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What is HDR? Why is it better than standard photography?
What is HDR?
As I'm running around with my camera taking photos, I often find myself explaining the beauty of HDR photography to other people, so I thought I'd do it here as well. "HDR" stands for "High Dynamic Range." These words are a perfect way to describe the end result--a photo that is able to capture all of the variances of light that the human eye can see. It is also commonly called "High Definition." I've posted many HDR photos on this website already, so I apologize for not explaining the technique earlier ;-)
Have you ever seen a breathtaking view and happen to have your camera with you? You feel lucky and take a few shots, but then when you print them or view them on your monitor, they just seem flat, and the life of the scene is lost. Most likely, this is because the scene you saw had a lot of contrast with extreme light and dark areas. Your camera gets confused about what to do, and basically does the best it can. These situations are where we are really able to tell that a digital camera is inferior to the abilities of the human eye. HDR is able to overcome this, and it creates a scene much closer to what you remember.
How do you create a HDR image?
HDR photography is a growing trend that has turned great photos into incredible ones. Here's how it works. Almost all SLR cameras (the cameras that are a step above common pocket-size point and shoot cameras) are able to take shots in autobracketing mode. This simply means that the camera will take the same picture several times using different exposures in successive quick bursts. Most often, three exposures does the trick. The exposures are then merged inside a software program (I use Photomatix). What this does is come much closer to what the human eye can do by processing these extreme variants of dark and light sources. The results allows dark areas and shadows come to life, while at the same time, allowing harsh light to be visible without overpowering the detail near or inside it.
Let's take a look at a couple of examples to demonstrate why HDR is superior to traditional, one-exposure, photography.
Below is a picture of the historic Temple Square in Salt Lake City. I had to get a great shot of this incredible architecture.
The picture above is the end result if you took one shot at what the camera believes would be the right exposure. Not bad, but it just doesn't quite give you the sense of vibrance of the scene and the sky is washed out behind it.
On the photo above, if you were to adjust the exposure so that the sky does not get washed out, you'd lose all of the beautiful details in the foreground.
If you want the beautiful details in the foreground, the temple and sky are totally ruined.
No matter how you take the picture, it seems like a no-win situation. However, this is where HDR saves the day. By taking all three exposures and merging them, you can creat a stunning image that keeps all the details intact. Here's the resulting processed HDR image below that took the best parts of all the images above and combined it all into a single gem.
HDR is also great for photos of people.
If you've seen HDR photos before, you probably know that most times the photo is a beautiful landscape or building like shown above. However, there are many times where traditional portrait shots can be improved exponentially by using HDR methodology. Let's take a look at another example below.
Here are some of my friends at a wedding reception in Salt Lake City at Red Butte Gardens. It was in a beautiful atrium with a lot of windows which most certainly makes a recipe for distaster when it comes to making a great photo. This is because of the extremes of light, some areas of the image very dark and other parts extremely bright. HDR is here to save the day once again.
This is the shot (above) you'd probably get with almost any camera. My friends' faces can be seen, but a bit dark, while the background is there but washed out.
This is a much better shot of the true subject, my friends, but it is evident that the scene is lost since the beautiful backdrop is gone. There's no longer any context to the event inside the picture. My friends might as well be sitting on Mars!
Well, we can get the beautiful backdrop, but then it comes at the expense of losing my friends in the photo. Again, this seems like a no-win situation.
That is, of course, until HDR processing enables you to capture the best parts of each exposure and put them all into one picture as displayed below.
If you have a camera that allows autobracketing, you might want to do yourself a favor and learn and experiment with HDR. It will certainly take your photography to the next level.
Here are a few other HDR photos for some examples:
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