HDR has become quite the controversial topic among photographers, both professional and amateur. Some believe it’s a form of cheating, since it’s software, and not the photographer, which is taking care of creating the final image. Others believe that you should be able to use whatever tools you have at your disposal to create the best possible image.
I go back and forth on this issue. This is strictly my personal opinion, but I will never use HDR when shooting artistically (i.e. for personal expression, not for money). Working the shot, scouting out the location, the best time to shoot there, and working with Mother Nature is all a major part of the art of photography. HDR circumvents all of that good stuff, and, well, makes it all kind of boring.
That said, when working commercially, shots have to be executed with certain standards. When possible, I still try to avoid using HDR (unless the client requires the use of HDR, which is common). There is also that rare occasion when the dynamic range of an image is so screwed up, HDR is quite possibly the only way to walk away with a quality shot.
In my experience, there are three major HDR software products: HDR Effects Pro from Nik, Photomatix, and HDR in Photoshop. I avoid using Photoshop’s HDR like a plague. It just doesn’t work well for me. Nik’s HDR Effect Pro and Photomatrix are equally excellent products from my point of view, and I use each of them occasionally. They both do a fine job of merging your bracketed photos into an image that does’t look like a cartoon.
Here’s an example. Below are five bracketed shots I took of a room…the exposure settings were all 15mm at f/11, with shutter speeds of (in order of appearance), 0.6 seconds, 1/6 second, 1/3 second, 1.3 seconds, and 2.5 seconds. Each frame is a step apart, starting with the middle exposure, then the underexposed two, then the overexposed two:
Putting them all together into Photomatrix, I walked away with this image, which is a reasonably well balanced exposure:
Here’s the same five exposures run through HDR Effects Pro:
Perhaps just slightly warmer than the Photomatrix version of the HDR, but still a very real to life image, and not some of those over-the-top cartoonish HDR shots you sometimes see of landscapes and sunsets. HDR can sometimes be a very useful tool, if you know how and when to use it. It won’t always be the best choice to properly expose a bracketed set of shots, but once you learn when you can use it, it makes your post processing much more refined.
In lieu of HDR, I use bracketing when I shoot interior photos of rooms and/or buildings, and choose the image which best distributes the light across the entire frame.
In my line of work, bracketing involves taking three or five (or even seven in some cameras) successive shots with the purpose of mitigating any “blown out” or overexposed areas of the frame, without underexposing the darker areas beyond recovery. For example, assume the camera exposes a particular shot at 1/60 a second…that becomes the “middle” exposure. In the image shown below, I already know I don’t want to slow the shutter below what the camera has already exposed because the windows will be too blown out to recover. So, I bracket only to shoot underexposed shots…three of them in one stop increments: 1/60 (the first shot being the exposure the camera chose), 1/120, and 1/240 a second.
The goal, for me, is to strike the closest balance I can between highlighted areas of a photo and the darker shadows. Typically, for reasons which I do not understand, DSLRs can recover much more information from darker areas than highlighted areas. Therefore, I usually expose for the highlighted areas of an image (the brightest areas), which will bring those blown out areas within an acceptable limit in the histogram, all the while doing my best to retain the information which I can pull out of the shadows in post process, without introducing too much “noise”.
In the photo below, the image was exposed at 1/2 a second. In this raw, unprocessed image you can see the wide dynamic range between the windows and the darker areas of the couch and walkway off to the right. This was the image among the five bracketed shots which didn’t underexpose the shadows beyond recovery, while also maintaining the best exposure for the highlighted areas in the windows and skylights:
Once you bring out the shadows a little, you get a relatively balanced exposure throughout the image:
It’s not a great photo by any means…I would have preferred to shoot this room early in the morning, so the skylights wouldn’t be blown out by the sun overhead. But, it gives you a good example of how exposing for the brighter areas of the photo can work, as long as the shadows are recoverable.
…what I do for most of my income…the vast majority of my paid work is in the architectural/real estate genre. Basically, I work for individuals and companies in the real estate industry whom are trying to sell or advertise a home, condominium/apartment complex, or commercial property either on the internet or in print (i.e. a brochure handed out to prospective investors/buyers). Given that I worked in the real estate industry before my transfer to photography full-time, it was a natural transition to start doing some work for people I knew in the business, or for people who knew people I knew.
