Thursday, March 1, 2012

High Dynamic Range (HDR): Part I

Over the next few months, we'll take a journey together, looking into the nooks and crannies of High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography.  It seems like everyone is generating HDR images because it only takes a few clicks on photo sites such as Flickr, Picasa, Smugmug, and so on to find an HDR image.  In Part I of this series, we'll look at a brief history, discuss basic equipment needed, and a brief overview of the available software. 

Stay tuned for Part II where we will dive in-depth into the inner workings of our software of choice, Photomatix Pro.  So let's get started on our journey together through the world of High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography...

Did you know that HDR is not new?  Gustave Le Gray combined two negatives, one for the sky and a longer exposure for the sea, to create a single image in 1850.  In the 1930's and 1940's Charles Wyckoff implemented the HDR imaging we use today using tone remapping to combine differently exposed film layers into a single image.  His famous, detailed photographs of nuclear explosions were featured on the front cover of Life magazine.  Manual tone-mapping became popular with artists like Ansel Adams where they could selectively increase or decrease the exposure of regions of a photograph to yield better tone reproduction. 

After the invention of the Radiance RGBE image file format in 1985 by Gregory Ward, tone mapping was able to be displayed on computer monitors and the race was on.   With a detour to the MIT laboratory in 1996 to create the radiance map, Paul Debevec broke the HDR technique to the public in 1997.  A few years later, Photoshop CS2 introduced the Merge to HDR function in 2005.  Soon after this, Photomatix entered the marketplace and became the industry standard.  HDR photography functionality was added to the iPhone4 in iOS version 4.1 on September 8th, 2010.  And the rest is history...

The gist of this history lesson is that HDR photography has gained a permament place and an increasing following in modern digital photography.  Learning HDR technique, workflows, and understanding its proper blend into the future of photography - the easier it will be to adapt to it, implement it into your own workflow in desired situations, and create images that used to reside only in our mind's eye.

Sunset of Memories HDR by Dakota Visions Photography LLC Black Hills Photography
'Sunset of Memories - HDR'

So let's start with some basics.  If you are going to be creating high-quality HDR photography, the following items are recommended:

Tripod, tripod head, and cable/wireless release.  Spend some money and get a good, stable tripod and secure head.  This can sometimes cost as much as a good quality lens but the stability will only help with the sharpness of the the multiple images.  Whether you use the self-timer on your camera or a cable/wireless release, maximum sharpness will be increased.

(Optional) Panning head.  For HDR panoramic images, a panning head or leveling head is a non-optional piece of equipment.  Maintaining exact leveling as the camera turns is the main need but also for keeping an exact coordination of images through the process.

Sunset of Memories HDR by Dakota Visions Photography LLC Black and White Farm Barn Black Hills
'Ray of Remembrance'

Camera.  No, you won't get a Nikon vs Canon argument here - just the minimum recommendations.
  • Ability to bracket in at least 1 stop increments
  • Exposure compensation should be at least -3
  • ISO speeds of at least 200 or 100 should be used to decrease the noise
  • Auto bracketing is highly recommended
  • Histogram to check exposures (it should shift from the left to ensure all highlights are captured to the right allowing the detail in shadows to be captured)

Home on the Range Buffalo Gap by Dakota Visions Photography LLC Black Hills HDR Old Abadoned Buildings Farmstead
'Home on the Range, Buffalo Gap'

Software.  In order to create the higest quality HDR photography, you'll need a RAW processing software including Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 , Aperture 3 , or Adobe Photoshop CS5 - and an HDR processing program.  You can achieve lower quality results by running your .JPEG images through the HDR processing software.

Let's take a look at what software is available for use starting with the two industry standards, Photomatix Pro and HDR Efex Pro. 

Photomatix Pro
Photomatix Pro is a photographic software developed by HDRsoft for Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows.  It is designed primarily to make the process of merging multiple photographs into high dynamic range images and then locally tone-mapping them back to LDR images, easier and more streamlined than most of its competitors. 

It's strengths are an easy to use interface, an intuitive workflow, and it works extremely well in outdoor daytime HDR photographs.  Photomatix Pro can be used as a standalone program or integrated into Lightroom/Photoshop which produces strong results and a solid workflow.  One key point for the photographer that plans to shoot large shoots with many exposures, Photomatix Pro has a batch processing feature that allows you to merge multiple sets of HDR into 32-bit images automatically allowing you to proceed with other work while processing.  One let down of Photomatix Pro is the blue tint introduced from streaming outdoor light in indoor shots.

HDR Efex Pro
HDR Efex Pro has the same intuitive and easy to use interfaces that most Nik softaware provides.  While Photomatix Pro has a small number of presets available, Efex Pro introduces a great variety including many natural looking presets.  Nik's patented 'U Point Technology' is a strong point for when you want to fine tune small areas of the image.  One con that we would list is the color of outdoor photographs from Photomatix Pro outshines Efex Pro.

Photoshop CS5 HDR
While Adobe Photoshop CS5 has introduced some basic HDR features, it's main strength is fine-tuning the images after having completed tone-mapping in other HDR software.  Lightroom, Photoshop, or other software are key components to the workflow of HDR photography including sharpening, blemish removal, and any heal/cloning work.

Fhotoroom HDR (Formerly Artizen HDR)
Fhotoroom is a Windows only HDR program that excels when used for indoor HDR photography.  The step-by-step intuitive workflow found in the other recommended products is not available with Artizen.  One other major note is that Artizen keeps most of the EXIF data intact compared to the other HDR software programs.  I would not recommend Artizen to those just beginning in HDR photography.

While there are other speciality software available for HDR photography, the ones listed above are the mainstay for most delving into the realm of HDR photography. 

Stay tuned for our next installment of HDR photography posts where we will cover Photomatix Pro's workflow and suggested settings.  We hope you take a peek at some of our HDR photography on the Dakota Visions Photography, LLC website!

If you have any great HDR photographs to share, please place them in the comments below.  We are glad to help you spread your photography.  Also, if you have enjoyed this article, please pass it along via your social media of choice.  Join our blog by providing your email at the upper right hand corner of the blog or signing up for our RSS/Atom feeds. 

We'll see you behind the lens...

(As an editorial note, we do receive a small referral fee from if you choose to purchase your software through them.  We highly recommend it not because of the referral fee, but because of the customer service and prices that we have received in the past.  Thank you.) Google

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