Using HDR instead of Fill Flash to Deal with High Dynamic Range

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A Guest Post by Suzy Richards

HDR has made a very negative name for itself but in some situations it can be a life saver. One instance where I have started to use it recently is in situations where I would have previously used fill flash if I wanted a more even exposure.

To experiment with this method I set up a deliberately problematic scene. A gloomy garage with window light reflecting on a metal surface. Dark shadows and extreme highlights on the subject – a car. Fill flash can also be used to reduce the contrast in a scene by artificially lightening the shadows. With window lit scenes or shiny subjects you can get an annoying flash reflection or odd shadows so I decided not to use flash and try the HDR route.

I set up an initial shot with just basic settings. Normal exposure with a small amount of negative exposure compensation to reduce highlight burn. A low iso to maximise available dynamic range. On checking the histogram and the blinkies in image review it was obvious it was going to need something extra. The result was the car1 image.

car1.jpg

I tried the 4EV in the HDR menu as a starting point. That was better but still not adequate. Judging by the histogram only the maximum 6EV setting would be enough. There was still a little amount of highlight burn but as that was mainly a window reflection on metal it was fine. It is also worth experimenting further with positive and negative exposure compensation and checking the histogram and blinkies to see which combination of HDR, low iso and exposure compensation gives you the most pleasing results. Change one value at a time and review the image each time to see whether your changes are an improvement. The final result was car2.jpg.

car2.jpg

Without knowing it was an HDR you’d probably have no idea as it is not the sort of scene you generally associate with it. As can be seen from the original car1 image the shadows are dark and there is a burnt out highlight on the bodywork. In the HDR car2 image you have some background detail, detail in the shadows and the highlight is also more controlled. The difference is quite subtle but it looks more of a balanced exposure and natural scene.

To create an HDR without an in built mode on your camera you need to use the bracketing function and bracket over the same distance eg 4 ev so -2, 0 & +2 with 3 exposures. Generally 3 or 5 images are sufficient. You can then use software to combine them. The most common of which is Photomatix. It will probably need some more tweaking as generally Photomatix seems to err on the side of garish.

Other situations scream HDR loudly so I no longer bother even trying with normal exposure.

church.jpg

The church sceneis one such situation. As soon as I walked in I knew. 5EV seemed to be about right to retain some mystery. 6EV seemed to over emphasize the green reflection from the window which I didn’t want. It’s quite common for churches not to want flash photography so this was ideal. I’m also a tripod hater so having a method which generally allows hand holding is also high up on my list.

Using HDR in these situations has proved to me that it has a real use in photography.

Find more words by Suzy Richards at www.tokenbird.me.uk and her photos at www.snoozycat.co.uk and www.flickr.com/srichgtr.

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  • deborah

    Thanks for this. I care much for HDR because I think it is usually overdone. Beyond the impossible looking skies, many photographers use it to remove all shadows. They say this is how the human eye sees, but my eyes DO see shadow and light. They adjust for shadow, but what is in shadow is still darker than what is in light. I’ve often thought, however, that it might be possible to use HDR subtly and/or use it together with a decent exposure. While this car photograph is an unnatural example (what would be the point of a photo like this, and why couldn’t you just bring the car outside into the light?), it is also a good example of an HDR photo that is subtle enough and still contains some realistic shadows and isn’t oversaturated. There are certainly some more natural moments that could be helped by this technique.

  • Great post! It’s good to see others using HDR.

    I used HDR to get this shot properly exposed
    http://www.disney-photography-blog.com/2012/06/secret-boardwalk-in-canada.html?m=0

  • I love shooting HDR, it gives pretty good results with internals, like this one

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/anzanov/7499123460/in/pool-liguriahdr

  • I love shooting HDR, it gives pretty good results with internals, like this one

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/anzanov/7499123460/in/pool-liguriahdr[eimg link=’http://www.flickr.com/photos/anzanov/7499123460/’ title=’Palazzo Rosso Fisheye 2012-04-25 114505′ url=’http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7121/7499123460_7cd56863f2_c.jpg’]

  • I always try and take at least 3 exposures for a shot whenever I can.
    Even if I decide a full blown hdr does not produce the desired effect I can still use layers and the hdr image to fill in the missing details.
    As the writer says this is also great for indoor shots where flash is not allowed:

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Scenes-of-Salamanca-Spain/G0000Dx3qs7n43D0/I0000y7Y34VfjQL8

  • Tim

    Hallelujah, a sane article about valid uses of HDR. I approve highly of the attitude that regards it as a tool to be used to overcome dynamic range issues, rather than some “effect”.

