A n00bs’ guide, by a n00b
High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography, isn’t a new thing, but it’s way easier to do with a digital camera and Photoshop than with a darkroom full of toxic chemicals and ominous machines of dubious intent. Once these hyper-real photos started popping up on Flickr, HDR became such a big deal that Apple even put an HDR mode in the iPhone camera. It’s about as useful for real HDR photography as a pair of t***s on a Brahma bull, but points to Cupertino for effort.
HDR images consist of at least two of the same photo taken at different exposure levels. If a scene contains areas with bright light and shadow, the multiple exposures will capture detail in both areas, essentially making the darker areas lighter and the lighter areas darker, with a lot less of the graininess and other artifacts that you get in a single exposure. The photos are then combined using dark magic. Creative application of this sorcery can produce dramatic results that are not possible with a single exposure image.
If you are just getting started with HDR, your results will probably not get that awesome look like they’re a capture from a video game–you need photo processing software and the knowledge to use it to combine and squeeze that surreal mojo out of your images. I use Adobe Photoshop on the desktop and a bunch of different apps on iOS. There are lots of tutorials on how to fake an HDR image, but if you don’t begin with multiple images in multiple exposures, it’s like comparing fresco Jesus to Old Lady Jesus: You can only go so far, and it will never be far enough. That increased dynamic range gives your software better material to work with: Shadowy areas are lighter, and bright areas are not washed out–everything has richer detail, if the photos were composed and taken properly. I took these with my phone and used two bucks worth of apps to process them:
I took many more, but the ones I left out from those sessions were not composed with good levels of contrast. If it looks dramatic before you process it, it’ll be a veritable James Lipton of color when you properly apply those filters.
My previous forays into HDR photography–using a DSLR, tripod, Photoshop, and not enough research–made for some beautiful pictures of trees and flowers, but no matter how hard I tried, nothing looked like the “too real to be real” photos on all the HDR sites I was trying to copy. I quickly learned that the trick is to find a suitable subject and to frame it to make the most of its contrasts and detail. Partially cloudy skies make for a good background, as are buildings with reflective surfaces and/or lots of texture. Remember: Drama.
The other trick is to keep the camera still. You’re taking two shots in sequence, and even if they are only a half second apart, that’s enough for a moth landing on your camera to put them off by a few pixels. When possible, use a tripod. When taking HDR photos with human subjects in them, either get them to hold their breath and refrain from blinking or consider taxidermy.