There has been a lot of experimentation with HDR (High Dynamic Range) digital photography lately for landscapes. For those who are not aware of this technique, it is where the photographer takes several photos of the same scene with different exposures. In some of the shots, the highlights have detail, and others have shadow detail. All of that information is then compressed into a single photo.
In most cases, I am not a big fan of this technique. People who are new to this software tend to “overcook” the files. Instead of a natural looking image, every file ends up like a very garish depiction of gotham city straight from a comic book. For those who are more refined with this technique, the images tend to be a bit more natural. However, something still isn’t quite right. The dark tones usually lack rich tonality. Everything becomes mid-tone. Also, the color becomes more saturated, and the shadows usually take on a blue cast.
I get the feeling that a lot of photographers use this technique as a catch-all approach to landscape photography. Instead of spending the time to find a subject that is visually interesting, or waiting until there is ideal light at a given scene, HDR becomes the solution. The goal for some photographers becomes to go shoot some HDR images, rather than focus on the light and texture that nature provides, and capturing it in a representative manner.
Traditional methods exist to help control the tonality of a scene. Graduated ND filters have long been used to help tone down the brightness of a sky. They are not a solution for everything, but they do work very well. Another solution for digital shooters is to do a manual blend. This is where you take one exposure for the sky, and a second for the foreground. Each exposure will have rich darktone, and good highlights. Next, all you need to do is blend the two images together. Since the camera should be stationary during the exposure, it is quite easy to accomplish.
I enjoy capturing a full set of tonality. However, there is something to be said about the richness of shadow tones in a photo. This helps to add a sense of drama, and mystery. In one of my favorite photos from this year “Ribbons of Gold,” the lower left corner is nearly pure black. However, more toward the middle of the image, there is some reflected light in the scene. This warm reflected light gradually fills the shadow tone. It is difficult to appreciate the subtle shadow tones in this image unless you view it large on paper.
If I had used some form of HDR to capture this photo, I’m sure you would be able to see every fine detail in the shadow tones of the foreground, as well as the black cliff in the background. However, I think the deep contrast of Velvia film helps to guide the viewer’s eye through the print.
I’m sure there will come a time when HDR images are better executed. But at this point, I’m more than happy with the 4 to 5 stops of exposure latitude that I get with slide film.