If you thought high-dynamic range imaging was just for garnish sunsets and implausibly lit interiors, think again
Long before high-dynamic-range (HDR) imaging entered the lexicon, photographers such as Gustave LeGray and Ansel Adams searched for ways to create images with a wider gamut of tones to better represent what is seen with the naked eye.
Even though we’ve moved from film and chemicals to digital darkroom, photographers continue to experiment with a variety of tools and techniques to pull the most detail and tonal range from their images. While photographic and lighting skills remain at the core of any image- making, digital HDR also relies heavily on post-capture work.
For processing multiple exposures—or even single frames— some photographers work manually in Adobe Photoshop alone; others depend on one or more of a growing coterie of HDR software; still others use a little bit of both. Cameras from smartphones to DSLRs now offer some form of HDR processing built in. But the best, most subtle HDR images still take a lot of work.
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Architecture and food photographer Andy Ryan first used HDR techniques in 2004, before commercial HDR software was available. He was shooting a building with deep shadows and bright highlights that he wanted to render “as a person would see it if they were actually there,” he says. “I had a lighting problem to solve, and I saw the chance to do it digitally.”
By shooting several frames at different exposures (a practice called bracketing) and combining them, he could depict details in both the shadows and highlights.
Applying HDR techniques to his food photography lets him use the best lighting and camera angle for the overall shot while emphasizing particular flavor points and textures that would otherwise have been lost.
Until recently, Ryan shunned HDR software, instead making manual adjustments in Photoshop for a realistic look. When he tried the latest version of Photomatix Pro, though, he found it “vastly improved.” Today, he uses it to “do the heavy lifting” before moving to Photoshop for final adjustments, sometimes using the Photomatix image as an additional layer with other bracketed shots.
Advertising photographer Tim Tadder, who developed his first print in the darkroom at age 12, likens HDR to traditional printing techniques. “We use so much dodging and burning and adjustment layers that it’s just like Ansel Adams did in the darkroom,” he says. “Only we use Photoshop.”