My Most Extreme HDR Image Yet

These are the three images I blended using the High Dynamic Range program called Photomatix Pro. The images are two stops underexposed (top), correctly exposed (middle), and two stops overexposed (bottom).
These are the three images I blended using the High Dynamic Range program called Photomatix Pro. The images are two stops underexposed (top), correctly exposed (middle), and two stops overexposed (bottom).

A popular technique for managing contrast in imagery is called High Dynamic Range, or HDR. Typically the technique employs combining three or more images, identical except for exposure, using software.

Photographing the same scene using different exposures is called bracketing. Bracketing was a necessary evil in the days of film, in situations involving complex light that was difficult to meter. We would make three or four or five bracketed images, then pick the best-exposed of the bunch for our final product. Ansel Adams, possibly the greatest nature photographer of the 20th century, regarded bracketing as lazy and imprecise, but of course, he wasn’t shooting news and sports, and could take his time to analyze exposure and contrast.

With digital photography, particularly with features like histograms and blinking highlights, getting the correct exposure no longer requires the “spray and pray” exposure method. Still, bracketing is a feature of almost every digital SLR on the market, and it allows us to create some very interesting images. HDR is easy to abuse, and sometimes the result can be disturbingly garish and unnatural.

Blending several different exposures works by capturing the highlights in the images exposed to properly render the bright parts of the image, and capturing the shadow areas in images properly exposed for the dark portions of the scene, and blending them together.

The example before you is, I hope, interesting and exciting without crossing the line into garishness. I made it at Waterholes Canyon in Arizona in May. I had the canyon to myself, so I had all the time I needed (unlike at Antelope Canyon, which was so crowded it was difficult to find time or space to work patiently.) I had a small tripod with me, and with my Nikon D80 on it with my 12-24mm, I made the three images you see to the right, bracketed at two-stop intervals. I then used a program called Photomatix Pro to blend them. This program has a number of built-in presets for various blending effects, from “Fusion” , which is quite mild, to “Painterly,” which is quite wild. The final image below used the “Compressor – Smooth” blending method, with a few tweaks of the sliders to get the values I wanted. I then exported to image as a 16-bit TIFF, which I edited in Adobe Photoshop with a few more modest tweaks, including using the brush tool to make the sky bluer.

This is the final product, a fairly wild rendition of the original scene, using Photomatix Pro's "Enhancer - Smooth" tonemapped blending method.
This is the final product, a fairly wild rendition of the original scene, using Photomatix Pro’s “Enhancer – Smooth” tonemapped blending method.
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