When HDR is Not Enough

When HDR is Not Enough 

I’ve been looking for a challenge. Something to really test me and I also wanted to really put HDR to the test. So I was trying to think what would really be a good candidate for HDR. So then I came up with the idea that a cave would be a great subject. Then I thought where am I going to find a cave? I thought about some of the old gold and silver mines but I must confess I have severe claustrophobia and some of them are pretty tight. 

Then it finally hit me, there is a cave right where I do most of my shooting,La Jolla,California. I had forgotten all about it and hadn’t been in it in probably 12 years. So on Sunday I headed down there I had it all planned out in my mind. (Lesson I learned long ago, never plan a shoot, they never work out…hmmm) 

You enter the cave through a little shop at the top of the cove. Down 100 dark, wet, slippery, mud laden steps with a handrail just as slippery. Finally you arrive at a boardwalk that takes you into the cave and an opening in the cave out to the ocean. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust, once going down the dark steps and then once again when you emerge out of the darkness to the sunlight coming through the opening. (Clue number 2). The opening looks like a profile of an Indian. That’s how it got its name Sunny Jim (the Indian) Cave. 

The shoot had many obstacles to overcome. One was it was 90° outside and 65° inside so the humidity was high and it kept a nice fog on my lens, water condensates and drips from the ceiling on you. Next obstacle was that the boardwalk shakes with movement. So tourist coming up and down it plays havoc with long exposures especially those around 1 second that show shake the most (longer exposures actually are less prone) and finally what turned out to be the biggest obstacle ( which I didn’t know at the time it would be) The Dynamic Range of the scene. It measure 13 EV range from light to dark. I measured 15 EV outdoors and 2 EV in the darkest shadows. Add a couple more for the latitude of the camera and we have close to 15EV range 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with EV or Exposure Value. 15EV is a Sunny Day 2 EV is the light you would have in the desert under an eclipse of the moon. Yes that dark.

Quite frankly it is at the edge of what the human eye can see in one look as was noted when it took time for my eyes to adjust (the range of the human eye is 24 stops with  changes in pupil size, without adjustment,10 – 14 stops). I thought it would be a GREAT use of HDR, I later would find it was quite the adversary. 

I shot away, when the tourist were sparse. I shot at ISO 200 because I was hitting my camera’s longest shutter speed limit at ISO100. My aperture was f/16 and I used 13 exposures from 1/250 to 15 seconds in 1 EV steps. This was following the spot meter on my Gossen DigiPro F. Histograms were looking good, LCD was not looking so good but it was hard to tell because it also became fogged. I shot a few different angles and placements and finished up in about an hour and headed home to see what I got. 

I loaded the images into Lightroom and started to preview them. The highlight exposures were perfect for the ocean view areas. ISO 200 f/16 1/250 was perfect (basically sunny 16) Things were looking good through the 13 exposures till about the 7th exposure when I saw it. What would kill this whole project: Bloom. And I mean A LOT of Bloom. 

Bloom is an area of diffusion and loss of detail around an overexposed area. Those of you that shoot in the studio and do High Key work with white backgrounds are familiar with it. When you use too much light on the white background you will get bloom around the edges of your model and it will ruin a shot completely. It’s just about impossible to get rid of in post and almost always means a re-shoot.

 The bloom came from the opening to the ocea. When you have EV15 light coming in and you are trying to expose for EV 5 light or less, the spill and bloom is incredible. I simply did not account for it…well at least this much.

Here are the contact sheets for the two images I worked on




Give Up? Of course not 

But of course I had to give it a try. Surely tone mapping could do something with it. So I loaded the 13 images into Nik HDR Efex Pro 2. Because of the range of lightness of the images, almost pure black to almost pure white it proved problematic for alignment so I turned it off completely, which isn’t always a bad idea if you are really set up on a tight tripod. I then set about to tone-map the image….Junk Total Junk. Not just a little bad. Hit the delete button junk. I tried again eliminating the last two exposures. Junk and junk again.


Every set was the same. This was a shoot that was beyond the capabilities of HDR as we do it. I pretty much gave up. But at the encouraging of my photographer friend Ken in Florida, He said “Just keep working it you’ll find an answer”. So later that night I gave it another try and then the next day and then the next. 

So here’s what I came up with. Whether it works is for you to decide. What if I made two separate HDRs, one for the Highlights and one for the Shadows. I used the first 5-6 images for the highlight image and then the next 5 for the shadow image. I left out the last 3 or 4 exposures. They added nothing to the images. I brought each set into HDR Efex Pro 2 and threw everything it had into them. Still using the most natural settings in the HDR section and not much tone compression at all but concentrating on Exposure adjustments and then VERY liberal use of Control Points (6 -8) in every little section, especially in some of the bloom areas of the Shadow exposure still present 

These are the two sets of image I used for the two final photos



 I massaged them both to be the best they could be in Photoshop and then merged the two images together as a Blend in Photoshop using Layer masks. Yes, to answer you question I did try merging those two files in HDR Efex pro 2…ahhhh…no. Didn’t work

So dragging the Highlight image on top of the Shadow layer and then using a layer mask on the Highlight layer. I set about to brush and blend the two images together. Once I had that the best I could. I continued to dodge and burn to get the balance as best I could in the image and make it the most “As the eye can see” as possible. Perhaps it’s not quite as the eye can see since even with my eyes, there was some bloom around the opening to the sea. I tried leaving it there but it looked more like a mistake than intention 

So here are the final images. I’m not sure they actually work. So far reaction on social media has been luke warm. So I think for all the work, nothing spectacular evolved.

 If I had it to do again, I’m not sure what I would do differently. I had thoughts of flagging my lens with small paddles over where the opening to the sea is. Or instead of opening up the exposures,use my flash to paint with light inside the cave. Or shoot part during the day, part shoot at night or late evening. Dunno. All I know is sometimes… HDR is not enough.





  1. Duane August 15, 2012 at 6:58 am #

    What a great article!!

    Definitly looks like a challenge!

    i tried something simular with a cave last summer, but did not have the extreme light range, but had simular results with the spill over.

    Would a polazier filter make a difference for the opening?

    • Peter August 15, 2012 at 8:24 am #

      I’m not sure Duane, I don’t think it would have much effect on glare because the angles to the light wouldn’t be rtight. And since the darkening power of the polarizer works on everything, I just would have ended up with the same thing but just exposing longer. May be worth a look though. I though about a graduated ND filter to placed sidewasy but didn’t have one with me.

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  1. By Why Dynamic Range is NOT Tonal Range on August 2, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    […] extreme example. A Cave lit with a 60 watt bulb and  a sunny day outside the cave. (As I showed in this article). This example is really beyond the dynamic range of the human eye in one look. Think of it, […]