I have been an avid photographer since the late 1970′s. I grew up on Kodachrome 64 and always relished the color saturation and dynamic range the transparencies created – especially in low light with long exposures. While I was slow moving to digital SLR photography, I quickly recognized the value of being able to snap away as much as I wished, deleting the pictures that did not meet my needs. I quickly learned that digital photography, even with high end DSLR’s, had a serious shortcoming – it lacked the dynamic range of Kodachrome in low light and high contrast situations. In high contrast daylight settings, such as a heavily backlit monuments, you would either have a blown out background or a very underexposed monument. Over the years I have been able to successfully utilize flash fill to offset this phenomenon, but it is not foolproof.
Now there is another option: High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing. HDR helps bridge the gap between what the human eye sees, and what the digital camera sensor can render in an image. The human eye, unlike the camera sensor, has the ability to process a huge dynamic range allowing you to see detail in shadows even when the scene is heavily backlit. HDR software essentially combines a series of exposure bracketed photos, combining them into one image. There are, however, drawbacks and limitations. Over processed HDR images can look like they came from the pages of a comic book. Combining multiple images creates more noise. While the noise can be significantly reduced with Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, image degradation is a potential side effect.
The top photo of Antietam’s “Bloody Lane” was created using Photomatix Pro 4.0. I combined three separate RAW images which spanned three stops to obtain this result – a picture that more closely replicates what I saw when I was taking the shots. The results are much like what I was able to capture years ago with my Canon T-90 SLR loaded with Kodachrome.
So what do you think? Do you like the HDR image? Is using software to combine images cheating or is it nothing more than what a photo technician did when processing negatives?