HDR Photography: What is it?

HDR photography is a way to make flat and boring image to an exciting and even surrealistic one.

Photography experts might punch me for giving you this fluffy description, but that’s really how I feel the first time looking at an HDR image, the way I understand and remember it at my first glance.

Check out these “before and after” images:

Thames River (Ontario) in HDR - Before and After HDR 14e

Results tell you more than words can, eh :)

But let me try again…

HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography is, in short, bunch of techniques (of the photo taking or/and the photo post-processing) to allow extreme brightness range (from very dark to very bright) to be performed brilliantly in a photograph.

I don’t want to get into the formal descriptions and photography jargon when telling you about HDR, because I rather convey this in the way that all of you can understand. And more importantly, so you can do HDR photography too, even if you don’t know much about photography. You don’t have to be a pro photographer to do this.


Landscape scenario: Thames River (Ontario) in a sunny day

Ever seen a gorgeous landscape in a sunny day and tried to take picture of it? In your eyes, the sky looks blue, the trees look freshly green, the river ripples slightly with trees reflection on it, and you can smell the aroma of the tree beside you with brown branches and green leaves. Every color is perfect for you. You breath deeply, and it feels so good. And you want to capture this memory in photograph form. You take a picture, but the sky looks washed out and the branches nearby looks dark. No fresh brown, green, and blue like in your mind.

Thames River, as captured by camera

Thames River (Ontario) - as captured by camera

What’s going wrong?

Our camera is just not as great as our brain! Eh?

Our eyes and brain works together in very complicated and clever way to perform colors around us in their best. The sky is very bright, but our eyes can take the blue hue from it, make it look deeper blue than the reality. Objects under shadow that is dark in reality are processed to reveal their true color in our vision. Various different shades of lights that appear in front of us is cleverly adjusted – some get brighter, some get darker, most get emphasized – in the same time to create a beautiful coherent image in our head. We don’t see things as is, the brain process it for us.

Our camera technology is not that advance. Far behind our brain. Camera records different brightness in a “flat” way, and it can only accept the lights from narrower range. Objects under shadow is much much darker than those under the sunlight, the difference is much bigger than they appear in our vision. The sky is super bright, stuffs under shadow is super dark. And camera can’t process this information like our brain, so the result you get is sky that is bleached out, silhouette (or almost) of the near object under shadow, and (okay,) normal looking landscape.

You can take image that has gorgeous deep blue sky, but everything else will look too dark.

Or you can take image with fresh colors for the tree branches and leaves near you, but the background will look bleak, and the sky will be just plain white. You can compromise it, of course. Take the mid brightness between landscape and sky color to get some feeling of both, and fire flash to lit up the branches nearby. But as the word compromise itself suggest, you will compromise something. Something will be missing.

Here’s where HDR imaging can help. Do you want to display every detail in correct brightness as our eyes love it? We will need to lighten the dark object, darken the sky, and emphasize the detail. HDR techniques allow you to do that! So, that’s if you want to use HDR technique to make your image look brilliant and real. But even better, with HDR you can add the artistic touch – make the picture look surrealistic and dramatic. Really, so many improvements and variation you can do with HDR technique, even emphasizing your muscle tone. Yow! But I’ll get you started with the landscape case first.

Thames River in London, Canada - HDR

Thames River (Ontario) - HDR

Go to HDR tutorial!

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