How To Use HDR For Nature Photography

How To Use HDR For Nature Photography

Photographers have always struggled with photographing high-contrast scenes often found at sunrise or sunset. High dynamic range, or HDR techniques can help you capture those scenes with greater detail and a “natural” look, if you use the technique properly.

Back in the film days, photographers like Galen Rowell helped to pioneer the use of rectangular graduated neutral density filters (GND filters) that were clear on one end and dark on the other. These filters were primarily applied by landscape photographers to darken skies or mountains in order to balance with foreground exposures more closely. Use of these filters made it possible to photograph high-contrast scenes that were previously impossible to properly expose in a single frame.

While technically possible with film, the advent of digital photography brought with it the new technique of blending multiple exposures of the same scene to create a single HDR image. This new technique quickly caught on and became wildly popular, so much so that it created an entirely new style of images showing more detail in the shadows and highlights than the human eye could see in real life. While this trend became popular, it also created a bit of a backlash among more traditionally minded photographers as well as photo editors. We would hear things like, “that image doesn’t look real” or “that photo looks Photoshopped.” I would argue that it also helped erode the general public’s appreciation of a truly well-crafted, properly exposed—and natural-looking—landscape image.

As someone who often works with photo editors, I noticed that some outright banned the submission of HDR images of any kind. At the time, I was a big user of graduated neutral density filters, with my goal being to make scenes look as natural as possible, but I discovered that in many situations, by carefully and tastefully merging multiple images into HDR files, I could actually create images that looked more realistic than if I had I used my trusty GND filters. So realistic, in fact, that I (and many other photographers) was guilty of quietly sending natural-looking HDR images to big-name publishers with no HDR policies and regularly having them chosen and published. At the time, I was mainly using GND filters, but it was clear that the future was going to be with HDR once the process became easier.

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