Why HDR Might Be The Perfect Tool For Landscape Photographers

In my short time as a "serious" photographer I have come to embrace HDR (high dynamic range) photography and am quickly becoming convinced that HDR is the perfect tool for landscape photographers. Based on my experience so far, HDR seems to be the best way to as accurately as possible reproduce the wide range of lighting that seems to most often be present while shooting outdoor landscapes. Our eyes are much better than the camera's sensor at balancing out the dynamic range of a scene, so my goal with most landscapes is to use the camera to reproduce what my eye sees as realistically as possible. And, because of the wide dynamic range of many scenes, some type of exposure bracketing combined with HDR processing seems to be a great way to accomplish that goal. Let me use a set of images from our just completed trip to Colorado to demonstrate:

Here is the series of three bracketed shots I took at the West portal of the Eisenhower Tunnel, which goes under the mountains at the continental divide (at an altitude of over 11,000 feet) just West of Denver. It was a fairly sunny day and that combined with the snow and darkness of the tunnel entrance indicated to me that HDR might be a good option.

Here's the first image (zero exposure compensation). This is typical of what most people would get if they took their camera, focused on the tunnel, and pressed the shutter:

As you can see in the above image, it was a pretty bright day and there was a wide range of light, from pitch black in the tunnel to blazing bright white on the snow. The camera's metering system did an OK job at best with this and the image would qualify as a "snapshot" and not a photograph in my opinion. You can tell what the subject is and make out that there is snow in the background and some kind of dirt in the foregroud. But beyond that, the rest of the details are hard to make out. There are probably thousands of images like this on people's computers and in their vacation photo albums.

Here's the second image (2 stops underexposure):

This image shows what happens when the camera underexposes by 2-stops. The tunnel just about loses all detail and becomes one big shadow but the road and snow take on a lot more detail. You can make out some of the dirt and grime on the snow, the shadows caused by the clouds on the snow, and the sand in the foreground actually looks like sand.

One last image, this time overexposed by two stops:

The third shot, over exposed by 2 stops, is needed in order to capture the details that are hiding in the dark parts of the scene. The foreground sand and background snow are blown out and almost pure white. But the details of the tunnel come into view. Compare this image to the first one (taken at "normal" settings) and you will see that the tunnel has stoplights in it (red on the left and green on the right). Also the windows above the tunnel tubes reveal more structure and the doors in the middle of the tunnel become apparent.

Now it's time to work some magic and combine the three images into one cohesive, detailed photograph using HDR software. I use Nik's Color Efex Pro 2 (which I can highly recommend) to generate the final image but you can use any number of HDR applications or plugins:

Big difference, huh? :-) Compare this final image to the first one at the top of this post (the snapshot) and you will see a HUGE difference. Getting to this final image took a little work and experimentation with the various settings in HDR Efex Pro (and I have more learning to do) but I think I got it pretty darn close to what my eyes saw that day when I parked the rental car at the top of the pass, got out and looked back at the tunnel we had just come through. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the brightness of the scene but once they did I was able to make out the details inside the tunnel, see the dirt on the snow behind/above the tunnel and make out the details of the tire tracks in the sand right in front of me.

If I had just taken out my DSLR and snapped a quick photo I would've never captured all of that. All it took was a little bit of foresight, three bracketed images, a tripod (get one now!), and a bit of time with some specialty software in order to create this final image.

I think the final result is well worth the effort and I will continue to use HDR, whenever I can, to create realistic photographs of landscapes (and just about anything else) that represent what I saw with my eyes at the moment I captured the image(s) with my camera.

If you are looking to create realistic Landscapes with your digital camera and aren't using the power of HDR, you might want to give it a go and see what happens. I think you'll be happy with the results!