I thought that I would show a good example of when and why multiple exposure High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging techniques are not only desirable and superior to traditional single image techniques, but are absolutely necessary in order to make an image rise above the level of simple snapshots that are probably taken tens-of-thousands of times each year from this very spot.
Last year, towards the end of summer on September 10, 2012, I visited Glacier National Park. My first day there it was raining almost continuously with numerous waves of heavy downpours. I had no expectations of getting any shots in that evening, I did not even plan on taking my camera out of their bags. After securing a bungalow, I really was not looking forward to setting up camp in the mud and rain, I set out to drive to the other end of the Going to the Sun road which is arguably the most scenic drive in all of the lower 48 states.
I drove past Lake McDonald without so much as seeing past the shoreline. I found myself just above the hairpin turn and was blessed with incredible luck during a rare respite from the incessant rain that evening. The Sun actually broke through the storm clouds for a few moments so I pulled over in one of the many pull-offs to take it in. The long two-day drive from my home was, in an instant, very well worth it. I could have turned back and immediately returned home and the trip would have been well worth it.
I almost immediately turned to get my camera gear setup, the shots were taken just prior to the sunset at 7:25 pm local time. I knew that this would be a very difficult shot and that I would most definitely, without any doubt, have to do an HDR series of shots using several different exposures in order to capture all of the details in the entire scene. By this time there were numerous other people who saw the same thing as I did and were all out snapping pictures with everything from iPhones to hand-holding expensive DSLR cameras.
A presumably professional photog actually came up to me and said: “Good luck, you’re going to be disappointed.” I immediately knew that he was either ignorant or was one of many professional’s who discriminate against one of the major benefits of digital technology. That technology is HDR photography or blending the best areas from several different exposures into a final image that displays the entire dynamic range of a scene that normally would be passed by, especially by an experienced photographer who has not yet added this incredibly valuable tool into their workflow.
In this particular scene the subject was obviously the range of mountains, Logan Pass, and Bird-Woman Falls. These areas were, unfortunately, very dark while the Sun breaking through the clouds was very bright in areas. In fact just the sky alone contained a dynamic range that exceeded the best professional digital sensors or film chemistry mediums.
I set my Nikon D3s to bracket seven separate exposures separated by one full stop. I set my Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 lens to 26mm and f/16 to make sure the field of view included the closest foliage in focus. ISO was set to 1600 for the shortest possible exposure times. The shortest exposure was 1/160th of a second and the longest exposure was 1/3 of a second. This would obviously require a tripod and a rapid succession of shots to prevent ghosting of the nearby wind-blown foliage as well as the fast-moving storm clouds. I set my D3S to Continuous High mode so when I pushed the cable release all of the images would be captured in the shortest time possible, in this case less than two seconds.
Without HDR techniques the knowledgeable photographer has a few choices:
1) Expose the foreground and subject properly and the sky and clouds would be completely clipped or burned out leaving absolutely no detail in about 2/3′s of the sky.
2) Expose the sky properly and the subject is then forced to be the storm clouds while the intended subjects and foreground becomes little more than a silhouette.
3) Expose the scene as the light meter suggests and then there would be some details in the subject, sky, and foreground. This is what almost all of the people will end up with if they shoot in Automatic mode. This will result in a compromised image that still has an enormous amount of loss of details in both the highlights as well as major losses in the shadows.
4) Pass up the urge to photograph it at all and just take in the scene while ridiculing everyone else for even trying to photograph such a difficult scene.
5) Use HDR techniques and capture the image as faithfully as possible using modern digital technology.
Here is the image in the first case:
Here is the image from the second case:
Here is the image for the third scenario:
Here is the result from the technique used in the fourth choice:
And here is the final image HDR processed in Photomatix Pro software and fine-tuned in Photoshop, this technique was beyond my previously described technique of blending two images with layer masking since the dynamic range was so wide in this particular scene: (click on it for a larger image)
It is the drama of the storm clouds and the details readily available in the foreground which gives it scale and depth and ultimately makes this shot work. I used an unusually high level of contrast in order to burn through the mist and haze. I don’t know what you might feel when looking at the final image but it still makes me smile and pinch myself with the knowledge and satisfaction that there are still a great deal of professional photographers who are still passing up some of these incredible opportunities.
I wish that I could go back and tell that photographer: “No it is you, sir, that will be the disappointed one.”
I also realize that a common technique to overcome similar problems is to use neutral density gradient filters. While these are normally the only option for videographers, I personally find them even more obtrusive and offensive as HDR processing by ham handed individuals who abuse HDR tone-maping techniques for “artistic” purposes which, by the way, is the major reason why so many professionals have shunned HDR photography to this day.