Seeing Buildings In High Def

When I teach my High Dynamic Range (HDR) class, it’s common that I get a few students that tell me that they don’t like HDR. I agree, HDR is one of those types of photography that you either love or hate. However, it has been my experience that the people who hate HDR actually hate bad or creative HDR. During my first class, I like to put up a slide show of images. We look at them and I ask why they like or dislike a certain image. Here is the secret to my slide show, they are all HDR images, some are processed like what you would see standing there with your naked eye, and the others are processed with a “creative” feel. Most of the time is goes the same, the students tell me that they like the photos that have been processed with a natural feel. At the end of the slide show, this is when I tell them that they are all actually HDR images. I usually get some disbelievers and raised eyebrows. For the record, I’m not trashing or saying that creative use of HDR is bad, I’m saying that this is a personal preference. Most of the work I do is for magazines, and if I were to turn in a creative based HDR photo, I would probably get a call telling me to never return again.

There are some photographers that are now strictly HDR photographers. I think that this is a great genre of photography that should be explored by everyone to see if they like it or not. Personally, I like to stick with the natural looking photo even if I wasn’t getting paid to produce the photo. Also, would I use HDR on everything? No. I find that flash photography is kind of like HDR without the post processing in the end. However, HDR has a distinct advantage over other types of photography, HDR has the range of light that can be captured with just one light source. Think of it this way, with flash photography, you have to light the space or subject and mix this with the ambient to get a proper balanced exposure. This may require multiple strobe units placed in various places to get the desired look that the photographer is going for. With HDR photography, most people are using the ambient or available light that is in the scene.

What if you wanted to take a photo of a building and you were not able to come during the “golden” hours of the day? What if it was noon for example? First, the building is going to have harsh shadows on it due to the time of day. A photographer might usually try and use some sort of lighting tool to fill in the shadows such as a reflector or strobe unit. Here we are talking about a building, one would need a really big reflector or strobe pack to fill in the shadow side of an entire building. All in all this probably wouldn’t be practicable. This is where the power of HDR steps in. I see HDR as a tool in my photography bag. We as photographers have to use the right tool for the situation that we are given.

Exterior Scene – What the camera saw.

In this example, we can see how this came out of the camera. The camera was set to aperture priority mode at f/8 and ISO 100. There are a couple of issues battling the scene here; first it’s that harsh time of day. The camera position is in the shade under the building, and the boats in the background are in full sun. If we get an exposure for the boats, the building will be in shadow. If we expose for the building, the boats will be blown out. This is where your camera’s auto exposure bracketing (AEB) will come in handy if yours is equipped with this feature. On my particular Nikon, I’m able to get a range of -4 to +4. This gives me a total of nine stops of range (this includes the 0, or starting exposure to make the total of nine). When I’m taking the exposures, I’m checking the histogram to make sure that I have at least one third space on either side to make sure that I have captured the whole dynamic range of the scene.

Exterior Scene – The HDR result.

Here is the finished HDR photo. As you can see, now we are able to see the detail in the roof as well as the boats in the background. Also, the photo as a whole doesn’t have any weird colors or halos around the edges.

Interior Scene – What the camera saw.

This is another typical scene. When I look at photos of interiors, some photographers have tens of thousands of dollars in strobe equipment to light the interior so they can get the light inside to match the light outside. This is one way to handle this. But, with HDR, no strobe units are needed. As you can see, the camera didn’t really do the interior of this fine dining restaurant justice. I set this up the same as I did the exterior scene. One note on these photos, I used my trusty tripod. Some photographers hate tripods, I use mine as my third arm. It insures that my photos will be as sharp as possible. With HDR photography, the photos need to be “pin registered” with each other to make sure that the final result won’t have any blurred parts.

Interior Scene – The HDR result.

Again, here is the finished result after going through the process. Notice that there is detail under the chairs and you can see the detail in the mural that is on the wall in the background. This now shows what the diner can expect when visiting this establishment.

Here are a couple of other tips; I like to use an electronic cable release so I don’t accidentally bump the camera during the exposures. I also set my camera to continuous high or burst mode. This reduced the chances of something moving in the scene while I’m capturing the exposures.

As far as the software goes, I have used many different types. One of the very popular companies is HDR Soft’s Photomatix Pro. I used this software to generate the HDR files; I then took them into Photoshop to finish them off. With minimal work, I was able to get a natural realistic result for the magazine.

Here are a couple of the food photographs that I took for the actual dining review. These were done with off camera flash going through a shoot through umbrella synced with the new Pocket Wizard Flex units for Nikon.

Bacon Wrapped Scallops

Asian Salad

I hope that this helps answer some of the HDR questions and possibly might spark some interest in this type of photography if you have never tried this before. It takes a little trial and error to get the look that you are going for, however with tools that we have available, your imagination is the limit.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. Spencer,

    You go guy! Congratulations but you deserve it. It’s amazing what HDR will do for a photograph.


  2. Wow, great information and fantastic photo examples!

  3. Spencer,
    This was great. Great explainations and pictures. And the food, I’m getting hungry.
    C. Mc

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