Our eyes are wonderful things. They can see texture on brightly lit surfaces and in deep shadows, let you read a newspaper by moonlight, and even see in starlight. Cameras aren’t quite as good as our eyes. They can record good highlight detail, or they can record good shadow texture, but most of the time they can’t record both simultaneously. The amount of brightness and shadow that a camera can record is known as its “dynamic range”.
There’s a photographic technique that you can use to produce images that more closely resemble how the eyes see. It’s called “High Dynamic Range” photography, or HDR for short. In this technique you take a series of images with different exposure settings; known as “Exposure Bracketing”. The simplest method uses images taken at; the correct exposure, one unit under exposed, and one unit overexposed, however you can take other combinations. I’ve taken up to 9 shots with varying exposures for some of my HDR images. The sets of images are then put together on the computer using special software.
This is a simple HDR image of the sunset in a small town in Canada. Without HDR I had the choice to expose for the sky or to expose for the trees, not both. The images were taken hand-held. That’s always a bit of a risk with this sort of photography as you can get “ghosting” where the images don’t quite overlap because you’ve moved a bit. You’re better off using a tripod.
I used a tripod for this 9-image HDR shot of the 13th-century tithe barn at Great Coxwell near Faringdon. I loved the dramatic sky, and wanted to really show it against the texture of the stone barn. Converting the final image to black and white helped to give an air of mystery to the image. I used a very wide angle lens to give a bit of perspective drama.
One thing you need to be careful of with HDR images is the “cartoony” effect that you can get. The software I use has settings for various styles of image. I like the “photorealistic” option as it leaves the images looking more natural. This tractor shot shows what can happen if you use the “surrealistic” setting. The contrast and colour are significantly changed from the original images. It’s OK for a few images but can be a bit intense for some subjects.
This image is from a trip to the “tank shed” at the Defence Academy in Shrivenham. It’s of the interior of a sectioned Leopard tank; Germany’s main battle tank for many years. The lighting was quite contrasty and using HDR helped me to get detail in the shadows that was not recorded in a normal exposure. HDR’s not a good technique for portraits as the need to take multiple images means your subject has to stay absolutely still. Here the crew were dummies so it was easy!
HDR is useful in architectural photography too. This image, of an 18th-century folly in Berkshire, shows detail in the artificially lit interior as well as the naturally lit exterior. On the day there was a significant difference between the brightness of the inside compared to the outside, but HDR was able to show both well.
So, to improve the dynamic range in your creative photography try a bit of HDR!