HDR . . . Or Composite?

by George on March 21, 2014

This spring I’m teaching a freshman-level Digital Capture Processing class at my old alma mater, and this week’s assignment was to create an HDR image. Of course one of the assignment requirements is that the dynamic range of the scene you’re photographing must exceed that of your camera’s sensor.

As the students tried various things, it became apparent that this assignment was going to be a much bigger challenge than it first appeared. One of the problems they were encountering was that the dynamic range of many cameras is now so great that fairly high contrast scenes fit comfortably within that range without clipping.

Driving up to the little guest house that I am fortunate enough to stay in when I am in the area, I was struggling to figure out a way to illustrate how easy it is to find such a scene. It was twilight when I arrived and the owners had turned on the outside lights. I immediately saw my opportunity, grabbed my tripod and jumped out to get the shot before the light faded.

Guest House

Photographs © George A. Jardine

True, this was a super-high dynamic range scene, with the lights on the porch easily exceeding the shadow detail by 14 stops or more. But twilight was essentially solving the dynamic range problem, and bringing up the outside with a modest bump on Exposure, and pulling down the Highlights gave me a perfectly acceptable image without the need to use any special software. Sure, where the lights hit the wall it does burn out a bit. But the overall effect was still natural enough to not require jumping through any special hoops.

It was when I woke up early the next morning that I found something completely different. I was leaving before dawn, and an almost full moon was shining right onto the front of the guest house. I had turned off the porch lights, but the inside lights were still on, and this is roughly how the scene appeared to my eye in the moonlight:

Guest House

Increasing the exposure to 30 seconds in-camera, gave me this:

Guest House

Turning on the outside lights, and exposing for them gave me this:

Guest House

Then with a little Highlight correction and minor retouching, layering the two together in Photoshop by simply using the Lighten blending mode gave me this:

Guest House

The results reminded me once again, that thinking through the problem and careful camera work always leads me to a more interesting (more realistic? :-) result than anything I could have achieved using an out-of-the-can HDR solution.

The whole exercise also reminded me of the girations we used to have to go through to create a good “composite” in the film days. I photographed this short-lived restaurant for Interior Design magazine back in 1982, and it required several exposure tests at various times to find the right balance. In the end it was all put together on one piece of 4×5 Ektachrome with three exposures: one for the sky at twilight, one for the exterior lights a bit later, and one for the interior lights even later, once it was completely dark outside.

Cafe Ronchetti

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

George March 27, 2014 at 1:15 PM

That is a very interesting article.


Tammy March 28, 2014 at 2:03 PM

Great illustration of how you don’t necessarily have to capture your images for a HDR at the same time. I love it!

John Stevenson April 7, 2014 at 3:04 PM

This made for a very interesting and thought-provoking read (and viewing also). Do you think that HDR will prove now to be just a transient thing (not to say fad)? The original developments by HDRsoft and Nik (and others) came about because of the definitely limited dynamic range exhibited by the first-generation DSLR sensors (as compared with pro-grade positive film anyways). It was a gap not apparently seen by Adobe straightaway. But, on the other hand, a decade onwards, there are brand-new adventurers introducing filters for single images trying to replicate the look of traditional film, even for userfolks who probably are too young to have ever used them … for a couple of examples, see: http://vsco.co/film and http://www.gettotallyrad.com/replichrome/

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