My last article sang the praises of HDR processing. I don’t want to over sell it. Today I will try to balance it by showing we typically do not need to use HDR.
My previous article attempted to show when and why to use HDR. There is a time and place for it. In general, if a histogram shows more than about 7 stops of needed information then I would consider HDR, if the subject and situation allows it.
The example I used was a scene with the sun visible in the frame but where I also wanted to preserve the deepest shadows. Back in the film days we had to use a split neutral density filter over the lens to try to compress the dynamic range in these situations. Whenever you would have reached for the split ND filter is the time to consider if you can use HDR instead.
But HDR has some problems and limitations. There is the dreaded “HDR look” that most people want to avoid. In addition, there are problems with subject movement and extra processing steps to do.
When HDR first became available, people tended to go crazy with it. It was almost a symbol of showing off the new technique. The HDR look was over compressed with flat tonality and lack of true whites or blacks. Sure, I could shoot that scene with a 20 stop range and make a print. Too bad it looks weird. It became almost a cliche. Many “serious” photographers shunned it as looking artificial. It got a bad reputation.
But the problem was how people used it, not the technique itself. Almost any technique can be over used to create unappealing images.
There is also the problem I mentioned with subject movement. To create a good HDR image there must be very high correlation between the pixels of each exposure bracket. That is, there can’t be significant movement.
And there is the extra processing. This is not too big of a problem anymore. We can quickly do HDR processing from within Lightroom or Photoshop or your software of choice. It is probably easier now to do it than it was to adjust a split neutral density filter and figure out the exposure.
Why we don’t usually need it
Trust your sensor and the processing software on your computer. Modern high-end camera sensors are amazing. They record the greatest dynamic range of information that has ever been possible in photography. I’m sure it will only get better with new generations of equipment.
My camera records a far greater range of information than it is possible to print. Prints are my gold standard. They are the expected outcome of my work. A surprising fact to many is that, although it is hard to compare because the physics are totally different, the effective dynamic range of print media is around 6 to 8 stops. So making any print has some aspects of dealing with HDR data, since the captured data is probably much greater than the final print.
OK, so I am shooting a high contrast scene. I am careful to allow a little space on each end of the histogram, so say I am dealing with about 12 stops of range. The reality is that, for most needs, this can be used to make a great print.
But that 12 stops of data has darks that are down dangerously close to an unacceptable level of noise. And the brights are dangerously close to clipping. Is that imperfection OK?
How to process extreme ranges
This is not a tutorial on photographic processing. You can find too many of them on the web. I will just give some suggestions. In Lightroom (Classic – the only version I think is worth using) just the 6 controls in the Tones section of the Basic panel can do wonders. And I seldom use Contrast, so there are really 5 most important ones.
Use Whites and Blacks to set the overall white and black points as desired. Then I often use Exposure to balance the overall tonal range. Finally I use Highlights and Shadows to fine tune the tones.
These simple adjustments, along with some tweaks in the Presence section, can do amazing things to “rescue” most images. These are probably an 80% fix for most situations.
Of course, when I select an image to print, I will spend a lot more time working on it. A lot of work will be done with curves and masking and doing fine adjustments. Sometimes I will send it to Photoshop for very detailed tasks that cannot be done in Lightroom. Editing an image can take many hours. Most of us are pretty obsessive about our work.
My point here, though, is that most single captures have enough data to make a great print or other final image. Sometimes we just have to work with it a little.
Maybe you don’t want it
The look of your final image is an artistic decision. It is not dictated by the “reality” of the original scene. You or I as the artist decide the look we want. What we decide is “right”, at least for us.
So I may not want to create a perfectly balanced image that retains all the tones and data of the histogram. I may want to crush the blacks to make a moody, low key image. I may want to over brighten the image to make an ethereal scene. It is not written anywhere that the final print must look exactly and faithfully like the original scene.
This is where artistic intent comes in.
It is not numbers
I want to end with the point that we are creating an image, not manipulating numbers. Well, we are manipulating numbers, but that is not what counts. What counts is the look and expressiveness and quality of the finished product.
Photography is the most technical art, but do not be dictated to by the technology. Do not let someone say you can’t do something because the numbers are wrong. All that counts is the final art you create. Emotional response trumps technical excellence. How does it look to you?
The image today is a full histogram spread. Single capture. I think this kind of thing comes out OK. What do you think?