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Hands On: Range Rover

The many moods of HDR

One of my favorite techniques, and one that provides a great deal of creativity in how I use it, is HDR (high dynamic range) photography. When I began doing it, I’d shoot a series of images, varying the exposure for each one. The most underexposed of the images would capture the blackest blacks, the most overexposed, the whitest whites; all the exposures in between would capture the mid-tones.

Then, using selected software, I’d be able to combine portions of the images to get a rendering of a high-contrast scene that included the richest dark tones and the most revealing light areas—tones and details my eyes could see but a sensor couldn’t capture in one exposure. The classic example is the view from inside a room with sunlight pouring in through a window. Expose for the window and the room goes dark; expose for the room and the window burns out.

With HDR, a series of images will capture details at the extremes of contrast, and typically for me that series would be three, five or seven exposures. With my camera on a tripod, I’d make the first exposure at the technically correct meter reading with the camera in aperture priority mode (so the depth of field wouldn’t vary from shot to shot). Then I’d take a one-stop overexposure and a one-stop underexposure for a three-exposure HDR, two over and under for a five-shot HDR, three over and under for a seven-shot series.

No matter the method, ultimately the great thing for me about HDR photography is that it’s personal photography: here’s how I interpret the scene; here’s the mood I want to convey; here’s my picture.

Pretty soon I realized I could do HDR with the autobracketing feature in Nikon D-SLRs, and do it a lot faster, too. Sometimes I’d even hand-hold the camera when I was using a VR stabilized lens. I could also bracket my shots with the camera on continuous high-speed advance, and I’d boost the ISO if I needed faster shutter speeds. The final steps to HDR are software programs, and I’d use Photomatix (usually for the most aggressive, illustrative look to the image) or HDR Express (for a more natural-looking photo).

Recently I’ve been able to add another way to do HDR: completely in-camera. Nikon has added to the latest generation of cameras (D4, D800, D600, D5100, D5200 and D7100) built-in, two-shot automatic HDR. The camera will take two quick shots, overexposing one, underexposing the other, and then combine them. When I’m shooting with a D4, D800 or D600, I can set the EV differences between the shots, choosing 1, 2 or 3 EV. I can also set another parameter, called smoothing, to low, normal, high or auto, to choose the degree of HDR effect from subtle to obvious. I like to set auto, check the result and adjust if I don’t agree with the camera’s decision. (The D5100, D5200 and D7100 offer the choice of EV settings, and auto smoothing.)

Sometimes my choice of HDR method—in-camera two-shot, or three-, five- or seven-series—has to do with how I feel about going to the computer and doing the work later on. Frankly, most of the time if I feel that the shot will work well as an in-camera HDR, I’m very happy to let technology rescue me from the monitor. And a lot of times I simply want to get the shot and share it right away by e-mail or Wi-Fi.

No matter the method, ultimately the great thing for me about HDR photography is that it’s personal photography: here’s how I interpret the scene; here’s the mood I want to convey; here’s my picture.

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