    It’s well worthwhile learning how to get natural / believable / realistic results from one’s tonemapping; frankly, I favour enfuse for the blend, myself.

    Only thing I’d say is that the car2 shot suffers from a classic tonemapping mistake: the highlights have been folded-back so far they’re illogically grey where they should be white. It’s not as bad an example as I’ve seen elsewhere, but it’s still a slight detracting feature. By all means capture image contrast data in that region but let it roll-off smoothly to white without that inversion back down to grey again.

  • Hi

    I started experimenting with HDR three years ago and over time my skills and tastes have also evolved. Like every tool, it is not right for everything, but in challenging light when there is no possibility (or desire) to use strobes etc, this is one great option. Similarly to the article, this shot of some bottles and debris up against a bright window posed the problem that HDR could solve without lighting the entire place.

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/that-monday-feeling/

  • I have only just started using HDR and I can’t wait to keep learning. I have only taken a handful of photos in HDR, but I don’t think I did to bad.
    Please check some of them out here. The first one on top is HDR, it was a rainy night at Epcot. Thanks!

    http://www.livingdisney.com/2012/07/photographs-of-week-72-78-2012.html

  • Alan

    If you shoot RAW images you only need one image at mid-exposure then you can use your processing software to generate differently exposed jpg files to put into the HDR software. I’ve rescued several photos I took a couple of years ago like this with HDR software I only recently acquired.

  • Hi Suzy,

    Nice article. HDR has gotten a bad rap of late due to many photographers employing it far too often (truth be told, this photographer has been guilty as well!).

    Nevertheless, HDR has its use, especially when shooting scenes indoors where there is a wide variance in the dynamic range of a scene. This is typically the case when shooting real estate interiors. Many real estate photographers will resort to augmenting the available light with one or more flashes, both on and off camera. Still, some scenes are so divergent they simply require more to accurately capture the scene such as when there is streaming bright outdoor light thru the windows against a dimly lit room.

    I’ve found that Nik Software’s HDR EFEX PRO (and now, version 2) is better at producing realistic HDR scenery – i.e. credible scenes that accurately reflect what the human eye actually sees. Photomatix is better at producing surreal and hyper-real scenarios (i.e. more “artistic” renderings), imho.

    I am not alone in this…there are quite a number of real estate photographers that use some form of HDR processing (usually employing Exposure Fusion as opposed to Tone Mapping) to produce their final images.

  • I put another picture with a comparison with the single exposure shot.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/anzanov/7601678008/

  • I put another picture with a comparison with the single exposure shot.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/anzanov/7601678008/

    [eimg link=’http://www.flickr.com/photos/anzanov/7601678008/’ title=’Genova Via Garibaldi fisheye 2012-07-16 132004′ url=’http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7112/7601678008_22b1397dd6.jpg’]

  • ChrisJ

    I used HDR to fill in the shadows from a harsh midday Sun in this shot

    [url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/chris-judge/3708209316/][eimg url=’http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3146/3708209316_cfcc0f259a_z.jpg?zz=1′ title=’3708209316_cfcc0f259a_z.jpg?zz=1′][/url]
    [url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/chris-judge/3708209316/]Zen and the art of catching crabs[/url] by [url=http://www.flickr.com/people/chris-judge/]screwdriver1[/url], on Flickr

    Similar in this shot the right eye (as we look at it) was in dark shadow

    [url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/chris-judge/5620474268/][eimg url=’http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5105/5620474268_1e146cbcae_z.jpg’ title=’5620474268_1e146cbcae_z.jpg’][/url]
    [url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/chris-judge/5620474268/]Owl_sig[/url] by [url=http://www.flickr.com/people/chris-judge/]screwdriver1[/url], on Flickr

    Chris

  • Great post thanks Suzy. I would be interested to hear of any tips on how you shoot your hdr images without a tripod.

