Of Blurry Dynamism

I added a few HDR images to the site today.

In the old weblog I wrote several times about HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography, as I discovered what it was about, and what I could do with it. Now that I'm a little more experienced, I have more mixed feelings about it.

For starters, of course, it isn't all that easy. You need to shoot "bracketed", that is to say, multiple images with slightly varied exposure settings. You should preferably use a tripod. And then there's the post-processing involved, using special software.

I was up for all that. I like the additional range you get even with older cameras, being a Minolta fan. Toying with the effects is fun too, although I usually prefer the natural look.

So what's the problem? In one word: blur. Most photos I take are landscapes. I love nature, and so most of my pictures have trees in them. Trees, water, grass. Stuff that doesn't stand still. How do you deal with that?

The answer is, you can't. Not really. If your subject moves from frame to frame, you have a problem. They call it "ghosting". Camera movement (which you get if, like me, you don't usually carry a tripod with you), a good HDR program can deal with pretty well. But subject movement is a pain. While one can always try to manually remove ghosts of moving branches and such, you'll quickly tire of doing that.

I believe there will be software eventually, which is much better at de-ghosting, and discards any part of the photo that moved between frames. But until then, the simple rule is, if you want a perfectly sharp photo, you can't use HDR on a windy day. (On the other hand, you can get some interesting results if motion is what you want.) Yes, single-image HDR processing is possible, but then it becomes an effect only, as the result won't have "higher dynamics" than your single original.

There is one other practical issue with HDR, although perhaps of less importance. HDR programs aren't RAW converters, at least there are none that I know of that do both simultaneously (yet). This means you don't have access to the fine-tuning of RAW conversion inside the HDR program. If that were possible, one could probably do some amazing things. Until then, we have to choose one or the other.

So, I guess I won't be doing HDR quite so much in the future, certainly not if I'm using a camera that shoots RAW files. RAW gives you lots of data to work with, all in one exposure, and ghost-less. (And if you decide to shoot bracketed anyway, you will have three exposures to choose from, as well as the HDR option.) There's still something about the HDR process that attracts me - merging three exposures into one - but at least for now, and from my perspective, it's a trade-off between dynamic range and sharpness.

I should mention, I suppose, that HDR is now an in-camera option on newer cameras, and also on smartphones and such. The processing is automatic, although if you employ special software on an iPad, for instance, you can play around with it more. Sounds like fun, and I may try it, but there is still quite a lot of difference between a "proper" camera and a smartphone, methinks. Having said that…

DxO came out with a camera just the other day, designed to connect to an iPhone. It introduces a format called "SuperRAW" which apparently involves HDR. So things are happening, but the "DxO One", as it's called, is not only prohibitively expensive for most people, but also not intended to substitute that "proper" camera. However, boundaries continue to blur, and with this new format in the mix, who knows what "super-cameras" await us?