Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Australia in High Dynamic Range

I've been really impressed with the work +Trey Ratcliff has been sharing on Google+, which led to me wondering if HDR might be a way to add some "punch" to my landscape photography. My recent holiday back to Oz offered the perfect excuse to experiment. I've put my best HDR photos so far into this Google+ album.

I've been working on my photography skills for a while now, but there are certain scenes that I've  found particularly challenging. Dramatic sunsets, photos taken in bright sunlight (or towards the sun), or photos taken on dark, gray days have been a struggle to capture adequately on camera.

HDR seemed like a technique that might help me capture on film what I could see with my eyes, and what better place to practice than on a Western Australian beach at sunset?

We also spent some time in Ballarat, over in Victoria. In recent years rural Australia has been known for a crippling drought followed by devastating floods, but when we visited it was a velvet field punctuated by saphires, with the dams and lakes all filled to capacity.

We were staying within the shadow of Mount Buninyong, which provided the perfect opportunity to experiment with some midday shots taken from a high vantage point.

Bird's eye views are always stunning in person, but I've had difficulty turning that view into  interesting photos -- particularly as I seldom make it to these places at dusk or dawn when the natural light would be more favorable.  My initial results were definitely encouraging.

To help experiment, my trusty Canon EOD 500D has an exposure bracketing option that lets me take three consecutive pictures using different exposures. Photoshop comes with an automation plugin that merges multiple exposures to produce HDR images.

I learned a few things from my experience so far. The first - somewhat obviously - is to look for scenes with an abundance of color depth. Rich greens offset by deep blues and grays look fantastic.

Somewhat less obvious is the effect that a hint of rich color can add to an otherwise monochromatic scene. HDR will add layers of depth to grey clouds and dark seas, so a small splash of red or green can produce dramatic results.

I also learned that taking portrait photos in HDR is much more difficult. Close-ups can be incredibly unflattering as skin tones are exaggerated and people start to creep into the uncanny valley.

It's also tricky to photograph scenes with movement. When you merge the images, slight differences are often shown up as artifacts or ghosting. A steady hand is a must (my best results used a tripod), and shooting toward the sun will minimize your exposure times. Looking at the images blown up on my 24" monitor, it's also clear that there are more annoying pixel artifacts, halos, and ghosting that I need to work on to improve the final effect.

Overall, I need to practice to get better results, but I the progress so far is promising and HDR is definitely a tool I'll be adding to my amateur photography tool-belt.

[I've disabled comments here in favour of using Google+. Feel free to join the conversation over there.]

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