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Expanded Possibilities with HDR Software

I’ve been photographing the Yale campus for over 30 years, but I can always count on finding new material and inspiration there. I took this photograph the other evening while wandering campus intent on discovering something new. In this case, I was assisted by photographic possibilities that have opened up because of new technology – specifically, software for digital photography known as HDR (high dynamic range).

Of course as lots of photographers know, HDR software is not new, as in last week or last month, but it is relatively new to photography. I’ve been using it for a couple of years and now finding that improvements in the software and my increasing understanding of its capabilities have brought me to the point where I am seeing possible photographs through the “filter” of what this new technique permits. In HDR photography I will photograph the exact same scene multiple times (usually 3-5) at widely differing exposures – from very underexposed to very overexposed. I then stack the images together using the software to blend the best exposed parts from each image into a single photo where the deep shadows still retain some information and the brightest highlights are under control (not blown out).

As I look for things to photograph, I am constantly evaluating what I see based on how interesting the subject itself is, but also analyzing the light, the compositional possibilities, and the limitations (usually some ‘failure’ of lighting or contrast) that I suspect might prevent me from making a successful photograph. In the past, extreme contrast was a frequent obstacle. The solution was to come back and try again another time or add lighting to ‘fix’ the contrast problem. In my commercial work, particularly architectural interior photography, this was the typical solution; however, in my documentary or art photography, this was a less than satisfactory answer. Because HDR extends the apparent range of tones that can be recorded, matching them more closely with the range that our eyes perceive, extreme contrast becomes far less of an obstacle in many photographs I want to attempt.

This view of campus along York Street was taken at about 9:30 pm just as the last daylight was fading from the sky. It was made by combining 3 exposures (2.5, 10 and 20 seconds) using an HDR application called PhotomatixPro. I then did a little further adjusting with Curves in Photoshop to get the balance of tones just right.

I’m waiting for the day when HDR will happen in camera, instantaneously, after I’ve done no more than select the HDR option from a menu or quickly press a button on the camera. Until then, I’ll spend the time at the computer because the results are often worth the effort.

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Because of this technique I am now succeeding at making photographs in situations I would not have attempted in the past.

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