Single-exposure HDR

Back in 2004, almost exactly ten years ago, I purchased my first digital SLR camera. Because I already had some Canon EF mount lenses, I chose an EOS 10D. I was upgrading from an EOS Elan II 35mm film SLR which I purchased in 1995. This is one of the first photos I took with the 10D and my $80 50mm f/1.8 lens (I think they go for over $100 now). This was taken in Ecola State Park on the Oregon coast.

Ecola SP - 50mm, 1/60s, f/11

Ecola SP – 50mm, 1/60s, f/11

I like this photo, but the extreme tonal contrast in the scene means I lost a lot of detail in the shadows.  The exposure latitude of a digital sensor is limited and no camera can see the range of tones, from dark to light, that our eyes can. Add to that, I shot the image in JPEG format. I hadn’t learned the value of shooting in RAW format yet. But I’ve learned a lot in ten years, especially about image enhancement and editing, also known as post processing.  Post processing software has come a long way in ten years too.

So what could I do with a ten-year-old JPEG file to enhance it? None of my normal techniques were getting the result I wanted to see. What I was really after was enhanced color and more shadow detail in those black rocks. But in a JPEG image, could there still be any there?  Then I got an idea, which eventually got me to this:

Ecola SP - HDR

Ecola SP – HDR

What I did was make two extra “versions” of the photo in Apple Aperture. Then I simply moved the “exposure” slider to -2.0 on one and +2.0 on the other. Next, I imported the three versions (-2, 0, +2) into NIK HDR Efex Pro 2. I used the “Crisp” HDR method. I could have pushed more detail out of the shadows, but I know from experience that when you push an image too far in post, it starts to look unnatural, and image quality starts to go downhill.  Actually, I’ve pushed things quite a bit already, as you can see! But I can also say that this is more like what my eyes saw, standing on that seaside cliff.

Here’s another shot I took a few minutes later, using my shiny new EF 17-40mm f/4L.

Ecola SP 17mm - 1/60s, f/9.5

Ecola SP 17mm – 1/60s, f/9.5

Once again, nice photo, but severely lacking in shadow detail and it looks a little flat. I used the same technique described above and got this. What a difference it makes!

Ecola SP 17mm - HDR edit

Ecola SP 17mm – HDR edit

Of course, this is an attempt to “fix” or enhance an old photo I took before I understood much about what’s possible with digital photography. If I were to shoot a scene like this now, I’d use two techniques:

First, I would bracket my shots in the camera, shooting RAW, of course. Then I would combine them in an HDR software, just like I did after pushing my single exposure here to under- and over-expose it. This approach would produce noticeably higher image quality than my “fake” HDR above.

Second, this kind of scene is a good candidate for a graduated neutral density filter, which would darken the sky and bring its brightness closer to that of the beach. If you look at the first, non-HDRd version, you’ll see what I mean.

I am just amazed how much more this simple technique brought out of the same image!


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