Using HDR Technique in a ‘Traditional’ Photograph

Live oak tree at sunrise. Six exposures combined using HDR technique. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Live oak tree at sunrise. Six exposures combined using HDR technique. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)


Most of what is written about HDR photography, and most of the resulting photographs, center upon the ‘Wow’ factor made possible by the technology: wildly surrealistic color, super-saturated subject matter, out-of-this-world, ‘cartoony’ results. I don’t have a problem with those who love making these fantasy photographs; it’s just not what drives me or my shooting. But I do love what the technology has made possible: truly extending the dynamic range of information that can be captured in an image.

Thinking back to Ansel Adams’ Zone System of exposure for classic black and white photography, I’m convinced that if he were still shooting today, Adams would be using HDR techniques in his work.

This sunrise image is a good example of what I’m thinking about. I saw this composition last week while making pictures on a wet, foggy morning. The light coming through the live oak trees was fantastic, but what I could see with my eyes—the sun’s orb just visible through the mist set against the dark subtle tones of the tree trunk—did not translate at all in a single image, even on RAW setting.

So I did what HDR makes possible: I shot a bracket of exposures. At ISO 50 and f7.1 with my Canon 70-200mm lens, I shot 1/500th, 1/250th, 1/125th, 1/60th, 1/30th, and 1/15th second exposures of this scene, all in quick succession. I determined the high end-the 1/500th sec exposure—based upon what was needed to record the sun. The low end—1/15th sec exposure—was needed to pick up detail in the darkest parts of the tree. Then it was simply a matter of filling in the exposures in between.

I used the File>Automate>Merge to HDR Pro feature in Photoshop CS5, although you could do this with other software products. The resulting image gives me something very akin to what I could see with my naked eye.

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: Photoshop

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

10 Comments on "Using HDR Technique in a ‘Traditional’ Photograph"

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  1. Enivea says:

    Generally I dislike most of the HDR work i see around, but I love how you’ve used it on the black and white image! A great picture.

  2. Thanks Enivea. It does make a great tool for regular image making, I think.

  3. I had a similar impression as Enivea. I also like how you used the possibilities of HDR for this image. May it be the case that this light situation suits HDR quite well compared to others? Something to try…

  4. For me it’s more about the tonal range I need. (I think about a lot of the typical HDR images that are done in bright contrasty midday light, and it works very well for those shooters). I guess I’m more interested in extending my grayscale way out to more accurately reflect what our eyes can already do.

  5. I guess, I had a similar idea, but obviously you expressed it much much clearer than I did. Thank you, Andrew.

  6. Scott says:

    I like HDR photos. They have a surreal aspect to them. I guess they fall somewhere between the classic Ansel Adams photos and very lifelike paintings. I love the composition of the oak tree sunrise photo, Well done.

  7. Michelle Garcia says:

    great info! i love HDR photos although i am not adept in doing them

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