The DaVinci Gallery: a study in High Dynamic Range

Lately I’m working not only on my actual camera ability, but also on better understanding the technology of processing images. Yesterday I spent a couple of hours in the DaVinci Machines Exhibit in Denver working on both composition and technical skills (shooting in lower light, for instance) and doing so with an eye toward how I’d be outputting the images later. Interesting results.

I bracketed everything I shot (three exposures: -3, 0 and +3) to enable composite High Dynamic Range processing. The sequence below comprises five different takes on the same raw image. First, the basic shot, fine tuned a bit in Photoshop.

Now I started playing in Photomatix. I began with one of the “Painterly” presets and worked the image back toward the raw one a little. As you can see, this process introduced (or, more accurately, reintroduced) a lot of information, particularly in the ceiling. Blues and reds are saturated, providing what I think is an interesting cool/warm contrast between the facility (very blue) and the objects in the exhibit (warm reds in the wood, soft canvas fabrics in things like the glider wing top center). Certainly the focus shifts away from the exhibit in the foreground to the background.

Next I used the much cooler (temperature-wise, not hip-wise) Creative preset as a starting point, again dialing it back a touch. More noisy, more loss of focus on the ostensible subject of the shot. But if you’re like me (ooh, look, shiny!) it might be fun to look at.

This time started with Creative again, but switched to the Surreal lighting settings. Cooler, very contrasty, and by this point many viewers are probably screaming and throwing things at their monitors because the signal:noise ratio is now completely shot.

Finally, black and white. My normal procedure for b/w output (to the extent that anyone as new to all this as I am can be said to have a “normal” anything) is to convert in Photoshop, where I have a lot of control over specific color outputs. Here, though, I worked with one of the black & white options in Photomatix and the result is, like the last couple of shots above, quite noisy.

I’m obviously having a lot of fun here, but I’m also climbing a damned-near vertical learning curve. In one sense, I’m developing some technical capability with my tools, but more importantly, these sorts of exercises are helping me explore who I want to be as a shooter. As a developing writer I had to find my voice, and that involved a lot of experimentation and even a good bit of imitation – I’d see something I liked, so I’d try and do it myself, along the way internalizing lessons and skills and over time making them my own. Tradition and the individual talent, as it were.

I plan on going back to the exhibit, hopefully next week, to reshoot a few shots that didn’t come out how I planned the first time around. I think I’ll reshoot this, too, with a low f-stop. Maybe if I shorten the depth of field I can use more aggressive HDR without sacrificing the focus on the subject.

Let me know if you have a favorite here, if there are things that resonate for you, and of course, what you absolutely hate and hope I’ll never do again….


  • i’m working on something pretty demanding right now, but i can contribute an overall thought. HDR sucks.

    okay, not very useful or elegant. but there is something it does by giving everything similar values (remember that values discussion, where the “intensity” of a tone can be rated from 0-100, and you can have reds, greens, blues, oranges, etc. all with the relative same value, or with radically different ones).

    HDR has a tendency to reduce many images into just an accumulation of areas of the same values, and there is nothing of interest to drive the eye. no contrast, etc.

    it also screws up by giving us too much information, and that is my greatest critique of all the HDR samples you’ve provided, Sam.

    look at the ceiling. we have the rafters. in the name of getting all the data, this is great. in the name of creating a visually compelling image … there is far too much information and it’s confusing. look at the first image again. great. i know just where i should go visually. with the HDR, there is so much there, i’m lost at how to even enter the photograph, much less work my way through it.

    HDR is incredibly controversial. i know Sam, and millions of others like it. i believe it loses what makes photography compelling.

    sorry if i’ve offended.

    • Offended? Hardly. I’m still wrestling with these same issues. The processed images do give you a lot to look at and I have never been afraid of business, I fear. I think there are ways of using HDR effectively (I’ve seen it done and done insanely well) but the trick is figuring out where the line is – where is it enhancing the show and where does it become the show.

      Thanks for the comments. I suspect this conversation will continue for years to come…. 🙂

      • many thanks for being open to the comments. for all my either-or attitude, i do have to echo your statement … i have seen some stunning work in HDR. but it has always looked natural, and more in line with a traditional photograph’s range of values, or HDR. as you say … a discussion with years to come in it.

  • Greg, ill offer a different position. Bad hdr sucks. Good hdr is barely noticeable and a delight 🙂

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