    Regards

    Chris

  • I think many people mention HDR while they in fact mean “Exposure Fusion”. The basics are the same, the results are different though.
    HDR as many of us have learned to hate, gives us a surreal look, that may be pleasing as art but may be not as pleasing to our eye as photography in the way most of us are used to see photography.
    Exposure Fusion is based on the same process in that we combine several images taken of the same scene but under different exposures. The difference with “traditional” HDR is that EF tends to maintain the photographic looks we are used to, and therefore may be able to combine the best of both worlds if the intention is to give a credible photography result.
    There is always a risk of easily overdoing things, and how far you want to go does not depend on the technique but on the way we use it.
    Here’s one of my EF results. Photographically spoken impossible without using several exposures, but nevertheless acceptable as “photography”.

    http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7230/7161628123_2672831053_o.jpg

  • Hate tripods? Me too. I have a monopod. It is far better for interior shooting. A significant amount of my shooting is 20 to 40 feet away in marginal lighting. No flash allowed. I shoot a Nikkor 55-300mm mounted on a Nikon D3100 set on manual.

    Before each performance, I meter the scene. This accounts for burned-out bulbs I might not have noticed.

    The Manfrotto monopod is easy to adjust quietly from standing to sitting and back again. Unlike my tripod, I have yet to whack anyone with the monopod. People get testy when whacked unexpectedly. [eimg link=’http://www.flickr.com/photos/49341534@N06/6904223941/’ title=’20120219_2818′ url=’http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7039/6904223941_c5791ed109_o.jpg’]

  • Sam

    I have not triedd multi-image HDR yet, I had simulated HDR using RAW pictures. I try to find a middle exposure where the bright areas will be light, but just dark enough to see some background color. The esposure will also be dark enough to see a little detail.
    Perhaps set the camera color setting to add some vived color. This helps bring in more colors that can be used as a guide for balancing the light, and dark areas in the photo.
    I think that it is amazing that details can be found in a RAW image that will be lost permanently if you are shooting with only jpg.

  • KenP

    I prefer Exposure Fusion (EF) to HDR.

    I usually pass the barcketed photos through EF and then use the final image along with the brightest and darkest images as layers in GIMP to manually control highlights and shadows.

    Here’s one with 5 bracketed exposures blended:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/12551570@N00/7607007194/

  • Sakti Banerjee

    [eimg url=’https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-m-sm7pVvvyg/TyrKnCN51FI/AAAAAAAADuI/0yAFiRl_RTk/w194-h186-n-k/IMG_3104.JPG’ title=’IMG_3104.JPG’]

    HDR effect on this photo has been done in Picasa. Its easy.

  • Arturomar

    Compaan:

    I liked very much the photo you are sharing here.

  • I’m glad many people found this article useful 🙂

    For shooting HDR without a tripod I just use the same technique as you would for hand holding with a long lens. You just have to be careful to try to keep still. Elbows tucked in tight. I use the viewfinder not the screen as it is much easier to keep the camera steady. The Sony software is supposed to be able to cope with small amounts of movement and so far it seems to produce decent results even with my sometimes wobbly hand holding!

    I haven’t tried exposure blending with Gimp but it looks worth a go.

Some Older Comments

  • Suzy Richards July 26, 2012 09:06 pm

    I'm glad many people found this article useful :-)

    For shooting HDR without a tripod I just use the same technique as you would for hand holding with a long lens. You just have to be careful to try to keep still. Elbows tucked in tight. I use the viewfinder not the screen as it is much easier to keep the camera steady. The Sony software is supposed to be able to cope with small amounts of movement and so far it seems to produce decent results even with my sometimes wobbly hand holding!

    I haven't tried exposure blending with Gimp but it looks worth a go.

  • Arturomar July 25, 2012 05:51 am

    Compaan:

    I liked very much the photo you are sharing here.

  • Sakti Banerjee July 22, 2012 05:09 am

    [eimg url='https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-m-sm7pVvvyg/TyrKnCN51FI/AAAAAAAADuI/0yAFiRl_RTk/w194-h186-n-k/IMG_3104.JPG' title='IMG_3104.JPG']

    HDR effect on this photo has been done in Picasa. Its easy.

  • KenP July 20, 2012 12:05 pm

    I prefer Exposure Fusion (EF) to HDR.

    I usually pass the barcketed photos through EF and then use the final image along with the brightest and darkest images as layers in GIMP to manually control highlights and shadows.

