HDR ( high dynamic range) photography has become quite popular the past few years, likely due to the amazing work of Trey Ratcliff at Stuck in Customs. While I haven’t spent very much time specifically doing photography with HDR in mind, part of the new software package I just purchased from NIK contains HDR Efex Pro 2 so why not play around a little?
A few observations from viewing others work over the years are: most photographs don’t work in HDR and, most photographers overdo the HDR saturation and produce images that remind me too much of velvet paintings. My thought has always been that HDR would be a great tool to open up scenes that are incredibly contrasty but at the same time one needs to keep them looking like normal photographs. Maybe the odd photo would look cool in the velvet painting mode, certainly Trey does a very good job with his work. Looking back to my old film days I also have to admit that I wasn’t a big Fujichrome Velvia fan, the incredibly contrasty film that became so popular with the punchy colours and snappy feel. I was a Kodachome 25 photographer, more natural colours and more detail in the shadows. Of course now this is all irrelevant as the latest digital cameras contain more detail in general than we require. The Nikon D800 has about 13 stops of dynamic range compared to Velvias 5 stops and Kodachromes 7 to 8 stop range. What this means in real terms is that we have lots of detail to work with, we just have to decide how to use it.
I’ll likely get into some technical details about HDR at some point but for now I’m just going to show a few of the photos that I worked on yesterday.
This first photograph of the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France was an image that wouldn’t have worked well when shooting traditional films or even with a professional digital camera from a few years back like my old Nikon D2X which I always felt produced images very similar to the Kodachrome look. Of all the digital cameras I have owned I still think the D2X had the best “colour” of any of them but there would have been no detail in the shadow areas of the trees and the shadows on the beautiful cobblestone walk would be very dark. This image was shot with my Nikon D300 which has a dynamic range approaching 8 stops (far better than the D2X) and having been shot in RAW I was able to open up the shadow details somewhat in the processing using the Nikon NX2 software which incidentally is also developed by NIK. It makes for a good test of the modern HDR conversion software as likely the dynamic range is enough that detail fills the entire image.
The image below processed with HDR Efex Pro 2 still looks very natural while I’ve attempted to not go crazy with the saturation, in fact, most people would probably not pick this out as being an HDR photograph. I should note here that I’m using the software in single image mode where many serious HDR photographers are shooting 3 to 7 images and combining them into a single photograph. Using a single image works far better for my shooting style where I often don’t use a tripod or have moving subjects.
Between these 2 images I prefer this lower one. The open feel of the light coming through the trees is closer to what I experience when I was wandering through the cemetery.
For this second photograph of a lone tree at Torrey PInes in Southern California I decided to play around with what’s more of a traditional HDR look, the intense colours, exaggerated sky detail and the like. I actually really like the original image as this is the way the scene felt to me, somewhat calm with a soft light. This is also a very natural looking image, likely what most of us would have experienced although I know we all interpret what’s around us very differently.
Here’s the photograph processed in HDR without going overboard, it certainly has an interesting feel to it. Realistically it’s way too punchy for me but on a business side, for a poster or calendar image I bet this would be the photograph that would be picked out and published. We are so used to the oversaturated images now that realistic photos look drab. Our computers have screens designed for intensely coloured video and our IPads and smartphones are also very contrasty and intense. Maybe the days of Kodachrome are long gone.
Where does this leave me now? I’ll definitely be experimenting with this software more as I think it has amazing potential. At the same time, I like to stay true to what I saw and how I feel about a scene. Perhaps it will become another marketing tool for me, specifically developing images for the segment of the population that enjoys them. Like black and white photographs it’s just an interpretation of a subject and well; it’s art. Time will tell.