Ansel Adams, a time machine and Photomatix

Not a tutorial as such, more of a philosophical and technical walk-through of why and how I make my HDRs look the way they do.  More ‘techy’ tutorials are on their way soon.

If I had a time-machine, one of the first things I would do with it is to go back 40 years, pick up Ansel Adams and then head out – equipped with DSLR, laptop [with a full-charged battery of course] and CF card-reader – to one of his favourite spots in Yosemite, where we’d set up and shoot some landscapes. I’d obviously be keen to see what he made of the whole digi-camera thing [after all, he predicted them] but most of all I would be keen to see what the inventor of the Zone System made of HDR [High Dynamic Range] imaging. Why Adams? Well, HDRs – especially when you render them out as black-and-whites – are probably the easiest way to get something equivalent to Adams’ 10-stop range of exposure.

Adams was a master of exposure and printing, and during my first two years of art college his books  – ‘The Negative’ and ‘The Print’  – were my equivalents of the Old and New Testaments. No man had managed to squeeze more dynamic range from black-and-white negs or papers than Adams. To follow his techniques required the devotion of a monk. It also required one being able to stay 100% loyal to his instructions and recipes in the same way that even someone as crap at baking as me could follow a Delia Smith recipe and end up with an edible cake. Not easy, but very rewarding in the end.

No one else could get beyond 7-stops of range with mono processes as consistently and proficiently as Adams could and did. And although HDR techniques existed in film days [notably to record the 1940s nuclear tests in Los Alamos], Adams’ use of film and processing got him an extra three or four stops of range. This is where his work equates, in my opinion, to HDR: your average DSLR sees across 5EV. Shoot HDRs and you can get to 11EV easily.

So, coming back to 2009, now let me get off of my chest what I think about the majority of HDR photography: over-saturated, over-blown, multi-coloured vomit.

Good. I feel better now.

I love playing with new techniques and refining them to a point where I feel happy that I have reached that perfect balance of capture and render: taking the shot is part of the buzz, processing it is another. Each has its parameters which can, of course, be bent, broken and messed-with to all manner of conclusions. Where one ends up is as much a matter of personal taste and subjectivity as any ‘art’. My taste, where HDR is concerned, is to use it to see beyond the dynamic range available in one, single frame, and to render it in a way that remains faithful to the feel of the original scene. I use it to do exactly what it says in the tin; create an image with High Dynamic Range.

All techniques in photography – be it back in the darkroom or in today’s lightroom – are part laboratory, part artist’s garret and part playground. I am not a stuffy old bastard. I like the fact that people play with photography. Hobbies should be fun. There were always techniques with film and paper that were an ‘easy win’, just in the way HDR can be a quick and easy way to make an image with potential ‘wow’ factor. But just as I used to get tired with seeing partially solarized prints or prints toned for the sake of it [or just toned badly], I also have get sick and tired of seeing the garish variety of HDR which – it seems – make up the majority of HDR output. There is some justification for making the world appear different to how it looks to most of us in real life. But, lets be honest, HDR has become – for many – a cheap parlour trick.

Philisophy and opinions over, for now. Here’s some of my methodology and technique.

I get a lot of questions from people about why I decide to shoot more than three bracketed frames for an HDR. It’s a very good point. If one frame from a DSLR can see 5EV, then surely within three frames you can capture more than enough dynamic range of light? True enough.

I have found though – and this is mostly to do with what I see than with my over-anaylsing of histograms – that the gaps between the exposures are critical. Three frames spaced two stops apart give a very different result than five frames spaced apart by one stop. To me it seems to effect particularly the colour saturation and colour contrast of the end result; i.e. there is more of both with three shots spaced at 2-stop intervals, than if you shoot more frames and space them a single stop apart.

That’s my reasoning and I will shoot some comparisons soon enough so that we can see whether that reasoning is correct or, in fact, just a load of bollocks.

HDR made from shots taken on the Boso Peninsula, Chiba, during Golden Week

I use Photomatix to make my HDRs. I use version 2.5.4 as I find that easy to use and much better than version 3. The most recent incarnation, which I need to upgrade to, is supposed to be much better again.

The shot below was shot as a five-frame bracket, with each frame spaced one stop apart from the next. Click on each image in the series for a larger version and for captions which explain exactly what is going on at each stage:

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Here is a link to the Photomatix settings file [.xmp format] for the image I then imported to Photoshop.

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