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.

Even with my full frame DSLR camera I could not expose correctly for this high contrast landscape scene. In order to capture the beauty of the clouds my exposure is too low to reveal the details of the land too. The result is a landscape in shadow.

Increasing the exposure to bring out those landscape shadows in turn blows the sky out and all of those beautiful clouds are lost.

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.

This is about as best as my full frame body could do in the circumstances, compromising both the high and low lit areas of the scene; a fairly “flat” image with nowhere near the range of detail I could see with my eyes at that moment.

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.

The HDR composite image: By combining the three separate photographs, a higher range of exposures layer into one image. The result is a dramatic (clearly processed) image of a scene otherwise not attainable in the circumstances. This is what HDRI provides.

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.

With a wide angle a huge section of sky can make up the majority of the frame. A setting sun underneath the clouds created a warm contrast against the blue areas remaining. Shooting straight into the light required the high range and the result was the ability to include the details of the bare surroundings with the striking sky above.

During a dark morning the clouds looked particularly eery and I wanted to capture this above the dimly lit zebras. A poorly captured sequence resulted in a very grainy and flat image, mainly due to the very aggressive bracketing I used. I opted for more than a full stop above and below the selected exposure which was too much for just a sequence of three shots.

A few moments later I had luckily captured another sequence in the same scene but with less than a full stop between each exposure. During the post-processing stages it was clear that this was the better approach to a three photograph sequence as the HDR result was much cleaner with a softer and smoother feel; a more accurate depiction of the scene.

Starting to use immediate subjects in the scenes added another dimension to the difficulty as parts nearer to the camera require appropriate exposure. This dark and shaded vehicle and its occupants turned out nicely in this wide angle HDR image.

With a greater depth of field HDR can create the look of a flashed subject, often difficult to do from long range, though in some circumstances (like this one) the subject pops so much that a brushed out border starts to develop around them which personally I find to be an undesired effect.

Before the green of summer had arrived, I started to realise that colour was a major key in the final outcome of an HDR image. This one brought the cold tones of a dull and textured buffalo skull together with the warm tones of a dusty forest floor, all the while revealing the hidden corners of the skull’s internal structure.

Another example of colour contrast in an HDR image where the deep sunset meets a detailed landscape, boasting a fully visible rhino on the move. It is otherwise impossible to capture both aspects in this scene.

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!

The long range flash coming into play in this image, with an evenly compromised exposure on both the leopard and the dramatic cloud formation behind.

Attempting to get more in the frame, the camera and the processing abilities in the circumstances were stretched to their limits here which is why the final image is a little grainy and “flat”. However, as it was one of my first HDR images I was very excited and the outcome inspired me to make improvements. So, thank you, Mike!

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Nkoveni 2:2 Female
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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.

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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.

A gently flowing Sand River is illuminated by the sunrise and its welcoming colours. HDRI allows the details of this river bed to be captured as well as the leading edge of the sun itself, not often achievable at all.

Experimenting more aggressively during the processing stages I tried this deep and heavy tonal merge, creating a very dramatic and over-the-top result which emphasises each colour in the scene. Although it may be further from what the eye saw in that scene, there is no denying the impressive ability of the HDRI technique.

A more subtle process of the same scene, with a balanced exposure and an intended deep field of focus.

With a bright and colourful thunderstorm buildup in the background, this Mhangeni breakaway lioness stops to turn and look, giving me just enough time to capture the required three bracketed shots in order to later process this beautiful HDR image. A very pleasing result for me!

This, I feel, is one of my closest depictions of what the eye saw in that moment: A rich merging of blues, through reds, to greens all with sufficient detail and contrast. A very subtle yet effective HDR image.

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?

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About the Author

Sean Cresswell

Safari Guide

Sean is one of the humblest rangers you are likely to meet. Quietly going about his day, enriching the lives of the many guests he takes out into the bush, it is only when he posts a Week in Pictures or writes an ...

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4 Comments

on Photographic Journal: What and Why HDRI?

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Darlene Knott
Guest

Very interesting subject! And, yes I do believe it applies to wildlife too. I know about exposure bracketing, but have been reluctant to try it. Next time I will. Thanks for sharing.

karina
Guest

very interesting article! I was not too convinced of HDRI up to now, but now will definitely try it out on my next trip.

Gillian Evans
Guest

Thanks for the in-depth review on HDR Sean. Love your final set of photographs! Always something new to learn in photography!

Sibu
Guest

I like bracketing because it gives me options to decide on the best picture i should save. Thanks for a nice article.

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