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I do not consider HDR to be a photography style but rather a technology that allows photographers to extend our creative reach.
The main and the most important reason for using HDR is to overcome the limitations of the sensors in digital cameras. When the dynamic range of the scene we capture exceeds the dynamic range of the camera’s sensor it results in the loss of information (details) in the area of the highlights and the shadows.
The HDR technology allows us to separately capture information (details) from the dark and bright areas of the scene and merge that information during the editing. The HDR technology helps us to overcome the limitation of the photo equipment.
Over the years, I used a variety of HDR tools and it is all documented on my blog. I started with Photoshop HDR Pro after it was Photomatix, HDR Expose and my latest favorite HDR Merge module of Lightroom.
But, often the readers of my blog and my followers on social media give me a hard time when I post HDR processed image with the dynamic range that is not extreme. I get blamed for using HDR for no reason and intentionally complicating the editing process.
Today I am going to demonstrate you why and how I use HDR when the light of the scene is not too extreme.
The Alien Landscape of the Eastern Sierra
I took the featured photo during my very first visit to the Eastern Sierra in California.
I was on my way to the valley after visiting high altitude Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest where I got to see and photograph the oldest trees in the world (4.000-5.000 years old). The weather was changing rapidly and the sun was blasting through the openings in the clouds creating interesting light patterns. The whole landscape reminded me of the landing scene from the movie Prometheus. The Sierra looked to me as an alien planet.
The sun was covered by the clouds defusing the light and making it less dynamic. I could see right away that I did not need HDR processing to capture and preserve the entire light range. But, I took 3 bracketed shots anyway just to make sure I collected as much information from the scene as possible.
When I started to edit the photo in Lightroom I only used a singe RAW image (middle bracket). The challenge was to overcome the mild haze in the air. I had to apply pretty aggressive edits (contrast, clarity, vibrance) to bring back the contrast and the colors of the scene.
When I was happy with the result and decided to evaluate the image, by zooming to 100%, to see what noise reduction setting to apply I realized that image started to break up because of my aggressive editing. The deterioration in the image was beyond the digital noise and it was almost impossible to fix it even by using dedicated noise reduction tool like Topaz DeNoise.
This is when HDR came to rescue. I selected three bracketed shots and merge them to HDR using HDR Merge module of Lightroom.
After Lightroom produced a brand new HDR image in DNG format, I used the Sync… functionality of the program to apply editing setting of the original RAW to a new HDR image.
The effect of the edits was identical with the original RAW file, but the image was much cleaner without any traces of deterioration. The newly created HDR file had much more information and as the result I could push it much harder without producing negative artifacts.
The digital noise was mild and I managed to completely eliminate it using Topaz DeNoise plugin.
Check before & after demonstration below to see the difference. Both images are 100% crops without any noise reduction.
By merging multiple images to HDR it not only helps us to overcome the dynamic range limitations of the modern photo equipment but also to produce images that have more digital information compared to individual out of camera RAW files.
With the rapid advances in modern sensor technologies, every new generation of cameras produces photos with the wider dynamic range and better quality. I found myself using this technique less after switching from Canon 60D to Sony a6000 because of a better sensor.