No camera can record the tonal range the human eye can see.
Even today’s top of the range models can only manage around 12-14 stops of light between blown out highlights and blocked up shadows, whilst the human eye can cope with twice this number. And these measurements are logarithmic, so for many contrasty scenes there is no single exposure combination possible that can reproduce detail in all areas of the image. The concept of some sort of ‘add on’ device or software to achieve this has always been attractive, and recently has been built in to digital cameras and even mobile phones.
Mostly these rely on two or possibly three images recorded in quick succession, using differing exposures and then combined. The results are usually better than a single exposure, but still lacking the control of a freestanding software programme.
It is not surprising therefore to find several independent offerings, probably the best known being Photomatix. It is easy to use but by default tends to produce the highly stylised and detailed results a stack of images in register can produce. Favoured for a while, many photographers have tired of this easily identified approach and abandoned it, forgetting perhaps what high dynamic range photography should do.
I downloaded a trial and found, at last, a straightforward programme that delivers natural looking compilations with little or no preparation.
Obviously a stack of images is required to start, which usually means using a tripod, although the programme will align a series that are closely matched. Most cameras can bracket exposure automatically, and when loaded a few simple steps covering white balance, ghosting and noise reduction, etc will then result in an initial result which is very natural in appearance, hardly showing it’s origins, but with the highlights and shadows well controlled. It does not immediately shout ‘HDR’, and although I used it on a series of interior shots with strong window lighting, high contrast outdoor pictures would benefit too.
Not that this is a basic programme. A little time delving into the fine adjustments and sub-menus reveals a huge wealth of possibilities, including if you wish the typical results of older programmes.
But for me the great strength of HDR Projects, as it is known, is the very natural results produced ‘straight out of the box’ with the range of subtle tweaks available to fine tune the result before final processing. Like all software, it has its quirks.
I couldn’t preview RAW files in the image selector so had to note their references before loading them. Only adjacent files in sequence could be loaded, making this pre-selection vital. But these are minor points from a programme which is clearly far more advanced than its predecessors, and represents the next generation of the genre.
Odd, since it takes us back to where HDR photography should have started and offers an extremely elegant technique for overcoming one of the common pitfalls, present in the days of film but more apparent with the noise of underexposure and the loss of detail of overexposure, so common in digital imaging.
This Software review was written by Paul Stillman, President at the Brighton & Hove Camera Club