Do I really need HDR?
Great question. I always tell people, if you don’t need HDR don’t use it. If you can capture an image correctly without it, do so. But that is the same advice I would give for any photographic tool or accessory. If you don’t need a polarizing filter? take it off, No need for fill flash? don’t use it. Don’t need Photoshop? Print your image SOOC. HDR is just another tool.
There are many ways to do without HDR. The time of day you shoot, and more importantly, your angle to the sun can take away any need to shoot with HDR. When the sun is setting turn your back to the sunset and shoot that way. In a lot of cases not only are you able to capture the dynamic range of a scene, you actually will be capturing something 10 times better than the sunset.
But what about the times when, with conventional photography, you wouldn’t even have attempted the shot because you knew, as good as it looks to your eyes, you are never going to be able to capture that as you saw it on camera. I think this is the perfect time to pull out the best tool for the job and get that image that previously was impossible. In some case that may just be a Graduated Neutral Density Filter. I use them all the time and I do like them and for when I am shooting the ocean they are perfect because of the straight line at the horizon.
But what happens when you have irregular shapes to deal with? A mountain range or, in the case to follow, architectural arches leading to a bright scene. A graduated neutral density filter is useless.
So lets examine this photo made using a 5 Exposure 1 – 1.5 Stop HDR ( Tone mapping: Strength 70, Saturation 70, High Smoothing ,-1.20 Gamma in Photomatix)
This image really portrays the scene as I saw it; Great clouds and blue skies, shadows & light coming through the arches. The back of the arches in the shade but still clearly visible to my eyes as is the tree on the right.
Now suppose we didn’t use HDR, what would the image look like? This is one of the exposure from the 5 I took that gets the most right.
It’s really not too bad, but the problems areas are: the tree to the right is definitely lost to the shadows and the biggest problem is those beautiful blue skies and puffy white clouds have lost all their detail.
So, we could using digital darkroom techniques try to bring some of that back
This was using a heavy dose of Shadows & Highlights in Photoshop
Well, this helped, it did bring back the tree into the image and got a little more detail back into the sky, but it couldn’t do much because there are parts of the clouds that were just completely blown out so there is no detail to recover. The other real problem is that it applied this adjustment globally to the whole image, so some areas that should have stayed in the shadows are now brought up into the mid-tones, making for a “flat” image. Yes we could have tried using a Layer Mask, but that can be a lot of work and time.
In this example I used some Faux HDR “Lucis Effect” to bring back some detail which it is quite good at but again,we still are not near where the HDR image is in overall balance and again it acted too globally.
Now what if we started with an image that got the clouds and skies right, could we have adjusted that?
This attempt really gave the worst results because you can see, the parts where there still was some detail are now full with ugly noise and again there are some areas that were just totally lost in the shadows wth no information to retrieve.
Now, maybe if I really worked long and hard in the digital darkroom I could have achieved better results on a standard photograph. Lots of layer masks and adjustments, dodging, burning, sharpening, noise reduction. But do I really want to waste that much time in my studio working? Or…would I rather be out shooting, taking the less than a minute to shoot 5 frames and come back and process the image in a few minutes and have the best results. The answer is clear what I would choose.
Hope that helps!