There’s a new kind of picture in town, and you’ve probably seen it: surreal, super-saturated, bursting with incredible detail in the shadows and highlights alike. Once-blah skies pop off the screen, while blacks lose their inky imprecision and blown-out whites gain vivid brilliance. These images are unlike anything ever produced on film, and they represent one of the greatest technical advantages digital has yet provided the photographer. The technique that produces them is called High Dynamic Range, or HDR, and though images created with HDR are striking enough to appear difficult, even noobs can achieve incredible results quickly and easily.
Dynamic range refers to the light a camera is capable of recording, from the brightest highlights to the darkest shadows. Beyond the bounds of a digital sensor’s dynamic range, extremes are devoid of detail. Bright areas “blow out” in stark white while darker areas muddy into pure black.
Traditionally, photographers have been limited by a camera sensor’s limited dynamic range within a single exposure. HDR blows that limitation away. Instead of a single image capture, HDR takes three (sometimes more) shots, all of exactly the same frame, but with different exposures to accommodate the extreme ends of the scene’s dynamic range. Software then takes the best-exposed parts of the multiple exposures, combining underexposed highlights with overexposed shadows to create a single image. Perfect exposure (and exquisite detail) can be achieved from edge to edge.
Not surprisingly, the most spectacular HDR effects are created from DSLR images and manipulated with software like Photoshop. But if your camera is a smartphone, you can create HDR images in seconds, and in-camera. Users of iPhones 4, 4s and 5 can just turn the HDR setting to “On” in the built-in iPhone Camera app (look for the slider under the “Options” tab). If your Android doesn’t have HDR built in (some do), consider buying the easy and intuitive Pro HDR Camera app, $1.99 at Google’s Play Store.
HDR effects can be overdone—impossibly pink sunsets and absurdly detailed cloudscapes are common examples. But it can also be used subtly, to overcome the limitations of the camera’s sensor, creating images more faithful to what we see with our eyes. No camera can match the human eye’s ability to register broad dynamic ranges (yet), but HDR brings it closer.
HDR has limitations. You have to hold the camera motionless while it fires three frames. Subjects need to be stationary. HDR’s multiple exposures eat memory fast. And colors sometimes sour. Still, many iPhone users keep it on all the time. They get options—HDR and standard—and sort them later.
Headwall encourages you to do the same. Then send us your best HDR images (and please label them as such). If we receive enough submissions, we’ll publish an all-HDR Head Shots in an upcoming issue.
We know you’re out there, having epics and snapping photos. Instead of condemning them to anonymity in hard-drive purgatory, go for the glory and send your best images to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include the location, your name, the names of all people shown and any information you think is useful. We’ll take it from there.