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Welcome back all and Happy New Year, I know it’s been a while since there’s been a blog post but I’ve been very tied up with new photo shoots. I thought we would touch on a topic that is fast becoming a “very big thing” in the photo community for both hobbyists and professionals alike. HDR Photography…it’s a term that I’m sure you’ve heard tossed around, but many people aren’t sure what it is, and what it can do for your photos.

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. Have you ever tried to take a photo of a landscape with lots of trees and a nice bright blue sky only to discover that the photo doesn’t look like the scene in front of you at all? Perhaps the sky is perfectly exposed but the trees are all dark. Or maybe the trees look perfect but the sky is so blown out it almost looks white. What happened?

Perfect sky, dark shadows

Overexposed sky, nice shadows

You think perhaps something is wrong with your camera? Or those damn kids tinkered with your settings again? Rest assured your camera is working just as it should. The real problem is eyes. “The kids have been tinkering with my eyes?” No, you see the human eye is the best camera ever invented. It can see and properly expose a very wide range of light. Wider than any camera ever made.

Think about a night scene, you’re walking along a street, there are very bright street lights, headlights of cars, but when you look up at the sky you can still see the stars and even perhaps a blue tint to the sky. This is because the human eye can actually see a range of over 24 f-stops of light. This range of light is referred to as “dynamic range”. It is the difference between the minimum and maximum amount of light that can be seen at the same time. The very wide dynamic range of the human eye allows us to clearly discern both the bright street lights and the very dim stars all at the same time.

Unfortunately, we’re not so lucky with our cameras. Even the best digital cameras made only have a dynamic range of 10-14 f-stops. This makes our camera’s almost 1000x less sensitive than our eyes. This is why when you try to shoot the same scene with a wide dynamic range of light with your camera it doesn’t look anything like it did when you were looking at the scene through your own eyes. So what can we do to fix this? Do we have to take everyone we know with us when we travel somewhere so they can all see the same scene with their own eyes?

As awesome as that would be, although I imagine it would be tough to coordinate all of those schedules, this is where HDR photography comes in, or High Dynamic Range. HDR Photography allows you to shoot a particular scene with 3 or 5 different exposures and then using special software combine all those photos into one that has the best exposed parts of each individual photo. So now you can shoot that sky and tree scene exposing for the sky in one photo, the trees in another, and all the other pieces in between. Then combine them into one beautifully exposed photo throughout.

The last time I was at Disney’s Animal Kingdom I took these 5 photos of the “Tree of Life”. Each one is exposed slightly differently so that the set covers the full dynamic range of light present in the scene.

Tree of Life -2 exposure

Tree of Life -1 exposure

Tree of Life 0 exposure

Tree of Life +1 exposure

Tree of Life +2 exposure

When we combine all of these together using software capable of creating HDR photos such as Photoshop or Topaz Adjust, the software picks the best exposed parts of each photo to create a single one that represents the entire dynamic range of light that was in the scene. It makes a High Dynamic Range photo which looks like this:

Tree of Life HDR Photo

As you can see this photo now shows everything from the sky to the ground to the tree perfectly exposed. I’ve actually just started toying with HDR photography and it takes quite a bit of practice to get good at it. I’ll be the first to admit that I have quite a ways to go. Like with anything else though practice makes perfect! So the next time you find yourself shooting and the scene doesn’t look quite the same in your camera as it does in person, think about creating an HDR photo.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of HDR Photography in this blog post. It was really meant to be an overview of the process rather than an in-depth how to. There are many people who do this type of work better than I so it would be worth it for you to check out some of their pages and their awesome photography.

The website “Stuck in Customs” is an awesome site created by Trey Ratcliff with a great free tutorial on how to create HDR photos. Don’t forget to check out his awesome gallery as well here. After looking at these photos one thing is clear, you can’t help but be “wowed” by a good HDR photo.

As always please feel free to post your results, leave comments, and ask questions. Happy Shooting!

Scott Dengrove is a professional photographer from the NYC area. Scott’s work has been featured in many national photography competitions and published in several nationally circulated magazines and publications. In addition, his work can currently be seen in 3 exhibits at Cosi® restaurants in New York and Connecticut. For more information, and to see more of Scott’s work visit his website at www.dengrovestudios.com and connect with him on his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/dengrovestudios