken up by pro camera bodies, long lenses, tripods, etc. There’s no room for your partner’s DSLR or camera bag, so she says, “Please, can I just have a little camera to carry in my purse or on my belt?” We say, “Sure!” and then do all the research, buy the camera, present it with a flourish, take it away to try it out and she never sees it again.

I use Kathy’s compact cameras for a variety of photographic tasks. They’re handy for family functions; I’ll take a series of JPEGs that are processed in the camera, and it’s easy to edit them and make up a collage print or a CD for the people who were present. I’ve taken a compact camera with me to trade shows to document new products, and the quality is more than adequate for inclusion in my lectures. Sometimes I let Kathy borrow her cameras to take pictures of me taking pictures, so I can put them in my programs to demonstrate setups. You could easily take one of these cameras on a vacation and create a slideshow every bit as good as one produced on a professional camera system.

The SX1 IS has a zoom equivalent to 28-560mm, as well as full high-definition video. Yesterday, I used it to video the neighbor’s barking dogs in case I need documentation sometime. (It captures good sound, too.) When a bear or fox comes into the yard, this little camera is the perfect tool for immediate documentation; their visits seldom last long enough to do a full setup with a 21 MP camera and a 500mm lens. I use the G11 to capture ultra-high-res composites with the Gigapan robot (see our article “The Gigascape” in the November 2009 issue of OP). In the October 2009 “Tech Tips” column, I wrote about Canon’s great little underwater model, the PowerShot D10. And, in fact, some of the newest high-quality compact cameras produce professional-level images of sufficient quality that they can be sold through my stock agencies, Getty and Corbis.

I’m fully aware that some of my colleagues have taken their compact cameras to a much more developed level of creative use. When I hear about their escapades with little cameras, I think that it must feel like running naked through the grass, with no backpack, no tripod, no encumbrances. It frees your creative spirit. They take long exposures out the car window (the drive-by), swing them around over their heads, run along railroad tracks. You might recall that Dewitt Jones gave us a great essay on the subject in his “Basic Jones” column in October 2007. You can read the column and see some video and amazing point-and-shoot images by Jack Davis at Dewitt tells me he makes large (40×40) prints of images captured with small cameras or his iPhone. The key is to be artistic, not literal. To be printed that big, the images need to be mega-processed (I’ll say manipulated) with creative effects software like Topaz (

So there you have the short answer (yes) and the long answer (yes) to your question. I use compact cameras all the time. But I’m a pro with lots of Big Boy, serious cameras, so those cute little amateur point-and-shoots aren’t really mine. They’re Kathy’s.

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit If you have any tips or questions, address them to: OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER, Dept. TT, George Lepp, 12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200, Los Angeles, CA 90025-1176 or online at

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.