My First HDR Photos

HDR Johnston Canyon by Lindsay Adler
HDR Johnston Canyon by Lindsay Adler

I've known about HDR for years. In case you aren't aware, HDR stands for "High Dynamic Range". It is a way to achieve a greater tonal range in an image (closer to what that human eye can see) by combining multiple images with different exposures. While the human eye sees around 11 stops of light (from deep shadows, the bright highlights), typical cameras only capture around 5. HDR helps to remedy this incongruity.

I haven't ever really made an HDR image before this week. In effect been shooting in HDR for many years, even before it really existed. I would shoot high-contrast scenes in many different exposures and then combine them in Photoshop using layer masks. I would mask in and out different areas of an image to help increase the overall tonal range of the photograph. When I heard about HDR I started shooting different scenes with multiple exposures, but never went ahead and combined them.

This week, however, I went back into my archives and found some images I had shot with HDR in mind. The image above was taken at Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. I took this in early October last year (2009). It was a freezing cold day, but the sky was clear and bright. When walking in the canyon, these falls were set back in a little alcove. In fact, to get this angle I had to climb into a little passageway in the rock that let out into a tiny overlook to the falls. The water (as seen in the pool at the bottom) was actually this color. The stream here was fed by glacial water and glacial water is filled with tiny rock (and other material) particles called "glacial silt". These suspended particles in the water create this gorgeous turquoise/blue color due to refraction. It was surreal seeing it in person... sometimes an image detracts because we all know it could be enhanced with Photoshop. But in person, the sight was no less breathtaking. The scene was incredibly contrasty... incredibly bright highlights and very deep, dark shadows. HDR would be the only way for me to even remotely express what the scene actually looked like (though I did add some more artistic effects as well).

I took these five images shown below. I kept my aperture consistent, and shot with exposure compensations of -2, -1, 0, +1, +2. For many months these just sat on a hard drive until I decide to try out Photoshop CS5's new merge to HDR Pro. Yes, I know about the HDRSoft PhotoMatix plugin for Photoshop (and Lightroom), but I just never taken the time to really work on HDR images. I imported my Banff images into Lightroom, and opened these five images using the "Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop CS5" option. I was able to achieve the result above using Photoshop's HDR Pro.

HDR How-To by Lindsay Adler
HDR How-To by Lindsay Adler

I will tell you that in the past I have been slightly disinclined to like HDR images... or should I say "overly" HDR images (like I have in this example). I feel that so many people are throwing an HDR effect onto a mediocre image, and the result is just a mediocre HDR image. To the untrained eye, the image still looks 'cool' because its in HDR... but its overuse makes it feel a bit cliche. Actually, unless it is very well done it feels VERY cliche. Then I came across the work of fellow photographer Trey Ratcliff, and it made me stop and take another look at HDR photography. His images are incredible... and uses HDR how it 'SHOULD' be used. If you take a look at Trey's website, Stuck in Customs, I know you too will be impressed. Go check. Now!

Either way... I'd say my very first attempts HDR photography were successful!

PS: I will tell you that I found that MANY if not most of my HDR attempts I had tried in the past were NOT successful when I actually tried to make them HDR images. Either they were too contrasty, or had too many sharp edges, and much more. As I learn more about 'what works and what doesnt' in HDR, I'll be sure to include more posts!

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  • When taking images for HDR, it is strongly advised to avoid subjects with moving elements 🙂

  • Lindsay, nice write up. I agree with you 100% about how cliche HDR has become, but just like anything else it has a place when used effectively. Trey’s photos are awesome, thanks for mentioning him.

    I think the water in this photo ended up looking awesome, almost like a long exposure with an ND filter but still maintaining the texture and mood of the water hitting the bottom of the waterfall.

  • I took a photo from the same spot a year ago! (July 2009) and got soo wet 🙂 Banff is lovely i hope i can go back one day. Love the photo think I would prefer it in black and white but then again i usually prefer black and white. I agree that hdr has become very cliche but think of other post production techniques such as selective colouring colour (b&W photo red rose etc *shudder*) it will eventually fall out of fashion. Although HDR is a good technique to use in difficult lighting conditions, only in the past year have i come to understand how many of my own images whould qualify as HDR by painting with different layer created from the same RAW file.

    Laura Alice x

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