HDR as an Artist’s Tool

“Kennesaw Flowers”,
by Robert Leedy, 2010,
HDR image.
(click on image to see a larger version – to really appreciate)

My eyes opened early this morning to clear skies outside my bedroom window. I had a yearning for a creative adventure. This would be a good morning to capture the image I had been planning in my head for sometime. The location I had in mind  was a area in Kennesaw National Battlefield where Vicky & I often walk the dogs; we call it the Secret Spot because we rarely pass people on this part of the trail which usually means a good place to let the dogs run off-leash.

One of my objectives in this shot was to play around with the HDR software I have been experimenting with lately. I grabbed my camera, a few lenses, my tripod and a cable release. No time for coffee but I did factor in a quick stop through the McDonald’s drive-thru for a cafe latte. As I gathered up my stuff, I pondered taking the dogs but I had too much gear to carry down the trail as it was and they would be a distraction from my work. Tico & Dash could tell I was going “walking” by the type of shoes I had on.   They both got excited and raced each other to the door. As I closed the door behind me, I turned around to see two sad faces following my movements to the carport gate. Sorry guys, I promise I’ll come back soon and we’ll go for another walk…

It was great to be up early. I am definitely a morning person. My mind was racing with creative ideas and I thought about the images I wanted to create. With my McDonald’s coffee in hand, I drove against the morning rush hour traffic (it starts very early here) towards Kennesaw National Battlefield and the Secret Spot. I parked the car, balanced coffee and equipment in my arms and headed down the trail.

The morning air was cool and clean from the recent rain. It was so nice to see this part of the trail in lush, cool greens once again. A beautiful morning indeed.

I got to the target area I had in mind. It was along the remains of a stone wall that probably date back to the Civil War and just beyond the remnants of the Confederate earthworks I knew for sure dated back to that time. The wall ran along a tree line that was in deep shade; beyond the wall was a vast grassy field that was just getting hit by the rising sun. As I set up my tripod and attached my camera, something caught my eye a hundred yards or so away  – in the middle of the field: at first it seemed mechanical with a cyclical movement – almost as if I was looking at some old grain harvester rolling through the field; the rusty wheels had a white spot on them which rotated in a circular motion and with perfect synchronization between the two…

Before I could even finish mentally defining the objects, I realized they were two white-tailed deer gracefully leaping up and down through the tall grass. It was a beautiful sight and an omen to me for a perfect morning ahead. I made adjustments on my camera for the first exposure. Moments later, another leaping object came across the field. Though smaller, it mimicked the movements of the  first two deer. A fawn, maybe?  I looked closer: it was a lone coyote. I watched it go into the tree line on the other side of the field before I turned back to my work.

So, just what is HDR? It’s short for High Dynamic Range. If you are an engineer or a scientist, Wikipedia sums it up scientifically here. Probably the easiest thing to do is simply look at HDR images but I’ll try and sum it up simply for the rest of you: First of all, it will have an immediate impact on your visual senses. It is almost like making the jump from 2D images to 3D images…

The human eye is an incredible, God-given sensory device that all of us with the gift of sight take for granted in a big way. Without even going into detail about the eye’s numerous miraculous abilities, such as depth perception, peripheral vision, automatic focal points, linear perspective, etc., I can give you one, isolated example which best describes how HDR applies to photography: anyone who has ever taken a photograph out of inspiration from a scene before them is very aware of the empty feeling of viewing their results from the resulting image captured . WHY does this image NOT look as the way I saw it?

In this instance, the human eye serves as the ultimate lens which is constantly adjusting for exposure, focus and depth of field. In regards to HDR, the user controls focus and depth of field while HDR analyzes, an image to render it as close to how the human eye perceives it. HDR analyzes the dynamic range of luminosity from a series of exposures to closely resemble that miraculous ability the human eye has to automatically adjust exposure of everything it reads – within nano seconds! HDR does an impressive job though it falls way short of the human eye’s talents…

So, here is my initial exposure taken with my DSLR camera. No! It is nothing like I saw before me. What happened?

A typical image of how the above scene might look when taken from a single exposure from a DSLR.. Hey! WHAT is that hair doing on my lens? (Photoshopped out on the final image.)

