This is not so much a showcase of the best results possible. Rather it’s the sharing of a journey to understanding the purpose and power of a very different photographic and processing technique by experimenting in the wildlife arena.
High-Dynamic-Range Imaging (HRDI, or HDR photography) is the technique used to reproduce a much greater range of luminosity, which is essentially relative brightness, than ordinarily achieved through digital photography. Even with today’s incredibly advanced sensors in the latest DSLR cameras, the human eye has a greater range of “stops” above and below 0 (in photography jargon). Basically this means that in a scene with both bright light and dark shadows, the eye can see more than the camera can.
You may have noticed this when trying to photograph with a basic digital camera, or most notably with a smartphone, in a high contrast scene. With a very small range of luminosity, smartphone cameras must automatically choose to expose for either the bright or the dark areas, leaving the other area either completely blown out or completely shaded. The best example is trying to photograph a sunrise or a sunset. Either the smartphone reveals a beautifully clouded and colourfully detailed sky with a black landscape, or a clear and colourful landscape with trees and rocks all together but with a white sky. This is because the basic camera’s low range of luminosity can only cope with the bright sky or the darker landscape, and not both at once.
As DSLR cameras have become more powerful over the years, their sensors have the ability to read greater ranges of luminosity (therefore having higher dynamic ranges) making the more difficult scenes easier to capture.
To further combat this limitation, HDR photography can use techniques in post-processing to layer several photographs into one composite image in order to reveal in detail (and correct exposure) both the bright and dark areas of the scene. The result is a scene similar to how the eye has seen it. Now it is impossible to perfectly mimic and reproduce human sight, but HDR photography can come quite close. A well captured sequence of photographs in just the right conditions, at just the right relative exposures should provide an opportunity to form a somewhat realistic HDR composite image.
HDR photography is commonly used in the architecture realm so as to reveal both indoor and outdoor areas of the scene. The beautiful interior of a house or the ancient remains of a temple may look great in their exposure but a blown out sky behind ruins the image, and a stunningly dramatic sky with shaded contents of the subject of the scene don’t achieve anything either. This is how the technique has become popular in those circles.
As there is not always a need to capture such a high range of luminosity in wildlife photography, and coupled with the fact that HDR images are composites and do usually look very over-processed (a characteristic most of us avoid in wildlife photography), the technique is not commonly used for natural subjects or general wildlife.
But for sake of exploring new avenues, and with curiosity at my back, I thought I’d play around with the technique and try to find the right opportunities for when it worked the best. I downloaded the free and exceptionally powerful Nik Collection and used it as a Lightroom plug-in which enabled me to create HDR photographs. I would use three photographs to layer into a composite image, one of which being heavily underexposed and another being heavily overexposed (achieved through bracketing).
Below is my journey of understanding the reach of HDRI in wildlife photography over the past six months – from a dry and barren winter into a lush and vibrant summer.
The next two images were actually the first two HDR composites I processed under the explanation and guidance of a very helpful and experienced photographer. This was taken in September last year with Londolozi guest Michael Johnson who subsequently contributed to the blog with an amazing array of photographs from his stay with us. In this particular sighting the overcast conditions made light very low, however, the sky directly behind our subject was shining bright and so exposing correctly was impossible. We experimented with a long range flash as well as exposure bracketing to capture the sequences needed for HDR processing and I really enjoyed the result!
A young female that lives to the east and south of camp. Easily recognised by her 2:2 spot pattern she is often to be found in Marula trees.
With the summer rains came a flowing river and a sudden splash of green. Using the new addition of colour to the advantage of HDRI proved effective, and the contrasting range of vibrance seemed to compliment the wide range of luminosity. As soon as there was any warm colour in the sky, especially textured with clouds or mist, the HDR result was very interesting.
What do you think about this far-reaching technique? Should it be reserved for cityscapes and urban photography only or does it have a potential place in wildlife photography too?