High dynamic range photography with a compact camera
Published on Jul 16, 2014 6:04 AM
High Dynamic Range, or commonly known as HDR, is something you probably hear a lot and even see on your smartphone's camera options. TREVOR TAN tells you what is HDR and how to use it.
What is HDR?
In photography terms, dynamic range refers to the difference between the darkest black and the brightest white. In shutterbug speak, we will refer to these dark areas in an image as shadows and the bright areas as highlights.
Unlike our human eye, which is able to perceive the range of contrast and details in a scene, a camera's sensor can only target specific areas in a scene and meter the exposure accordingly.
For example, ever took a picture of your friend in front of a brightly-lit building's shadow? You will realise your friend's face is underexposed when you want to see the nice architecture of the building. Or the building is overexposed when you manage to get the exposure of your friend's face right.
So, having high dynamic range (HDR) means having lesser degree of difference between the highlights and shadows, or less contrast. In other words, you can see the details in both highlights and shadows of a photo.
Remember having a HDR photo does not necessarily mean it is a better photo. It is just a different photo or effect that you want.
How to use HDR
In the good old days of film, photographers use dodging and burning darkroom techniques to increase details in shadows and highlights of their images.
With digital photography these days, many photographers take a number of shots with different exposures and combine them into a picture using software, such as Photoshop or Photomatix Pro, during post processing.
Your smartphone uses the same technique but in real time. That is why it takes longer to take a picture and preview the shot when you turn on HDR option.
Many digital cameras these days also have the same HDR option to save you the hassle of post-processing. Some digital cameras, such as Casio Exilim EX-100, even allow you to adjust the level of HDR in the picture.
If you are feeling confident about your photography skills, you can also switch your camera to spot metering. Get an exposure reading on the highlights and shadows respectively. Use an exposure that is somewhere in middle between the highlights and shadows to take a photo. Preview the photo, and experiment till you think the photo has the dynamic range you want.
When to use HDR
HDR photography is preferably used in certain situations, as it requires different exposures of the same scene. You can use HDR in the previous example mentioned above when you are shooting portraits with back light or high lighting contrast.
But most of the time, HDR photography is best suited for landscapes or architecture, where you will be dealing with plenty of contrast between the sky and the land or building. Plus, these landscapes and buildings are stationary - most of the time.
Quick tips on HDR
The scene should have some contrast in lighting but not too much. This is because if the contrast between the highlights and shadows is too wide, the resulting HDR photographs can look more like paintings or as some will say: "Fake".
This might be a bit tricky, as our eyes already perceive the contrast nicely. But in time, you will know which scene has the right lighting contrast for a HDR shot.
In addition, use a tripod if you can. This is to make sure that when the camera takes multiple shots, it is always shooting the same frame. Your hand might move a bit during exposure, which might affect the end result.
As such, it is also not advisable to shoot a scene with movement. If you are using your camera's automatic HDR function to shoot a busy street with plenty of passers-by, some passers-by will be in different positions in the resulting HDR frame.
Finally, practice makes perfect. Don't be afraid to experiment, as you never know what you get.
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