Sunday, September 25, 2011

Photography 201: What is HDR?

Recently I made the jump to HDR photography because a new real estate job required it.  For a few years now I've been impressed by the HDR results I've seen from my peers but haven't had the reason, other than hobby, to make the leap myself.  But once you do, it's hard to go back. Combining the light and dark exposures of a single image, HDR can capture both sunrise and sunset in the same image, that is if you have the patience for it.  Many pros think it's cheating, but as someone who grew up with the cumbersomeness (and failures) of shooting with film and the darkroom, I wouldn't label any new technology as cheating.

High dynamic range imaging (HDRI or HDR) is a technique that brings together the lightest and darkest exposures of an image into balance with computer processing through special programs.   If Ansel Adams were around, he'd be eating this system up, as it takes the time of burning and dodging images out of your "darkroom" schedule entirely. 

However to truly make use of an HDR program and the HDR technique, you must first understand the key of bracketing, (below) the gathering of many exposures for one image. Impossible without the stability of a tripod, this is the key tool to the HDR technique.  Set up your tripod, and take at least 3, preferably 6-9 exposures of the same image. Many SLR cameras can be set to take a bracket series with just one click of the shutter, but this isn't as vital as the tripod. I always set the 2-second timer however, so my finger on the shutter doesn't alter the camera's location by even a millimeter, as this will create "ghosts" in your final image.  Because the image needs to be stable, HDR is a technique usually reserved for still life only, although some pretty artistic, yet abstract, imagery can be created from any action within the image as well.

Additional software is also required for HDR, and the program of choice for beginners is Photomatix. While there are many programs to choose from, this one packs the most punch for the $100 price. Drag in 3-7 (or more) exposures of the same image, click through the easy processing to map the tones, and voila, a magestic combined image is formed. (below)

Depending on the time of day of shooting, HDR will create a glow around the areas of an image that are usually dark, while maintaining the brilliancy of the sky or other background.

When shooting interiors, it turns a relatively dark image of the home's rooms into a well balanced image where what's outside is in balance with what's inside. (below)

In addition to the tripod and Photomatix, the third key addition to your arsenal is a good wide angle lens.  Since I shoot on Canon, this is where my research always takes me, and their EF-S 10-22mm USM is one of the top ultra-wide-angle-lenses in its range for the price (around $800).  But my trick is to test a lens first for a project before I buy it, because doing so is extremely inexpensive through LensRentals.

And last, if your budget doesn't yet allow the gadgets and gizmos, HDR is now even available as a phone app for both Apple and Droid platforms.  After testing several versions, I stuck with ProHDR for my Droid because of it's high ratings and plethora of settings, and got some great images from the get-go. 

Now get shootin'!