Tips & Tricks: High Dynamic Range

Our Tips & Tricks series aims to give beginners, amateurs and professionals alike more ways to approach different aspects of photography and videography. For each installment, we’ve enlisted the expertise of our MPEX staff and have received their feedback on method and equipment.

High dynamic range can be a touchy subject among photographers. Some find it necessary to create the images they want to create, while others find it gimmicky, especially when poorly executed. The term “HDR” arouses all kinds of feelings in people, in no small part because it’s practically everywhere you look nowadays. But before you make a judgment on HDR, you should probably know what it is, why it exists, and how it’s done.

Dynamic range, according to Wikipedia, “is the ratio between the largest and smallest possible values of a changeable quantity, such as in signals like sound and light.” For our purposes, you can think of dynamic range as the values of light between pure highlight (white) and pure shadow (black). Picture your histogram. What a histogram does, in essence, is help you visualize the dynamic range of an exposure. A histogram that spikes on the leftmost side means you are losing details in shadow, while a histogram that spikes on the rightmost side means you have blown-out highlights. This is why most people try to achieve a bell-curve shape with their histogram, because it means the image is most “properly exposed” in its mid-range tones.

Histogram20Example

The term “dynamic range” also applies to sound. Let’s take a look at this crudely drawn illustration of what recorded sound looks like:

022713-sound-waves

The black lines represent the volume of a recording. The span of sound values (decibels) between the lowest volume and the highest volume is the dynamic range. However, the problem with some recording devices is that they don’t have the same dynamic range as the human ear. In the illustration, the red lines indicate where the recording device cannot record the sound because it is either too loud or too quiet. The same principle applies to dynamic range in regards to light and a camera’s ability to capture dynamic range.

According to this article, the human eye has the dynamic range of 10-14 f-stops of light; this number “definitely surpasses most compact cameras (5-7 stops), but is surprisingly similar to that of digital SLR cameras (8-11 stops).” On the other hand, if “we were to consider situations where our pupil opens and closes for different brightness regions, then yes, our eyes far surpass the capabilities of a single camera image (and can have a range exceeding 24 f-stops).” This means that our eyes are much better at perceiving details in shadow and in bright highlights, and it also means that our eyes can process all this information at the same time, or at least as fast as our brain can process the information, meaning we see details in light and in shadow simultaneously better than a camera can.

How our eyes naturally create a "high dynamic range," via Cambridge in Colour
How our eyes naturally create a “high dynamic range,” via Cambridge in Colour

Recently, PictureCorrect and Digital Camera World both had interesting and comprehensive posts on what HDR is and how to create HDR images. If you want to know exactly what HDR means and how to create an HDR image, see this post or this post.

We receive a decent amount of high-quality HDR images as photo contest entries. We also have customers who create incredible HDR images. One of those customers is Steve Csizmadia. Steve has been making photographs since 2008, and in 2010 he launched his first solo exhibit in Columbus, displaying 45 unique photos. Today, he uses modern photography tools, e.g. filters and digital enhancements, to “artistically interpret what he sees through the lens.” The results are some awesome HDR images. In fact, you can see some samples of Steve’s work at Spec 3 Photography. We wanted to ask Steve some questions about HDR photography to get a personal, practical perspective on the process, the decisions behind creating HDR imagery, and the “controversy” surrounding it.

Steve Csizmadia
Steve Csizmadia

MPEX: When did you start creating HDR images?

Steve Csizmadia: My first exposure to HDR photography was while I was on vacation in Provincetown, Massachusetts in  July 2011. A local photographer was offering a half-day photo walk focusing on a few digital photography techniques, one of which was HDR. I always wanted to learn this technique, as I had seen it in a number of photography magazines and websites. After the session was over, I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel room to see how the images turned out. I processed a few after purchasing the needed program.  The rest of my vacation while traveling the northeast coast was looking for the perfect moment within the beautiful landscapes to capture more HDR exposures. Still today, one of my favorite HDR images was the photograph I had taken of the Ogunquit, Maine lighthouse during that time.

Photo by Steve Csizmadia
Photo by Steve Csizmadia

What made you want to create HDR images?

I had seen a number of photos processed in HDR and I liked the surreal or dramatic effect it can have on an image when capturing the moment. For me, HDR was a way to make a photo even more dynamic when the time was right. I wanted to see my images showcasing a moment in a way that would make someone stop and look. Not every picture I take has the opportunity to be an HDR image. When the time is right you kind of know.

Photo by Steve Csizmadia
Photo by Steve Csizmadia

Did you feel limited by the normal dynamic range of your camera’s sensor, or do you just like the look?

There are plenty of times when I use my camera for single exposures instead of HDR. As I mentioned before, what I like about HDR is that there are better times to use it and times when HDR is not needed at all. Images processed correctly in HDR can be very powerful. However, as a photographer, what you want to present to the viewer is for you to decide.

Photo by Steve Csizmadia
Photo by Steve Csizmadia

How do you generally create your HDR images? Does the process vary from image to image?

I create my HDR images with 3 exposure brackets. Once I have my correct exposure, I set the brackets to be 2 stops below and 2 stops above. There are many times when I will take a single image and decide later that I want to develop it as an HDR image. In these instances, I will use the RAW image file and set the exposure brackets through a program such as Lightroom 4, save each image and merge the 3 images in another HDR program. This works very well since I shoot all my images in RAW format. You have to remember to shoot with the lowest ISO setting possible to avoid any unwanted noise.

Photo by Steve Csizmadia
Photo by Steve Csizmadia

How long does it take you to reach the “final version” of an image?

Honestly, this varies with every image. I have had some HDR images take me maybe 30 minutes to create, while others have taken almost a full day. It just depends upon what I want the final image to look like. If something doesn’t look right, you can always make additional changes. That’s the beauty of digital photography and processing with programs today.

How do you decide when to create an HDR image and when to just use a single exposure?

I like to experiment with all of my images once I have imported them into my Lightroom catalog. While reviewing, I look for subjects that have contrast from the rest of the background, variations of color and texture.  Sometimes, I will take an image and just process it to see what it will look like. Those are usually my favorite HDR images, often when I’m not expecting it.  Subjects I usually look for to produce in HDR are big clouds, abandoned buildings, and lots of texture.

Photo by Steve Csizmadia
Photo by Steve Csizmadia

Why do you think HDR is such a “controversial” topic?

I think it’s because HDR doesn’t look real. It’s photography that has been processed with a number of programs. There are some that feel photography should remain “pure” in its natural form. However, HDR is another avenue for creative expression. I have seen a number of HDR images that are beautifully done.

Does it bother you that some photographers might look at your photos with a more than discerning eye just because of the type of images you create?

HDR photography is a form of art. You have to understand that some will like your work while others may not.

Photo by Steve Csizmadia
Photo by Steve Csizmadia

How do you feel about HDR? Leave a comment and let us know!

Midwest Photo

8 thoughts on “Tips & Tricks: High Dynamic Range

  1. HDRs can be powerful when used in the right way. I find many shoot pictures that did not really need the extra range or they over process and the picture looks fake. I still like doing HDRs the old school way and exposing one shot for the foreground and one for the sky and combining the two manually in Photoshop.

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  2. I love HDR but it’s like everything else too much is not a good thing. Steve said it best “HDR is a form of art”. And to be entirely cliché “Art is in the eye of the beholder”.

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