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HDR Photography: Theory of Usage

For further reading check out HDR ART ???.

The idea of combining multiple exposures of the same image to boost all light levels in a single photo is not a new concept and it has been around nearly as long as photography. However the HDR technique has really gained ground in popularity along with the digital age, and more and more enthusiasts are venturing into the algorithmic process. As the art of photography becomes more accessible to the masses the individual with a little extra cash and the coveted drive to create is limitless to become the artist they dream to be. The age old discussions of what is art and what requirements need to be possessed to be deemed and accepted as an artist only now get more heated as the technological and accessibility playing fields are further leveled among the most highly trained and most driven amateur. This is a discussion that I would be ill advised to enter in the least as my humble impression of my own categorization weighs heavily to the latter. As I too hone my skills and refine my own photographic style I’ve noticed a few trends forming in the community.

As we know HDR can yield some dramatic results and often viewers of my photos will be wowed and not truly understand what makes the photo appear so, let’s say, vibrant. The most common and intentionally rhetorical comment that’s uttered is “Oh, it’s Photoshopped.” My reply is always “Well of course it is?” The term “Photoshopped” has become an accepted member of the 21st century lexicon unfortunately synonymous with placing heads of friends on the bodies of bodybuilders and adding fantastic elements to photos to create a surreal scene with the intention of deceiving the unknowing viewer. But Photoshop is useful well beyond its surface practical joke abilities. The irony of these exchanges is that Photoshop, while always used in processing my photos, is not the tool that creates the pop in HDR photos.

But recently I’ve noticed more folks are at least aware of HDR and ask “Oh, is that HDR?” Interestingly, unlike the Photoshopped response I used to get, I was kind of surprised that I’ve had trouble answering that question. Many think HDR simply requires tossing multiple exposures into to a program, clicking a button and having a beautifully optimized HDR photo spit out the other end. This is far from reality. Over the last year or so I’ve developed my own process for post-processing photos which utilizes a number of programs and treatments all depending on the requirements of each individual photo. An HDR program is just another “tool” I often use to obtain the final result I’m looking to achieve. Never will one of my photos be a raw HDR product. When I use HDR, I always mix and mask the HDR generated with one or all of the original exposures in Photoshop. After using any number of other tools such as noise reduction, sharpening, color correction, and exposure adjustment the final photo will only contain a fraction of the HDR produced by the HDR program. Of course, depending on the specific photo, a shot could be 80% HDR or 10%.

And this is true for all of our favorite “HDR photographers.” No great HDR was produced solely using the raw HDR photo generated by an HDR program. They too have all been mixed with the original exposures. Everyone’s favorite HDR photographer, Trey Ratcliff, states that roughly 3/4 of his photos are HDR (though the source now escapes me). Really? Which one’s aren’t HDR? My guess is that none of his photos are 100% HDR. Every photographer has their own unique style and process to achieve their desired results. So now when someone asks if a particular photo of mine is HDR I reply with an estimated percentage. Mostly this unexpected answer produces a reaction of confusion and sometimes annoyance but is much more accurate than a simple yes or no.

Below is an example of a 3 exposure HDR. First are the three exposures over the rooftops of Merida, Yucatan from the Casa Mexilio.

This next photo is what Photomatix spit out after meticulous tone mapping.

And finally the final HDR after mixing with the original exposures.

Here is another example of an HDR made from a single RAW photo in Izamal, Yucatan. The first one is the original exposure.

This next one is the tone mapped HDR generated from the single RAW above.

And finally the final HDR blending the original RAW and tone mapped HDR.

About Brian Hoffsis

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