Are your tools working with or against you?

At times it feels like I spend most of my effort in photography fighting the seemingly narrow dynamic range of my digital camera.  Landscape photographers who create images in the forest have to deal with shadows under trees, shadows in textures, highlights in the sky, specular reflections from leaves and water, etc.  It’s just a pain sometimes to get all the details you want to show up in the image.  Issues like this are what drive me to large format cameras and black-and-white film that has an enormous dynamic range compared to my digital sensor.

Apparently there were engineer/photographers at various companies who were as frustrated as me because they created a solution – high dynamic range photography.  Instead of trying to get all the detail in a single image you can make multiple images, each capturing a part of the details, and merge them together into a final image.  You see a lot of this in varying degrees of “realism” depending on the artist’s intent but for my B&W landscapes I’m really only interested in making sure all the details I see get into the image.

Here’s an example of what I’m faced with.  A single image taken in very flat light (overcast, late afternoon) has to compromise on whether to render the lighter or darker details more accurately.  Looking at this I just don’t see the detailed textures and tones that were present when I was standing there.  This image suggests I was looking at a flat, grey landscape.  It’s the joy and agony of having the human eye, one of the best visual capture systems around but unmatched by mere digital cameras.

HDR created from 13 merged images

It was a quiet day, very little wind, so I decided to run through a range of exposures, each one different by just a small amount but correctly exposing the light areas, the dark areas, and all the tones in between.  Using NIK HDR Efex Pro I merged the 13 images together into one picture, made some slight adjustments to local contrast, and came up with this version.  Now it looks like I remember.  The texture in the tree bark, in the leaves on the ground, in the grass in the background.  It’s a much more “alive” scene for me in this version.

You may like the first one better – it’s moody, dark, somewhat mysterious.  I like that for certain applications but for this particular image I wanted the widest range of tones, finest level of details, and lots of reasons for the eye to travel around the image.  This is one technique to give me what I want digitally.  Or I can go the film route.  Just depends on how much gear I want to haul around!

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6 thoughts on “Are your tools working with or against you?

    • It appears to be, even though it’s more work in the field. And pretty much useless for moving objects. I keep playing around and comparing it to film – might spark an insight down the road.

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  1. Great post again Mel, as you stated HDR is another tool for us to use in the digital darkroom…I have to agree with your intent to make the image look as you saw it. I don’t care for the over-processed look that some folks do…but that’s just me. I like both shots for various reasons…can’t pick a favorite.

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    • Thanks for the comments. I like HDR tools as support for digital dynamic range but for a natural look you really have to be gentle with the tone compression. People see so much HDR these days it’s easy for them to pick it out. My opinion about it is like using motion or blur as a creative tool – you need to make it obvious or the viewer starts wondering “did they mean to do that?”

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