Some of you may have heard the term ‘HDR’ or ‘High Dynamic Range’, within the context of photography.  If you haven’t heard of HDR, not to worry.  Wikipedia defines HDR as:

‘A set of techniques that allow a greater dynamic range of luminance between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than current standard digital imaging techniques or photographic methods. This wide dynamic range allows HDR images to more accurately represent the range of intensity levels found in real scenes, ranging from direct sunlight to faint starlight.’

So, what does this mean exactly? I’m going to try to be as clear as possible…  Take for instance, photographing a sunset.  The sun is directly in the lens, the sky is lighting up, and the ground and foreground objects are dark.  If you use an automatic point and shoot camera, your photograph is probably looking dark on the bottom, and well exposed on top where the clouds and sun are located.  So how can we balance the two elements of foreground and background together?  Graduated neutral density filters is a great start, if you have the money to afford those.  When you don’t have the money to buy filters and want to use tools that your SLR already comes with, HDR is the way to go.  The image above was taken at Santa Elena Canyon during an early morning sunrise.  I took 7 different exposures and used a program called ‘Photomatix’ to stack all the images together and create a single HDR image. Below are the 7 images, or exposures I took to compile all into a single image at the top.
Can you see my point?  Have a look at the strip of 7 images.  Look at the center image, titled ‘0’.  If I did not use HDR, this is what the image would look like.  If you look closer at the slide, you can see that objects in the shade are too dark and not visible, while the rocks and texture in the sun are too bright and flushed out. Now look at the final image at the very top.  The objects that are in the shade have a little more detail, but not too much, and the objects in the sun are a bit more balanced, controlled, and work better with the overall image.

HDR TestNow the tricky part, post processing.  This is where you can lose control very quickly.  You have probably seen HDR photographs that look, well, a bit off, and you’re not sure why but you know it looks fake.  The image to the left is the first HDR image I took along the PCT when I didn’t know any better.  Looking back, I wonder what I was thinking. Like many, I had no clue at the time.  What I found strange is that many other photographers out there actually love this kind of, what I call, ‘overly processed’ look.  The entire image looked fake and was nothing like what I saw at the time I took this photograph.  I’m not exactly sure why people love this kind of look, but that’s their opinion and I’m not going to try and argue what is right and wrong within the HDR world.  Just know, I will always try and produce the most natural depiction of what I see.

Evolution Lake
The last example above was of a similar situation when I was in up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains along the Pacific Crest Trail.  This was taken at Evolution Lake during the sunset, and alpenglow was all around us. The bright orange and pink colors were too much for my camera at the time, so none of the details came out in shadow.  This was my second HDR image and I quickly learned that this, the more natural and controlled look, was the way to go.

I know this may seem a bit confusing but this entry is strictly for people that are unaware of HDR photography and are interested in knowing the basics of it.  If you have any questions at all or would like to know a little more, ask in the comments section below and I’d be glad to answer.