HDR : What, Why, When, How

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I always love to go down to the point and use the What, Why, When, How information flow. These were the question we learnt to ask when we were children, because we wanted to understand, just that, no other reasons. Somehow we evolved using the conditional tense and the political vocabulary which means everything and nothing, no directions every directions, very confusing.

Why HDR?

That is one of the most common question, isn’t it. HDR is very popular nowadays, for many reasons. You can even have Iphone and Android App to take HDR pictures, with average results, that look ok on the phone screen anyway, a bit less on a standard PC screen.

I love shooting HDR because I consider it a technology made to replicate what we really see when we make photos. In a cloudy day, as it happens quite often in Melbourne, most of my old pictures came out with a nice exposure on the subject, but a white overexposed sky, or, even worst, a nice cloudy sky but, sadly, an under exposed, dark, subject. I had to shoot without sky, so the exposure could be more balanced. Always a workaround

Another disappointing situation was the sunset or sunrise. Always with the sun overexposed to have a nice colour on the beach, or a fantastic sun, but a black beach….just silhouette.

I worked a lot with the brush to fix this issues, to over or under exposed part of my photo, to make the overall more exciting, till …………I started shooting HDR, with the clear benefit to have a “what you see is what you get” picture.

Add more contrast, luminosity, colour, shadow and you come out with a fantasy style picture, what I like to call Harry Potter style. This is clearly not the photo that describes 100% what you saw, but a dreamy version, that works great with so many subjects, like old 40s, 50s car, or motorbikes or push bikes or Victorian houses, but not as great with people.

What HDR?

HDR, or High Dynamic Range, “is a set of techniques that allows a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than current standard digital imaging techniques or photographic methods. This wide dynamic range allows HDR images to more accurately represent the range of intensity levels found in real scenes, ranging from direct sunlight to faint starlight, and is often captured by way of a plurality of differently exposed pictures of the same subject matter“. This is a copy&paste from Wikipedia, and it does give a good description of this technique. the picture in Wikipedia are probably not a good representation of the technique though.

Also, very important, tone-mapping techniques, which reduce overall contrast to facilitate display of HDR images on devices with lower dynamic range, can be applied to produce images with preserve (or exaggerated) local contrast for artistic effect.

I underlined the word exaggerated because it happens more and more often that people assume that HDR is a technique to create fantasy picture, which is not the case. This does happen only with exaggerated local contrast, that is ok if this is what the photographer/artist wants, although the end result is not any more a photo, I believe.

How HDR?

It is relatively easy to make HDR photos. It is quite difficult to have a good result, I always find something I want to go back and change, but that’s probably not HDR related, but just looking for a better result. I consider a photo never ended, I consider my photo alive. And it happens quite often that I go back, with a different mood…and experience, and I find a better end result for the photo. I love thinking to live with a changing and alive world of photos around me.

The first step for HDR is to have the right composition; well, that’s photography basic, isn’t it? HDR is not going to improve your photo if what you see does not interest you in the first place.

The second step is to take more pictures of the same subject with different exposure. Ideally go for 9 exposures, 5 is also a good number and 3 is the minimum, although you can have some interesting results also with one exposure (in raw format). You will find that the overexposed shot will show quite well what you have in the shadows areas, meanwhile the underexposed will allow the photo to pick the areas that otherwise would be white in a one-exposure photo, like sometime the sky, the sun or, in case of interior, the window exterior. Even if you have 9 exposures, during the post-processing, you can discard some of them if they do not bring any information; they actually have the opposite effect.

The third step is post-processing. There are different software for that, although the most popular is Photomatix.  This review is quite interesting and a good starting point. You can also download a month trial version of most of the software to test the end result. Even in Lightroom you can use the brush to over or under expose part of your photo, to give more or less light, and technically this is already expanding the Dynamic Range of your photo, a sort of manual HDR.

The fourth step is…..make the photo public, print it, or post it on a web ….share it!!

When HDR?

Not all the pictures have to be HDR. There are actually cases where HDR is not great at all. If you are making a photo of a sunset, with palms in front of you, probably the HDR technique would make the photo somehow flat, compared with just the silhouette of the trees that would give a nice dreamy effect.

Portrait HDR does not look great either. The high contrast on the skin make people weird. HDR may although help for everything else but the skin. In this case you may need to use Photoshop more extensively, and the result can be fantastic.

HDR has great results on sunset and sunrise, no question about. Also landscape look fantastic. Attention with the green side, for grass or the trees, the colour may come out too bright, and therefore to unreal.

The When section is quite interesting and I have been writing this live page, which has more detailed information about the good, the bad and the questionable results. I will never be able to complete 100% this page as I find quite frequently new conditions and I cannot stop myself updating this section. It is also a good reminder to me!!


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Stefano Ferro
Stefano is a cycling, movie and life style photographer with a big love for landscape & travel photography. When in Melbourne, his hometown, you will see him cycling around at sunset or sunrise looking for the best spot for a photo of this beautiful city. It is quite amazing how much photography gear he can pack on his bike :o

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