A lot of photographers don’t think very positive thoughts when they hear the words high dynamic range, or HDR. However, I want to keep an open mind and see if HDR is a processing technique that could benefit me. Compared to our eyes the dynamic range of a camera sensor is much lower. Usually very bright parts tend to blow out if you also want to preserve the shadow detail. The point of HDR is to compensate for this by taking many pictures, containing the whole range of luminosity values. Then you blend them and create a file with the full range of exposure information.
In theory, that is. Most of the time the results aren’t directly pleasing. Just google Tone Mapping at your own risk... Yes you can call it digital art, but at lot of people don’t have that in mind when applying it. Too often it becomes a crutch for lacking skills in photography. The effect becomes the point of interest rather than what is in the picture. At least when it was new it drew a lot of attention because it was a very different looking style. Now it hasn’t aged well at all. In the better cases it looks like a video game, in the worst like a grey soup without highlights or shadows.
The reason for the negative association to HDR (really bad HDR is usually referred to as clown vomit!) is definitely the tone mapping crazy that was all the rage a few years ago. Especially for pictures of abandoned buildings. The question here becomes whether the technique has a place anymore? Not all HDR have to be overcooked, I would say that the best HDR is the one you don’t notice. Or at least that doesn't grab all the attention in the photo. It is possible to use it as a mere technique for extending the dynamic range without it becoming apparent. That's what I want to try here.
It is many years since I tried using HDR, simply because I didn’t like the over processed look. It does indeed increase the dynamic range of the image but the results often looked so strange that I didn't want to use it. Further processing should probably be done to make it look natural again, while still preserving the added dynamic range. I just haven't had the need and want to do this much processing very often. I prefer to get as much right in camera as possible.
A Scene to Process
I’ve been looking for scenes where I could try this technique. Too see if I actually come across scenes where I would need to apply it. And I just didn't want to use anything just for the sake of testing, it would have to make sense to actually use this technique. This scene with the sun shining through the tree seemed like a great candidate. When I was shooting it seemed like the camera wasn't handling the dynamic range. So I set up my camera on a tripod and took a few shots to be sure I would capture as much information as possible. For blending I first just used the tool in Lightroom, which seemed to be adequate. I tried the one in Photoshop as well, which is more advanced but the results weren't better for this. The initial result needed some more adjusting for it to look how I wanted it too. Certainly the purpose of extending the dynamic range was fulfilled. (The first picture)
The thing is though… I also tried just editing one exposure to see whether I would get the same results. And, yes, that is exactly what I got (The second picture). One file actually contained enough information to pull up the shadow detail without loosing detail and making it noisy. Also, the colors were preserved better and I like the results from the single exposure more. I didn’t see any increased noise in shadows either. The camer I used was a Fujifilm X-T1. (N.B. to two pictures aren't edited to exactly match each other, it wasn't as easy to get similar out of the HDR-file).
Apparently the camera sensors can capture enough information for HDR to be mostly unnecessary for this purpose. Now you might argue that I should have tried editing the single exposure first. Maybe, but without trying HDR I wouldn't know if the results were better or not. The scene itself contains a lot of dynamic range and generally I don’t shoot scenes with more than this. If I was photographing inside a building and wanted to preserve the detail outside the windows it could be useful. Usually graduated filters in post processing are enough to preserve the highlights. In some cases artificial lighting can be used to compensate. Such as it is, I don't benefit from using HDR at the moment. Probably there is a lot more to learn about it but it is not a priority right now. If I come across a lot of subjects with extreme variations in dynamic range I might consider continuing this.
-File →Automate → Merge to HDR Pro