|Crescent City Sunset, originally uploaded by Jeffrey Sullivan.|
Take the example below. Often the most interesting and dramatic lighting can be found shooting straight into the sun, but if you expose to preserve the outline of the sun you'll completely lose shadow detail, and if you expose for the shadows, the sun will be an amorphous white area, a clear failure to accurately capture the scene. There are multiple strategies for capturing a scene like this via bracketed exposures, and multiple options for combining those exposures to recreate the scene, but HDR software such as Photomatix can be a fast and easy option, without requiring a lot of detailed manipulation in Photoshop layers.
|Mono Lake afternoon reflection (2009 HDR).|
Once you have three competent exposures to work with, the first option in Photomatix that many of HDR's detractors are completely unaware of (and I think many of its users as well) is the ability to simply average the three exposures together. By averaging three exposures, the darkest exposure adds detail from the bright areas "blown out" to white in your center exposure, the lightest exposure adds detail from the darkest, "blocked out" black areas which your center, best single exposure couldn't handle. This useful functionality has been cleverly hidden in the Batch Processing section of Photomatix, and for years now it's been available for use indefinitely in the free trial that you can download from www.HDRsoft.com. Since your'e simply blending together actual light values captured by your camera, much like the iris of your eye captures different exposures as you look around the same scene, the result is a completely natural-looking result, with more range and detail than any single exposure.
|Eastern Sierra morning golden hour light (2009 HDR).|
|Ellery Lake near Yosemite (2009 HDR).|
Taking the critical step of blending away HDR flaws doesn't have to be complicated or expensive; if you don't have Photoshop try the layer functionality added into the latest version of Photoshop Elements (about $79.99 in the U.S.). You can download a free trial at www.Adobe.com
|3-exposure HDR. Mono Lake storm (2009).|
If you can't accurately capture a scene, you'll never get your results into National Geographic. Even if you don't aspire to submit images to them for consideration, it's not all that hard to correct many simple HDR flaws; so why set your sights for image quality any lower?
Now before I set myself up to receive a bunch of hate mail from HDR users, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with uncorrected HDR. You can produce whatever you want. Some people are happy with Polaroid images, cell phone images, disposable film cameras and I've taken some of my favorite images on a point-and-shoot digital camera. People can call anything they want "art," and if they find customers for that, I'm happy for them. All I'm pointing out is that there is no need to let the HDR process control your results. You can occasionally demonstrate to your audience that you have skill, that you're in control, even if you choose to stop short of that point and produce artistic, partially-processed results to satisfy HDR fans the rest of the time. I'd love to see more HDR users develop and demonstrate that skill more often. Where you go from there is entirely your call.
If you decide to buy Photomatix, you can get a 15% discount by using the coupon code JeffSullivan when you by it from its publisher HDRsoft: http://www.hdrsoft.com/order.php