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Natural HDR

Defeat the limits of your DSLR sensor’s latitude

Oak Reflections, Yosemite National Park, California, 2012, Canon EOS-1DS Mark III, Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM.

I first started teaching photography way back in 1980 for The Ansel Adams Gallery. In what seems like a blink of an eye, it’s now 33 years later! Recently, I’ve started teaching again in Yosemite Valley after a long sabbatical. Since my last workshop, it seems that every inch of the valley has been mapped for photographers online and with apps, and I wondered if I could still find fresh image possibilities and quiet locations to share with my students. In other writings, including in this column, I’ve attested to my faith in the never-ending beauty of nature and creative photographic potential in Yosemite; guiding students would be a great test of that belief.

Last autumn, I worked with small groups or individuals in the field through the early and late hours for the best light. During the midday hours, I critiqued student work and helped them with their postprocessing. My main focus is on developing a creative, personal style, but we also cover technique. One of the technical topics I’ve been discussing is the importance of watching the camera’s histogram to ensure capturing good data, and enough data. With modern sensors and processing software, one can often record the full range of tones in a scene with one exposure, without clipping off highlights or shadows. Many of you have learned this lesson already, but still, I’ve critiqued the photographs of many students where they rushed or forgot to check their histogram, lost detail and were unable to recover proper detail in their final postprocessing. That’s a hard lesson to learn, especially when you’ve made a long journey in hopes of making a great image! Given this, I’ve been encouraging my students to bracket whenever they have any doubt about capturing enough data.

Five years ago, I wrote here about bracketing and using HDR (high dynamic range) photography as a creative tool for “surrealizing” the landscape ( The main purpose of HDR is to capture enough information and for compressing the tonal range of high-contrast scenes with software in postprocessing. I had fun experimenting with various HDR software choices, but it didn’t take hold as a major creative direction for me, as I had a hard time getting the natural look I wanted.

Flash-forward to recent developments. There’s now a way to process the bracketed exposures in a very natural way, which I could never do effectively before. Using the 32-bit processing option of Adobe Photoshop CS6’s Merge to HDR Pro, I simply select my bracket in Lightroom 4 after making basic adjustments, send them to Merge to HDRPro, set to 32-bit, and save the file as a TIFF file after Photoshop is done blending the images. You also can use Photomatix’s 32-bit HDR plug-in for processing. Once the 32-bit image is created, you then use the intuitive sliders and controls that you’re familiar with in either Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw (in Photoshop) to process
natural-looking HDR images. Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro 2 has 32-bit options, too. For more details and tutorials, search the Internet for 32-bit HDR. I’ve found Lewis Kemper’s videos especially helpful, including how to use this technique with just Photoshop or Lightroom (

I’ve been using this Lightroom/Photo­shop HDR process often, as it fits easily into my regular workflow using the Adobe software. The amount of data you get with this method is exceptional. Not only that, but the rendering of the data is very smooth and natural looking.

My photograph here was made with a seven-stop bracket in half-stop increments. This is probably overkill, but I like to have choices. There have been times where HDR doesn’t work for me due to subject motion issues or other creative concerns, and I just use the one best exposure for my postprocessing. Other times, I’ve made a full bracket but found the best option was blending just two exposures in Photoshop. There were no such issues with my “Oak Reflections” image, and the seven files when processed worked perfectly, containing a 10-stop range of tones with no clipping. Compare this to the latitude of slide film, which was five stops!

Once the file was saved back to Lightroom, I processed it using the Develop module for my global adjustments such as fine-tuning Exposure, and balancing the tones with Highlights and Shadows, Contrast and Clarity. There’s so much data that the task was easy in spite of the contrast range. The finishing touches were done with Photoshop, which often includes local adjustment masks to bring out the final level of nuances to the image.

I know many landscape and nature photographers have strong opinions about HDR. If you’ve been looking for a naturalistic way of dealing with the high contrasts often found in landscape scenes like I have, I recommend looking into the options for 32-bit HDR processing. Good luck, and good light!

To learn about William Neill‘s Yosemite workshops, iTunes app, ebooks (William Neill’s Yosemite, Meditations in Monochrome, Impressions of Light and Landscapes of the Spirit) and his PhotoBlog and online courses with, visit his website at

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.