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Squeezing the Light
on June 29, 2009
Almost as long as photography has existed, photographers have tried to make the images they capture look like the images captured by the human eye. The techniques applied have ranged from chemical wizardry in the old chemical darkroom to split neutral density filters. The most recent (and to my way of thinking, the best so far) is High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography, which works by combining several differently exposed digital images captured so as to optimize the range of light of tonal values. HDR uses computer software to accomplish this. Instruction books telling photographers how to use this technique are now a staple of book publishers.
"HDR Photography Photo Workshop" is a recent entry. After describing the nature of HDR and the equipment to use, the authors describe the use of what has become the most popular of the HDR software offerings, Photomatix Pro. The authors discuss what they call the art of HDR, which includes the method of taking HDR pictures, and then discuss the use of HDR for different genres, including landscape, architecture, interiors, black and white photography, portraits and so forth.
The authors emphasize the use of HDR for extending the range of single images. I was a little skeptical about this process since it's impossible to restore tonal values that aren't in the image, and because software like Lightroom and the Camera Raw component of Photoshop already seem to squeeze every last drop of data out of the single image. After trying the authors' techniques, I found that it was possible to create an adjusted image in HDR that at least appeared to have a greater tonal range. Unfortunately I found that the suggested method of achieving one-shot HDR was too briefly described to really get the most from this technique. (Moreover, ultimately the five or more stop range of exposures is the real key to HDR success.)
That is the problem with this book. There is not enough technical information. The Photomatix Detail Enhancer screen includes 14 sliders and 1 set of buttons, all of which have remarkably similar and opaque sounding names. Adjusting each of these sliders can have an effect in presenting anything from a traditional looking picture with an extended range of light (e.g., more shadow and highlight detail then a single image) to a surrealistic image that looks more like a painting then a photograph. The authors provide only slightly more information then the tools tips that appear on a monitor screen when you role over one of the sliders. At most, the authors show a before and after image with a remark to increase one or two sliders to the maximum, or set them at the default. What is needed is a detailed analysis of images and then a description of which sliders should be moved how much to achieve a visual goal. This explanation would be further enhanced if the authors provided images on a disk, or downloadable from the Internet to be used in a follow-along tutorial. (I should note that none of the other HDR books I've read follow this model, although a few do analyze a range of images and show the adjustments made with an explanation for their logic and step-by-step pictures.)
The genre chapters are even less useful for photographers looking to squeeze the most from Photomatix. For example, it is common in HDR landscape photography to end up with pictures with halos around darker subjects that are quite unnatural looking. The authors might have told us how to remove these halos while still enhancing contrast. Instead they write about using wide angle lenses and creating panoramas!
(Like all the books in this series, the authors provide an assignment at the end of each chapter, and the image created by the reader can be posted to a website for critique. I haven't found this feature useful.)
Perhaps the authors didn't want to scare off tyro photographers. But realistically, the people willing to process images in HDR are most likely to be experienced photographers, already familiar with software like Photoshop, and not afraid of detailed technical advice. Those photographers are not likely to find much of use here. The complete novice on the other hand might learn the utility of the HDR approach by reading this book.