For those that haven’t come across HDR before, it stands for High Dynamic Range and refers to the capture of both the lightest and darkest parts of the scene to give an image that captures detail both in the highlights and the shadows. The use of HDR in photography has been growing steadily over the years, with cameras and camera phones now often sporting an ‘HDR mode’. In this article I will share my experience of HDR landscape photography and how I produce what I consider to be natural looking results.
HDR has been quite hotly debated in the photography community over recent years, with some considering it ‘cheating’ and others debating whether the end results are desirable; this was perhaps since many early uses of HDR produced surreal looking images. I consider HDR to be a tool, just like ND grad filters and Photoshop, that can be used to produce the results you desire. I therefore don’t consider it ‘cheating’, but rather a method of capturing the image I want.
How are HDR images achieved?
The basic concept of HDR is to capture multiple images with different exposure levels and then combine them together. For example, you might shoot three frames with one being correctly exposed, one being 1 stop underexposed to capture detail in the highlights and one being 1 stop overexposed to capture detail in the shadows; these images can then be combined using software such as Photomatix to produce a single image that is evenly exposed, capturing detail from foreground shadows through to detail in the highlights of the sky. You can combine a greater number of images and shoot an extended range of exposures, depending on how much contrast there is in the scene.
For landscape photography it is important to mount the camera on a tripod and I would also recommend using a remote control to capture each frame. While software like Photomatix can compensate for some movement between frames when hand holding, I always use a tripod to get the best result.
Achieving natural looking HDR landscape images
My personal preference is to capture landscapes as I remember seeing them. I therefore want a greater dynamic range than I might otherwise capture in a single frame, but I also don’t want the surreal looking HDR images that became common when HDR first started to gain popularity. What looks natural is subjective, as is what looks pleasing in a final image. I am sharing my preferences in this article and would encourage photographers to experiment to find a result they feel happy with and one that suits their own style.
To illustrate how I achieve what I consider to be a natural looking landscape image with HDR, I am going to use an example of an image I captured in the Lake District in England from the summit of Catbells at sunrise. I wanted to capture the sunrise but still retain detail in the foreground. An ND grad filter would also have worked but unfortunately was not an option on the wide angle lens I was using. Below are the original 3 frames I captured having already composed my picture and set up the camera on the tripod. From left to right the images are 1 stop underexposed, normal exposure and 1 stop overexposed.
I exported the three images from Lightroom to Photomatix; I do not apply any changes to these images before doing so. Once the images have been combined in Photomatix, you can apply the desired style of blending, which is going to influence how natural your final image looks. The latest version of Photomatix Pro gives photographers more styles that it refers to as ‘Realistic’, as well as the ‘Artistic’ and ‘Surreal’ styles. I often find one of the ‘Smooth’ styles gives me a natural looking result that can then be processed back in Lightroom, but the style I use can vary from image to image. I find myself looking for the style that gives detail throughout the range without the image looking over saturated.
Once Photomatix processed the images with the selected style and sent the blended file back to Lightroom, I processed the image as normal, adjusting exposure, contrast, clarity, vibrance and saturation. To achieve a natural looking HDR landscape image, I found I needed to push the contrast higher than normal and made only the slightest adjustment to saturation. HDR images contain a lot of colour detail, so once contrast is boosted, the colour saturation is often strong without further adjustment. I also applied a grad filter in Lightroom to balance the sky and the foreground.
The final image
This is the final image and the scene as I remember it. Even without boosting the saturation, it has higher colour saturation than a non-HDR image. A little test I like to do to ensure the image isn’t over saturated is to process one of the original frames. I will often end up with the same or similar results, but the HDR image will be vastly superior in quality as it does not suffer from the noise that is introduced from increasing the brightness of the shadows. Therein lies one of the key advantages of using HDR for landscape photography; I can capture the image I want at a higher quality than without using HDR. I would encourage other photographers to experiment with HDR landscape photography, but also remember that it’s one of several tools in a photographer’s toolbox.