    Here's one with 5 bracketed exposures blended:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/12551570@N00/7607007194/

  • Sam July 20, 2012 11:30 am

    I have not triedd multi-image HDR yet, I had simulated HDR using RAW pictures. I try to find a middle exposure where the bright areas will be light, but just dark enough to see some background color. The esposure will also be dark enough to see a little detail.
    Perhaps set the camera color setting to add some vived color. This helps bring in more colors that can be used as a guide for balancing the light, and dark areas in the photo.
    I think that it is amazing that details can be found in a RAW image that will be lost permanently if you are shooting with only jpg.

  • Paul July 20, 2012 11:10 am

    Hate tripods? Me too. I have a monopod. It is far better for interior shooting. A significant amount of my shooting is 20 to 40 feet away in marginal lighting. No flash allowed. I shoot a Nikkor 55-300mm mounted on a Nikon D3100 set on manual.

    Before each performance, I meter the scene. This accounts for burned-out bulbs I might not have noticed.

    The Manfrotto monopod is easy to adjust quietly from standing to sitting and back again. Unlike my tripod, I have yet to whack anyone with the monopod. People get testy when whacked unexpectedly. [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/49341534@N06/6904223941/' title='20120219_2818' url='http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7039/6904223941_c5791ed109_o.jpg']

  • Compaan July 20, 2012 09:30 am

    I think many people mention HDR while they in fact mean "Exposure Fusion". The basics are the same, the results are different though.
    HDR as many of us have learned to hate, gives us a surreal look, that may be pleasing as art but may be not as pleasing to our eye as photography in the way most of us are used to see photography.
    Exposure Fusion is based on the same process in that we combine several images taken of the same scene but under different exposures. The difference with "traditional" HDR is that EF tends to maintain the photographic looks we are used to, and therefore may be able to combine the best of both worlds if the intention is to give a credible photography result.
    There is always a risk of easily overdoing things, and how far you want to go does not depend on the technique but on the way we use it.
    Here's one of my EF results. Photographically spoken impossible without using several exposures, but nevertheless acceptable as "photography".

    http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7230/7161628123_2672831053_o.jpg

  • Chris Lindsay July 20, 2012 09:20 am

    Great post thanks Suzy. I would be interested to hear of any tips on how you shoot your hdr images without a tripod.

    Regards

    Chris

  • ChrisJ July 20, 2012 09:13 am

    I used HDR to fill in the shadows from a harsh midday Sun in this shot

    [url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/chris-judge/3708209316/][eimg url='http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3146/3708209316_cfcc0f259a_z.jpg?zz=1' title='3708209316_cfcc0f259a_z.jpg?zz=1'][/url]
    [url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/chris-judge/3708209316/]Zen and the art of catching crabs[/url] by [url=http://www.flickr.com/people/chris-judge/]screwdriver1[/url], on Flickr

    Similar in this shot the right eye (as we look at it) was in dark shadow

    [url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/chris-judge/5620474268/][eimg url='http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5105/5620474268_1e146cbcae_z.jpg' title='5620474268_1e146cbcae_z.jpg'][/url]
    [url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/chris-judge/5620474268/]Owl_sig[/url] by [url=http://www.flickr.com/people/chris-judge/]screwdriver1[/url], on Flickr

    Chris

  • AnZanov July 20, 2012 06:44 am

    I put another picture with a comparison with the single exposure shot.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/anzanov/7601678008/

    [eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/anzanov/7601678008/' title='Genova Via Garibaldi fisheye 2012-07-16 132004' url='http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7112/7601678008_22b1397dd6.jpg']

  • AnZanov July 20, 2012 06:43 am

    I put another picture with a comparison with the single exposure shot.
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/anzanov/7601678008/

  • Frank Villafane July 20, 2012 01:40 am

    Hi Suzy,

    Nice article. HDR has gotten a bad rap of late due to many photographers employing it far too often (truth be told, this photographer has been guilty as well!).

    Nevertheless, HDR has its use, especially when shooting scenes indoors where there is a wide variance in the dynamic range of a scene. This is typically the case when shooting real estate interiors. Many real estate photographers will resort to augmenting the available light with one or more flashes, both on and off camera. Still, some scenes are so divergent they simply require more to accurately capture the scene such as when there is streaming bright outdoor light thru the windows against a dimly lit room.

    I've found that Nik Software's HDR EFEX PRO (and now, version 2) is better at producing realistic HDR scenery - i.e. credible scenes that accurately reflect what the human eye actually sees. Photomatix is better at producing surreal and hyper-real scenarios (i.e. more "artistic" renderings), imho.

    I am not alone in this...there are quite a number of real estate photographers that use some form of HDR processing (usually employing Exposure Fusion as opposed to Tone Mapping) to produce their final images.

  • Alan July 20, 2012 01:31 am

    If you shoot RAW images you only need one image at mid-exposure then you can use your processing software to generate differently exposed jpg files to put into the HDR software. I've rescued several photos I took a couple of years ago like this with HDR software I only recently acquired.

  • Elizabeth July 17, 2012 09:35 am

    I have only just started using HDR and I can't wait to keep learning. I have only taken a handful of photos in HDR, but I don't think I did to bad.
    Please check some of them out here. The first one on top is HDR, it was a rainy night at Epcot. Thanks!

    http://www.livingdisney.com/2012/07/photographs-of-week-72-78-2012.html

  • Erik Kerstenbeck July 17, 2012 05:30 am

    Hi

    I started experimenting with HDR three years ago and over time my skills and tastes have also evolved. Like every tool, it is not right for everything, but in challenging light when there is no possibility (or desire) to use strobes etc, this is one great option. Similarly to the article, this shot of some bottles and debris up against a bright window posed the problem that HDR could solve without lighting the entire place.

    http://kerstenbeckphotoart.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/that-monday-feeling/

  • Tim July 17, 2012 12:24 am

    Hallelujah, a sane article about valid uses of HDR. I approve highly of the attitude that regards it as a tool to be used to overcome dynamic range issues, rather than some "effect".

    It's well worthwhile learning how to get natural / believable / realistic results from one's tonemapping; frankly, I favour enfuse for the blend, myself.

    Only thing I'd say is that the car2 shot suffers from a classic tonemapping mistake: the highlights have been folded-back so far they're illogically grey where they should be white. It's not as bad an example as I've seen elsewhere, but it's still a slight detracting feature. By all means capture image contrast data in that region but let it roll-off smoothly to white without that inversion back down to grey again.

  • Steve July 16, 2012 06:23 pm

    I always try and take at least 3 exposures for a shot whenever I can.
    Even if I decide a full blown hdr does not produce the desired effect I can still use layers and the hdr image to fill in the missing details.
    As the writer says this is also great for indoor shots where flash is not allowed:

    http://wildlifeencounters.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Scenes-of-Salamanca-Spain/G0000Dx3qs7n43D0/I0000y7Y34VfjQL8

  • AnZanov July 16, 2012 05:17 pm

    I love shooting HDR, it gives pretty good results with internals, like this one

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/anzanov/7499123460/in/pool-liguriahdr[eimg link='http://www.flickr.com/photos/anzanov/7499123460/' title='Palazzo Rosso Fisheye 2012-04-25 114505' url='http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7121/7499123460_7cd56863f2_c.jpg']

  • AnZanov July 16, 2012 05:17 pm

    I love shooting HDR, it gives pretty good results with internals, like this one

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/anzanov/7499123460/in/pool-liguriahdr

  • Sachin Verma July 16, 2012 04:41 pm

    Something I shot in HDR

    http://www.photo-roll.com/2012/04/sanjauli-in-hdr/

  • Alexander Catastroff July 16, 2012 09:19 am

    Great post! It's good to see others using HDR.

    I used HDR to get this shot properly exposed
    http://www.disney-photography-blog.com/2012/06/secret-boardwalk-in-canada.html?m=0

  • deborah July 16, 2012 07:36 am

    Thanks for this. I care much for HDR because I think it is usually overdone. Beyond the impossible looking skies, many photographers use it to remove all shadows. They say this is how the human eye sees, but my eyes DO see shadow and light. They adjust for shadow, but what is in shadow is still darker than what is in light. I've often thought, however, that it might be possible to use HDR subtly and/or use it together with a decent exposure. While this car photograph is an unnatural example (what would be the point of a photo like this, and why couldn't you just bring the car outside into the light?), it is also a good example of an HDR photo that is subtle enough and still contains some realistic shadows and isn't oversaturated. There are certainly some more natural moments that could be helped by this technique.

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