My camera has analyzed the light and decided that the best exposure compensates somewhere between the distant tree line and the brilliant light coming from the morning sky; the resulting foreground is way underexposed. But if I were to adjust the exposure for the foreground, the distant tree line and sky would be way overexposed. It’s a matter of finding the happy medium – and usually it’s not happy…

HDR imaging works from an analysis of several different exposures of the same image. If there are moving objects – such as people – you will need auto bracketing that works rapidly. Manual bracketing also works but severely slows the time between exposures. So, for an example, you might have a scene of a room in front of you. You want the interior of the room correctly exposed but you might also want some of the shadow areas in the interior to read well; then there’s the problem of the correct exposure of the landscape outside of the room’s window to deal with – should you also want the interior correctly exposed. No camera could handle this on its own. HDR software, combined with an image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop, will handle this problem through a series of multiple images exposed at different settings.

HDR imaging has been around for quite a while. Early uses go back to the 1850’s and it saw a lot of activity in the 80’s but it wasn’t until the computer recently gained massive processing power that HDR imaging really took off. And it’s application was compounded when Adobe Photoshop developed it into its software.

I only heard of it recently from my friend, Garry McElwee. Garry is a professional photographer and also the person responsible for my fine art prints. Garry’s extensive knowledge of RGB color complexities, gamma encoding and all sorts of scientific jumbo immediately throws anything new into the realm of it’s-way-too-far-over-MY-head.

But HDR is a very user-friendly application.  All you need is a DSLR camera capable of taking RAW images, a tripod, cable release, Adobe Photoshop or Apple Aperture software, and HDR software such as Photomatix. If your camera has auto bracketing, that is good but manual bracketing will suffice. Without going into the specific process (which is quite simple), I will recommend the book, “A World in HDR” by Trey Ratcliff.

Here is what an auto exposure for this particular scene might look like.

and below is an HDR version of the same scene composed from 3 or 4 multiple image exposures:

“Kennesaw Battlefield”,
by Robert Leedy, 2010,
HDR image
(click on image to see a larger version – to really appreciate)

Photographic purists might  lean towards the first image over the latter – citing the latter to be a bit too over-manipulated. If you scour the Internet for HDR image examples, you will find a large range of photography – from what seems to be fairly normal to photographic images that almost look like computer renderings. “I prefer the subtle use of HDR,” notes Garry McElwee, “where you might not even suspect its application.”

HDR imaging is a great solution to a wide variety of photographic problems such as interior / exterior shots you might find in architectural photography.  My architect father, Gene Leedy, has shot his own architectural photos for most of his career. He knows the technical problems and solutions of a 4 x 5 view camera from the inside out. To capture a perfect interior shot, he will diligently set up the camera, compose the shot, light the area if needed – and wait for the perfect time of day – a few moments before dusk where the exterior landscape is almost naturally balancing the light of the architectural interior.  If, for some odd reason, he misses the shot, he returns to do the same shot on another day. My dad is a hard core analogue dude. Digital is not in his repertoire. When Kodak & Fuji stop producing film , he will curse technology and give up his photographic talents. Without even presenting it to him, I know very well he will shun HDR as unnatural and over manipulated. Other architects will embrace the technology and marvel at the ease of creating images that read almost the same as the human eye does. Neither viewpoint is necessarily correct – it’s all a matter of taste, of course…

Other applications for HDR might include cityscape night shots, sunrise or sunset shots, photographic images of animals in their natural environment, water reflections, fireworks, interior cathedral shots, portraits, landscapes, technical, advertising, still life, travel photography and more…

I am definitely a newby with HDR technology. You have just seen some of my first images and they are fairly primitive. But I am having fun experimenting! Though there are those who excel in and master the medium, HDR photography is quite a simple technology to grasp and I encourage those who have not tried it to do so. If you are the least bit intrigued, go for it!

I might prefer the purist image as art yet I see this technology as a marvelous tool for artists who incorporate photography in their work – be it part of the composition or part of the technical process and not necessarily the end result. For me, I see this as a major aid to reading  a photographic image  whose role is to provide detailed visual imagery to the artist.  I am a firm believer that artists, should they decide to work from photographs, do so from their own photographic images – not only for purposes of creative ownership – but also for the simple idea of having been there and understanding structural elements before them.

HDR imagery helps out in a big way. Ain’t technology grand?

About this entry