At some point in the future I will write a detailed post on the ways to create a quality photograph of the interior of a home, or for creating a quality photograph anywhere indoors…without a flash. You can use HDR, or what I call either the “top heavy” (a photograph which leans toward exposing for the more brightly lit areas in a scene) or “bottom heavy” (a photography which leans on exposing for the more poorly lit areas in a scene) techniques to get a well-exposed photograph indoors, either in a home, or whenever you may find yourself shooting indoors. All three techniques require the use of software for processing after you take the initial raw image, and also require pretty solid working knowledge of a DSLR and tripod. And, of course, you need to know how to properly compose the scene to accentuate what the client is searching for.
In my experience, shooting exterior images has proven to be more challenging than getting high quality indoor images. It’s rare that shoots can be scheduled during the “golden hours” of the morning or evening, when the light from the sun is almost perfectly diffused due it setting behind the horizon. Those times (typically just before the morning rush hour and right after afternoon rush hour) would be more opportune to create the best possible photos of the exterior of properties. But, I am forced to do the best that I can with outdoor shots with the sun usually directly overhead…or, even in the case of a cloudy day, a very brightly diffused sky. If not exposed properly, it will leave the building with a harsh, unappealing contrast, often with parts of the building closer to the sky blown out due to overexposed flaring. The ways to combat this often require the use of HDR, in order to accentuate the property exposed parts of the image without requiring other areas to be so underexposed it would leave them as a silhouette…not the type of artistic style I’m going for in these shoots. If you want to show off the architectural beauty of a building, you probably want to be able to see more than just its shape.
The perfectionist in me is driven crazy by not being physically able to do all exterior shoots during the golden hours. There are so many aspects about the above exterior photographs which I’d give anything to be able to fix by shooting in better light, but sometimes it’s about doing the best you can with whatever available light you’re working with at the time. No one works under ideal circumstances all the time.
Just thought I’d share a sunflower field shot I took last night just up the road from my home. The field is off of Jarrettsville Pike, about 3 miles north of the four corners intersection. These fields have become extremely popular…what you can’t see in the photo is the literally hundreds of people who show up to get pictures of themselves and their family in the fields. It’s a selfie extravaganza…arms extended with smartphones held up high…
The owner of the farm doesn’t charge to walk into the fields…which is extremely generous of them.
I got this shot by standing up on a ladder and raising my hands above my head as high as I could, and estimating the aim. It took a few tries to get the aim right. To get a wide enough shot of the field and horizon, I used a 15mm lens.
On Thursday I headed up to Swatara Falls for the first time…it’s about 2 and a half hours from where I live in north central Maryland. In my desire to eventually photograph all of the significant waterfalls in the mid-atlantic area, I figured now’s the time to check this one off the list. On the map all it says is “waterfall”…no mention of a state park or anything. Great advertising.
It’s interesting that, for whatever reason, I-83 and I-81 in Pennsylvania are
almost always under construction, yet neither road has changed whatsoever since I used both of them constantly to get to and from college in upstate New York back in the early 90’s. One funny note about I-83…it’s very nicely paved in northern Maryland…and as soon as you hit the PA border, the condition of the road becomes noticeably aged and mildly decrepit. I mean literally, right next to the “Welcome to Pennsylvania” sign, the highway turns sour. Score one for higher personal income taxes.
Anyway, the parking area and trailhead for Swatara falls are just off of state route 25, about 1.7 miles east of exit 112 off interstate I-81. The parking area is on the south side of SR-25, the trailhead across the street on the north side. There’s no way to know you’re at the correct parking area, except to know that you’re 1.7 miles east of the interstate. No signs for the path or anything. It’s almost a little eery. I would not be open to traversing this path at night without a flood light and a grenade launcher.
The trail is very easy to navigate. You walk 500 feet, turn left, walk another 500 feet, turn right…go down a hill, walk another quarter mile on a flat, wide path (pictured below), and you reach the falls.
Once at the falls, you are treated to a surprisingly attractive waterscape. The path ends about halfway up the 25 foot waterfall, but it’s quite easy to climb down to the bottom, or up to the top if you so choose. There are no shortage of vantage points to photograph the waterfall, but all of which basically depict the same general picture: a nice waterfall with a muddy-brown sheen. Thanks so much to those who left the graffiti on the lower portion of the waterfall. Adds a beautiful touch.
Rainfall has been very light of late, which was clearly noticeable as the volume of water flowing over the falls was low. Other photographs I’ve seen of the falls showed a higher level of water flowing over the rocks, leaving me with the impression that, typically, the water flow is more than what I witnessed. There were some small wading areas at the bottom of the falls, but due to the lack of flow, the mostly standing water had a rather unpleasant look to it. I’m sure when water flow picks up and cleans out the stream bed a little, wading in the stream would be enjoyable.
