Photographing the Impossible

The sun sets behind this beautiful temple in Kolkata, India

Back in the days of film based photography there were just some things you learned not to photograph. Doing otherwise would lead to disappointment and frustration. One such example often occurred when photographing directly into the sun. A severely backlit subject would photograph black under such circumstances and, unless you were trying to achieve a silhouette, you were in trouble.

Fancy Gear Doesn’t Always Help

Under certain circumstances a reflector or fill flash could be used to add light to the subject, thereby reducing the contrast between it and the much brighter background. But, in the case of landscape or architectural photography, these techniques were usually inadequate due to the subject’s greater size and distance from the flash.

While there are always exceptions to the rule, in most cases the scenario I’ve outlined was beyond the dynamic range of the film in question, the technology of the camera (some modern digital cameras have a crude version of the HDR solution built in) and the abilities of the vast majority of darkroom enthusiasts.

How I Constantly Scored Good Exposures

In the case of the above scene I simply wouldn’t have make the photo. Or, if I did, I’d have waited till the dynamic range of the scene was within the range of my film/darkroom capabilities. I could wait until the sun sank behind the temple or, alternatively, return at the opposite time of day (e.g., sunrise rather than sunset). Of course, while doing so would have produced a technically more acceptable result, it would not be the exact scene I was originally drawn to. 

It was this kind of knowledge that, towards the end of my time working with film, enabled me to routinely achieve 33 out of 36 perfect exposures on every roll of film (even transparency film) that went through my camera. That’s right, none of that silly exposure bracketing for me. No sir!

Getting Back to Relevancy

The same is true for digital cameras though, just like film, some cameras handle high dynamic range scenes better than others.

A view down a stone corridor at Helligenkreuz Abbey in Austria.

Enter HDR

However, when it comes to DSLR cameras, the key factor determining your success when photographing scenes of extreme dynamic range is not so much dependent upon the camera, though some are better equipped in this regard than others, but the process known as High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography.

I’ve written about HDR, on this site before. The process involves the following:

  1. Making 3 or more images of the same scene at different brightness levels (e.g., -2, MAR, +2) so that a good exposure for shadows, mid tones and highlights will be recorded.
  2. The next step is to combine the best areas of each of these separate exposures into a single, new composite image. This can be done via a plugin, built into recent versions of Photoshop, or through a series of dedicated HDR applications such as Aurora HDRNik HDR Efex Pro 2 and Photomatix Pro 5.

Please Note:

By the way MAR is an acronym standing for Meter As Read. It’s when the camera’s light meter indicates that the correct about of light will reach the film or sensor. It’s important to note that, in this regard, cameras are frequently wrong.   

Most folks commonly make 3 exposures, at 2-stop increments, as part of their HDR in-camera workflow. In fact I commonly make 5 or more exposures, but at 1-stop increments. I figure the extra exposures will provide finer graduation in tones in the final image. My current camera, a Sony a7Rii, allows me to make up to 9 photos in 1-stop increments. (That was also true for my previous Nikon D800e camera). That also provides me with a 4-stop exposure range, when doing a series of 9 images at 1-stop increments, compared to the relatively limited 2-stop range offered by my former Canon 5D Mark II camera.

Bringing HDR to a Hindu Temple Near You

And, when I’m photographing scenes of extreme contrast, that extra range makes a significant difference to the final result. If I’d had it when I made the above image I would have been able to hold more tone in the sun. As it was the 3 exposures, made via the common -2, MAR, +2 method with my former Canon 5D Mark II, required considerable extra work in Lightroom and Photoshop to produce the above result.  And even now I feel the sun is too light.

Be Careful, We’re Not Done Yet

Most folks leave it at that, but I prefer to re-work the new composite image in much the same way I would a normal, unprocessed file straight out of my camera.

These days the term HDR has, regrettably, become associated with often pretty tacky looking images. That’s because of the so-called awesome presets a lot of folks use to process their photos. Don’t get me wrong there are some excellent presets out there. The trouble seems to be that folks either choose the wrong preset for the image in question or consider the preset to be the end of the process, rather than a starting point in the post processing workflow.

I prefer a more traditional approach called Tone Mapping. In this case you use software (I still use Photoshop, though set to 32Bit) to simply combine the best part of each photo into the new composite image without applying any extra effects. This approach provides me with a fairly flat looking image that, nonetheless, contains far more information than would be the case with a singe camera exposure. I can then process the image, in line with my own preferences and how the image in question speaks to me, without having adjustments and decisions imposed on me by a preset that’s likely outside of my own personal aesthetic.

On one level it doesn’t matter which application you use to arrive at your result, you just need to be happy with the result you’ve achieved. However, notions of beauty are not purely based upon outcome, they are also based upon your audience’s appreciation and, sometimes, understanding of the methods and mediums (e.g., watercolor versus oil paint) in which you’re working. All of the HDR applications I mention produce great results. I just prefer to use an application where I remain in control of the process. 

By all means feel good about the results you’ve achieved or what amazing discoveries the process has led you to. Just ensure you’re aware of how far the image has been altered during the process. This is the best way to determine, prior to publishing and sharing, if the result is somewhat overcooked.

Technology Should Enhance Creativity

What’s important is that photography remains fun and that all the gear, techniques, apps and methods we use serve our own creative intentions. By all means work intuitively and allow yourself to be taken on a journey. That’s as much a part of the learning process as it is about the creative process. Just be in the habit of constantly reviewing where your image is compared to where it’s come from (e.g., preview, history, edit/undo/redo). That tip alone could prevent you from surrendering creative control to a piece of software that doesn’t actually know what (e.g., tree, face, cloud) you’ve photographed let alone how you've responded, emotionally, to it. Even Jackson Pollack's creative masterpiece Blue Poles is underpinned by technical discipline and sound aesthetic choices.  

The Tone Mapping aspect of HDR provides photographers with a wonderful method by which to produce images from scenes that would once have been considered to be beyond our ability to record in the way we originally perceived them. Now, with a composite image containing a far greater dynamic range than was previously possible with a single exposure, our ability to produce images that better represent the original scene and our own creative intentions has been dramatically increased.

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The New World of HDR

I employ HDR photography frequently when photographing landscape and architecture. Actually I was late to the game, not building this process into my regular workflow until mid 2011. You know, old dogs and new tricks. But, as you either have or will likely discover, once you start there’s just no going back. The technical advantages and creative freedoms HDR offers are simply amazing.

The fact is that I never really considered HDR to be outside of photography. It’s really just another tool, another step in the creative workflow. The only reason I mention it here is for those folks who either don’t know about it or are having trouble implementing it.

The fact is that, while HDR is a new world for many, it’s really quite a straightforward process to implement. One you might like to investigate further. As always, I’m here to help you along the road.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru