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Often times when I’m photographing landscapes, the image the camera sees versus the image in my head are quite different. Sometimes that image in my head doesn’t mesh with what the camera capture, because the dynamic range is far too great. The contrast between the highlights and shadows is just too great. Such was the case with this shot I took a week ago of Arch Rock in Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.
With the sun setting directly behind it, exposing for the sky would have rendered the rock a silhouette. This may have been fine had I intended a silhouette shot- which I did capture and intend to use. But ultimately I wanted some detail in the rock, I wanted detail in the sky, and I wanted to maintain the drama of the spectacular desert sunset that I was witnessing. Because of the way the landscape was laid out before me, graduated neutral density filters were not going to work for this shot. If I wanted to bring down my highlights and keep detail in the shadows, I was going to have to either blend two shots, or use an HDR program to get the result I was looking for. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, meaning an image where the range of tones is higher than what the camera can accurately record.
I really wasn’t sure which processing technique would give me the best results. And sitting there in the desert, I didn’t want to place any bets on it. So I bracketed my shots using the auto exposure bracketing mode on my EOS-1D X. I shot in Av mode, at f/16, with the EF 14mm f/2.8L II lens. I bracketed for 7 exposures, but ended up only using six. The -3 exposure really didn’t add anything to the HDR, so that was dropped from my processing. I use Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 for my HDR processing to blend the exposures, and then finish in Photoshop, adjusting color, saturation, etc. Nik HDR Efex Pro offers a variety of presets, but I always try to keep the HDR processing fairly subtle. I don’t like the over the top look that some get, but I do like the image to pop a bit. I try to minimize any halos, and keep the tones fairly smooth.
Before I processed the HDR image, I also tried a simple two shot blend in Photoshop. I first processed the even exposure and adjusted for color and saturation. Then, I took the +2 exposure, and processed in the same way, dropping that image on a new layer in photoshop over the even exposure. I then apply a layer mask to the +2 layer, and paint the entire mask black to hide the layer.
Then, using white, I painted the arch back in to reveal the arch at +2 against the sky at even exposure. This takes a lot of patience since with the exposure difference, it’s very easy to see halos if the masking isn’t done carefully. One way to ease the transition is to run a gaussian blur filter on the mask to soften the edges. How much will depend on what the mask is like. You may need to run the gaussian blur more than once to get it just right.
Looking at the two images, the HDR blend seems to have a smoother transition from lights to darks, as well as a richer overall look. I know there is a lot backlash against HDR, and I understand it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But I believe in using any tool available in order to express what I felt when I looked upon the scene as it happened. Every scene will be different, and will lend themselves to different processing techniques. Understanding what techniques are available to you can help you overcome the shortcomings of technology and allow you to express your creativity to the fullest.