On Thursday, I packed up my camera and a couple lenses, got on my motorbike, and headed downtown with the intention of shooting the Year’s Greatest Street Photography Series.
Well, I also had to try on a suit for my buddy’s upcoming wedding. And then I got hungry so I headed down to the Pham Ngu Lao (backpacker’s district) for lunch at one of my favorite cafés. Then of course, it started raining so I hung around the area for awhile to wait out the storm. Had a beer. Caught up on Twitter, Facebook… anyway, you get the idea. The Year’s Greatest Street Photography Series wasn’t happening.
Like everybody else, sometimes I’m just not feeling it. It’s not for a lack of subject matter (after all, I live in one of the liveliest cities in Southeast Asia) nor for the proper conditions or equipment. Everything was in place except motivation. So after bumming around for about an hour, I thought, “what can I do new and different today?” (New and different being my go-to, fallback cure for lack of motivation.)
And then it hit me… HDR! For those of you that don’t know what HDR photography is, it stands for “High Dynamic Range.” Essentially, you are combining different exposures of the same image to create a representation that is more real than real.
You see, there are differences between what your eye sees and what the camera sees. There are even differences between what a given photograph presents and what your eye sees in that photograph. By implementing HDR photography — although it may seem otherwise — you are not creating a false representation of a scene, you are just displaying it in an “overly-accurate” way that is completely foreign to everyday perception.
Here’s the thing: a camera can’t provide a perfectly even amount of exposure to every aspect of a shot, any more than it can precisely focus on everything in a scene at different distances. Your camera relies on the light that reflects off of your subject, and so you adjust the camera to expose the film/sensor accordingly. This makes it possible for us to create 2-dimensional representations of the 3-dimensional world in a way that we can relate to, visually. So when you push a camera to do things that it is not accustomed to, nor is the human eye accustomed to, the end result is foreign, even other-worldly. That’s HDR photography.
It’s not appropriate for every shot. In fact, it strikes me as only useful in certain scenarios. Namely, those in which the photographer is willing to take the viewer out of their comfort zone altogether. But when done right, it can create some really spectacular results. To see some really great HDR photography, check out:
- • Trey Ratcliff
- • Rob Hanson
- • Zu Sanchez
- • …there are plenty more, just do a Google search for HDR Photographers.
Technically, it’s just a question of bracketing your shots. You want to keep your aperture fixed so that your depth of field won’t change from shot to shot. Then you take three or more (at times only two) shots of the same image, at three different shutter speeds — one underexposed, one “properly” exposed, and one overexposed. Then, using a program like Photomatix Pro, you layer the multiple images, carefully selecting and masking what you do and don’t want from each shot. The end result is a flatter, but more vibrant image with an impossible range of exposure.
The images posted here are nothing to write home about. It’s definitely not the Year’s Greatest HDR Photography Series. Just a few that I captured on Thursday to give an idea of what I’m talking about. Looking back at them, I’ve already identified several things to do differently next time:
- • If I’m getting motion blur, I obviously need a faster shutter speed. Since I don’t want to adjust my aperture from one exposure to the next, next time I’ll start out with a bit higher ISO to allow for faster exposures;
- • Some of the highlights in the sky are totally blown out. This could be easily fixed in post by masking out the overexposed areas from the sky and allowing the faster shots to come through here;
- • There is a lot of “ghosting” in areas surrounding trees and other spots where contrasting exposures meet. This is an area where I think I’ll just need to put in the hours fixing and adjusting in post;
I think this may have been an ideal time to shoot HDR, especially because the natural light and saturation you find after a rainstorm is already pretty “high dynamic.”
What You Need:
- • a decent camera; not being snobby here, the fact is that different cameras are going to give you different amounts of control when it comes to bracketing your shots—both in terms of how many exposures you can take and how many stops between them.
- • a camera that will shoot RAW. This is not an absolute must, but you’re going to be much happier with the image quality and range of control that the RAW format provides.
- • a decent tripod; you are taking multiple exposures of the same shot. And you’re going for different shutter speeds. Don’t try it handheld. Just don’t.
- • a wide angle lens; this is also not an absolute must. I’ve seen a lot of interesting HDR photos taken from a variety of focal lengths. But to get the hang of this, I’m finding it much more helpful to shoot wide, namely because in a wide shot you will generally have more dynamic range of color and light to play with.
There are plenty more to come, which I will share. In fact, I’m heading out to try some more right now! Just as soon as I do a second a fitting for that suit, maybe grab lunch, have a beer…
Update: Click here for the follow-up post with several more HDR shots!