The colourful world of HDR photography

Years ago, HDR meant something different to what it seems to mean now. HDR (High Dynamic Range) used to mean taking multiple shots of the same scene at different exposures and combining them into one image, bringing out more detail in the shadows and highlights.

Take, for example, this photo of a seat by the lake.

A seat, by a lake.
A seat, by a lake.

There’s a lot of different exposure areas happening here. If you were to look at this scene in real life, your eyes would have no problem showing you the blue of the sky and the detail in the shadows. However, camera’s don’t have the same dynamic range as our eyes (yet), so when you pick what area you’re exposing for, you can easily under or over expose bits of your image that are particularly bright or dark.

A seat by a lake, but darker.
A seat by a lake, but darker.

Above, we have the same scene underexposed by the camera. This means that all the bright areas (like the sky) will have plenty of detail, but a lot of the darker areas are lost to shadow.

A seat by a lake. But lighter.
A seat by a lake. But lighter.

In this photo, the camera is set to overexpose. This shows up all the detail in the shadows, but ‘blows out’ all the really bright areas.

There’s plenty of software available that will automatically align the different photos and merge them. There’s even a feature built in to Lightroom that does this for you.

Here’s the three images combined in Lightroom. I upped the saturation bit too.

A seat by a lake - HDR.
A seat by a lake – HDR.

This is what your iPhone is doing when you have the HDR setting enabled. It’s snapping multiple shots and combining them to give you a higher exposure range. The effect is subtle but noticeable. Also, that’s why you can get some crazy ‘ghost’ effects if you have the HDR switched on but things in the scene are moving.

At some point in time, things got freaky. Scrolling through Instagram one day, I saw what could only be described as a surreal mess of colour and form. “What the hell is that?” I asked myself. I knew it was once a photo of a house by a lake, but it had a purple roof, orange walls, and the lake was a glowing shade of iridescent blue. Why would someone do that?

Turns out, this was the new HDR: doing the whole “combing exposure” thing then totally screwing with the colour and luminescence using a technique called Tone Mapping.

A seat by a lake. But tone-mapped like crazy. HDR!!
A seat by a lake. But tone-mapped like crazy. HDR!!

And like any new technique or gadget, I wholeheartedly embraced this with glee. I bought some HDR software for the computer and set about creating these things like crazy.

 

This image was created intentionally.
This image was created intentionally.

 

This image was also created intentionally.
This image was also created intentionally.

Yes, the photos above are meant to look like that. It’s not an accident. Look at the colour! Look at the structure! But don’t look for too long. That nausea you feel is normal – that indicates when it’s time to look away. But don’t worry! Plenty of images like this saturate the internet, so there’ll always be more to look at.

Anyway, I soon grew bored of it. Not long after that I discovered that street photography was a thing and started getting into that, abandoning my over-saturated master pieces and focusing on the much more proper and artistic black and white street photography.

But every now and then, I would sit down to edit some street shots and just go bonkers on the colour. I would decide that black and white was a thing of the past. My work needed colour! In fact, not just colour. Vibrant, surreal colour. Life isn’t black and white! Make those images pop! And I would do things to my photos in Photoshop that would make even the chromiest of chrome filters look dull in comparison.

Thankfully I had the good sense to show these images to people before posting them anywhere, and they always confirmed what I already knew – that they looked really, really bad.

But there was still a part of me that wanted to work with colour. I hadn’t figured out how to utilise it in my street shots, but I knew I had to work it in to my process somehow, without making my street photography look like crap. And so while I was out and about taking photos in the city, I would occasionally snap off a few “exposure bracketed” shots to keep for when the urge took me. Then I’d have something to play with colour on without taking it out on a street shot.

And I still do that today. Most cameras have a HDR mode where they will take a few shots at different exposure for you. Some can even combine them in camera but I would recommend doing it on the computer using proper HDR/tone-mapping software. Initially I used Photomatix Pro, but recently I switched over to Aurora HDR Pro – I just prefer the results I get with that one. The scenes below that are re-posts from my old website have been re-worked with Aurora HDR Pro (the original ones had been processed with Photomatix).

Interior Queen Victoria Building, Sydney.
Interior Queen Victoria Building, Sydney.
June 23, 2013 1751
Sydney Convention Centre, Darling Harbour (now demolished and replaced)
Sussex St, Sydney
Sussex St, Sydney
Circular Quay, seen from the steps of Sydney Opera House.
Circular Quay, seen from the steps of Sydney Opera House.
June 23, 2013 1641
Fountains at Darling Harbour (now demolished and replaced with a construction site).

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These images are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.