Photographing high-contrast situations, frequently encountered around sunrise or sunset, has long been problematic. If you employ high dynamic range, or HDR, methods appropriately, you may capture those images with more clarity and a “natural” appearance.
Photographers like Galen Rowell contributed to the invention of the rectangular graded neutral density filter (GND filter), which had a dark end and a clear end in the days of film. Landscape photographers used these filters largely to make the sky or mountains darker to better match foreground exposures. High-contrast situations that were previously impossible to expose in a single frame adequately might be captured with these filters.
Although it was technically feasible to combine numerous exposures of the same scene to make a single HDR image using film, a new approach was introduced with the development of digital photography. This novel method immediately gained widespread acceptance and popularity, to the point that it gave rise to a whole new genre of photographs that exhibit greater shadow and highlight detail than the naked eye can perceive. Even while this approach gained popularity, some more conventionally inclined photographers and picture editors reacted negatively to it. Such statements as “that image don’t appear real” or “that shot looks Photoshopped” might be made. I would contend that it also contributed to the general public’s declining appreciation of a photograph of a landscape that is genuinely well-crafted, correctly illuminated, and seems natural.
I’ve found that certain photo editors flatly prohibit the submission of any HDR photographs because I frequently collaborate with them. To make scenes look as natural as possible at the time, I frequently used graduated neutral density filters. However, I soon learned that in many cases, carefully and tastefully merging multiple images into HDR files allowed me to produce images that were more believable than if I had used my go-to GND filters. They were so convinced that I (along with many other photographers) was guilty of covertly submitting natural-looking HDR photographs to renowned publications without HDR rules and routinely having them selected and published. I was mostly utilizing GND filters at the time, but it was obvious that HDR would take over once the procedure became simpler.
HDR Photography Today
As people learned what was possible during the early years of HDR, it was a little like the Wild West. Some wildly exaggerated stuff gave HDR photographs a terrible reputation. In contrast, HDR photos are already the rule rather than the exception in 2020. Software that was formerly extremely complicated and frequently produced gaudy photographs is now so simple to use that it is feasible to capture high-contrast scenes that photographers wouldn’t even have tried shooting a decade ago.
With the help of Adobe Lightroom, it is possible to quickly combine different exposures into a single image. With considerably greater dynamic range than a single exposure, the composite image may then be further edited using all of Lightroom’s features. I can now open shadows or save highlights by several stops more than what a single RAW file from even the greatest cameras on the market can generate. And unlike GND filters, which only allow me to change exposure worldwide, I can make these adjustments locally as needed. Lightroom is so quick and user-friendly that I no longer even bother utilizing the more complex, specialist HDR applications that could offer you a little advantage over the Lightroom technique.
How To Use HDR
One typical error I now notice when working with my workshop students is that they bracket almost every composition, even though their camera sensor can easily handle the contrast range of the scene. This is due to the convenience of HDR. While HDR may occasionally be used to learn more about the highlights and shadows, there are other occasions when it is just a waste of storage space on your card—and, more significantly, your editing time. You have an increased number of frames to choose through when choosing your finest photos when you bracket exposures for every scenario.
Checking your histogram periodically to make sure you are correctly exposing your picture and to see whether you are losing information at one or both ends of the tonal range is the simplest approach to determine if you need to start bracketing for HDR. You start bracketing for an HDR image whenever you start going over the histogram’s range.
I normally take groups of three shots (not five) while bracketing, with one shot being underexposed, one being properly exposed, and one being overexposed. Although the scene slightly affects how I alter exposure between frames, I often bracket in two- or even three-stop increments.
Additionally, keep in mind that it’s not always the case that your meter says is correctly presented. Examine the histogram, particularly under challenging lighting conditions.
Traditional Filters are Still Useful
Although you might believe that carrying graded neutral density filters is no longer necessary, there are still instances where a GND filter is preferable, regardless of how excellent HDR has gotten.
HDR is typically the best choice for taking static, tripod-based landscape photographs, but keep in mind that you must bracket several frames for subsequent mixing. What if you’re hand-holding the camera or trying to capture something moving quickly? Your bracketed frames may no longer line up correctly on some or all of them. When there is movement, the best option is still to use a GND filter to bring the scene’s contrast back into the range of the sensor. There is some wonderful software magic that deals with “ghosting” or helps line up pictures.
Even if we haven’t reached that point yet, I can envisage a day when even action photos would be feasible without the need for a GND filter. Imagine a camera that can capture images with a dynamic range greater than the human eye or that can take pictures so swiftly that an HDR can be produced in-camera of a moving subject. These technologies probably won’t be too far off. The pace of continuous shooting is increasing, and sensors grow better every. I predict that in ten years, HDR photographs won’t even be a topic of conversation, and nobody will even remember carrying and using graded neutral density filters.
How wonderful it is to be a photographer nowadays. It’s already feasible to produce visuals that weren’t even thought of a few years ago, and things will only get better.