If you’re ever in the neighborhood of exit 112 on interstate I-81, take a minor detour and check out Swatara Falls. It’s easy to hike to, and would be a nice spot for a bagged lunch or (early) dinner. If you are brave enough to try the hike at night…bring a powerful flashlight. And a banjo.
Occasionally I will go through my Lightroom library and clean out old junk photos I know I’ll never want to use. Among the photo shoots I plowed through last night was a sunset boat race in Annapolis, MD (the sailing capital of the world). I remember that evening well…a perfect night for shooting…with a fantastic sunset as the backdrop, and the Annapolis capital building in the background. I took several hundred shots that evening, with this one being my favorite:
I deliberately tried to time this shot so that each boat would be equidistant from the capital…leaving the capital as the centerpiece of the photo. I wanted the sun to be partially behind the sail of “Thalassa”, making the sun look like it’s creeping out from behind the curtain. I also got lucky…Mother Nature left me with an amazing sunset to work with…delivering that radiant orange horizon juxtaposed with the deep blue sky.
This shot is a testament to how well the Nikon D800e can render wide dynamic ranges. The camera can allow enough light in the darker areas of the shot to give us some detail of the architecture along Spa Creek, without blowing out the sun. The D800e handles sunrises and sunsets remarkably well.
I set the camera to ISO 400, 1/250 shutter speed, at f/8. I used Thalassa as my focal point, which, at f/8 will make everything in this particular shot appear to be in focus. Generally speaking, your depth of field will depend greatly on the type of lens you’re using, the size of your camera’s sensor, and the distance from where you’re standing relative to your focal point. At some point, I’ll probably write a blog post about how to use aperture to manipulate your depth of field (DOF).
Anyway…for those of you who take enough photographs to compile them in some sort of organized fashion on your computer, I recommend that every few months you go back through all of them to 1) weed out the really bad shot you won’t ever want (in turn helping to keep more free space on your hard drive, thereby delaying the day when you have to drop a nice chunk of change on a drive) and 2) possibly find some really good photos that, for whatever reason, you didn’t see when you uploaded them into the computer the first time around.
A couple of new shots I got last night at Kilgore falls. The water level was down, which makes for better shooting conditions as you are able to see the colorful pebbles on the stream bed, and you are able to wade around closer to the falls without getting your camera gear wet. Dry camera gear is always a good thing.
This weekend I’m looking forward to going to Kilgore Falls for a photo shoot. The Falls are in Rocks State Park in north central Maryland, just west of Pylesville, MD. The second highest free-falling waterfall in the state, Kilgore is a short hike (about a quarter mile) from the parking lot off of Falling Branch Road. The hike to get to the falls is as easy as it gets. Once there, you are treated to what, in my opinion, is one of the more underrated places to visit in the state. Just below the falls is an area that’s deep enough (10-12 feet) to allow the more brave among us to leap off the cliff of the falls, which peaks at 19 feet…at the bottom they are treated to water which is always relatively chilly.
The falls gets its name from one of the early owners of the property encompassing the falls, Joseph D. Kilgore. The stream was privately owned until 1993, when the Department of Natural Resources acquired the property and added it to the already existing Rocks State Park, which resides to the south of the falls. Unlike most of the higher falls in the state of Maryland, Kilgore is not a cascading falls; its water does not fall from one level down to another. Instead, the falls are one long drop down to the bottom. Examples of higher cascading falls in the state are Cascade Falls (quite the original name) in Patapsco Valley State Park, and Cunningham Falls in Cunningham Falls State Park. Another high non-cascading falls in the state is Muddy Creek Falls in Swallow Falls State Park, a beautiful area located in the very western portion of the state.**
For me personally, Kilgore offers a seemingly endless number of ways to capture the scene…you can shoot it from downstream both far and near, facing directly in front of it, from the north (it’s a tight squeeze on slippery rocks), or from on top. The stream just to the south of the falls has stones and small boulders scattered around, which adds to a nice foreground if you’re shooting from downstream.
There’s a full moon on Sunday (but not a New Moon on Monday), so I’m looking forward to capturing the falls below the moonlight for the first time. I’m not certain as to whether the Department of Natural Resources allows visitors to stay past sunset…we shall see. Here’s to hoping for clear skies!
A few long exposure shots of the falls I’ve taken during previous visits:
** Thanks to “thezonemag.wordpress.com” for these facts, written in an article titled “Kilgore Falls-A Must See in Maryland