Have you ever seen a landscape or cityscape that looked hyper-realistic, or even fantastical -- a shot with amazing detail in the shadows, midtones, and highlights all at the same time?
It may have been perfect shooting conditions in the field, with a graduated neutral density filter or some other filter stacking combo, or maybe it was painstakingly crafted in Photoshop with tons of dodging and burning and layer masking.
Or it may have been a High-Dynamic Range Image (HDR), such as the lead image for this story. Often explained as "seeing more like the human eye," HDR imaging combines several shots of a given scene to overcome the exposure range limitations of traditional single-shot photography -- and the final results have much more detail from shadows to highlights, and everywhere in between.
HDR imaging has exploded over the past year, with discussion groups and websites devoted to techniques and critiquing the results. The popular photo-sharing site Flickr boasts more than 5,000 members in its HDR group, where users can browse more than 22,000 HDR images.
So how do you get started creating your own HDR images? This step-by-step tutorial will help you get started using either the popular HDR software from Photomatix or the built-in HDR features found in Photoshop CS2 and Bridge.
The sample images in this tutorial were taken one evening in Charleston, South Carolina. I really wanted an image that showed some of the beautiful colors of the waterfront mansions along East Battery. The problem: the houses on East Battery face east, the sun was setting in the west, and the mansions were all in shadows. There were some nice sunset-colored clouds on the eastern horizon, but the exposure difference between the house (to achieve a nice, vivid pink) and the twilight sky was at least 5 full stops apart. If I exposed for the mansion, I'd lose the sky. If I shot for the sky, all but the sky was a silhouetted mess of shadows. Splitting the distance between the two extremes did neither dramatic element justice.
Here was a serious photo challenge, and the perfect test subject for High Dynamic Range imaging. I set up my tripod and bracketed a series of exposures of the location, shooting every scene anywhere from five times from dark to light, all the way to 12 exposures in one instance. No photo on the LCD of my camera looked good. My take was underexposed save for a great sky, flat "compromise" images, and images where only the darkest details weren't seriously overexposed. I'd have to wait until I returned to my digital darkroom to see if my gamble paid off.