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Photographers, Choose Your Tools

February 17, 2010

I recently engaged in a lively conversation on twitter with a fellow nature photographer about “getting it right in the field.”  Those of you who know me, especially those who have taken one of my workshops, are familiar with “get it right in the field” as I used to preach it regularly.  I frequently declared that using graduated neutral density filters in the field was superior to doing HDR or image blends on the computer.  Admitting that I’m wrong has never come easy for me.  Just ask my wife.   However, here and now, I admit that I was wrong and maybe even a little arrogant to make such a blanket statement.

As I now see it, there isn’t anything at all wrong with using GND’s, HDR, manual image blends or exposure fusion interchangeably.  Different situations call for different tools.  Is it wrong to stitch a panoramic image from several digital captures instead of using a dedicated pano camera?  Absolutely not!  Is it cheating to convert a color digital image to black and white instead of using black and white film to capture the image in monochrome?  Of course it isn’t.  So why should we frown upon combining exposures to increase dynamic range?

I still carry 2 and 3 stop graduated neutral density filters.  I’ll break them out at times when using a filter works better, or easier, than doing blends.  But there are times when a digital solution exists that works better than the analog equivalent.  And there are times when there is no analog equivalent.  If you’re photographing a waterfall inside a dark forest there isn’t a filter available that will even out the exposure.  The solution?  Bracket exposures and combine them in the digital darkroom.  It’s the right tool for the situation and there isn’t a darn thing wrong with that.

I experimented with high dynamic range imaging (HDR) back in 2008 using Photomatix Pro.  The possibilities were exciting but I never really received satisfactory results and I abandoned it’s use.  There are nature photographers who are creating stunning HDR images, but I wasn’t one of them.  Royce Howland of Canada is, in my opinion, one of the best of the best when it comes to creating gorgeous HDR photos that maintain a very natural appearance.

After HDR I started experimenting with manual image blends.  The results can be pretty spectacular but the process of blending multiple images by hand is tedious and time consuming.  And, it isn’t a technique that is easily mastered.  It takes time and practice to learn, although the learning curve can be minimized through a workshop or one-on-one instruction.  Of all the photographers who frequently use this technique, one of my favorites is Guy Schmickle.  He’s also a heck of a nice guy who now offers custom photo tours and Photoshop training for those who don’t want to waste any time learning to blend images.

Recently I read a good blog post by Kevin McNeal describing a relatively new technique called Exposure Fusion.  In essence, Exposure Fusion is an automated technique for combining multiple exposures for increased dynamic range.  The primary difference between Exposure Fusion and HDR is that Exposure Fusion creates images that are much more natural in appearance without having to do additional processing such as tone mapping.  Photomatix Pro includes HDR and Exposure Fusion, allowing you to choose the technique that will work best for your situation.  I started experimenting with Exposure Fusion in Photomatix Pro recently and am very excited about the possibilities offered with this technique.  In my admittedly limited tests, the results have been very natural with no visible artifacts common to HDR, i.e. haloes, ghosting, etc.

In the end we’re all photographers who like to create beautiful images.  We’ve all got our preferences whether Canon vs. Nikon, digital vs. film or filters vs. the digital darkroom.  There is no right or wrong.  Find the tools that work best for you and use them honestly and unapologetically.

Got a thought you’d like to share on this topic?  Feel free to post a comment.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2010 4:10 pm

    Thanks for the article Bret. I have ND filters as well as use HDR. I agree with you that there are no blanket statements for everything. There are always valid exceptions, HDR can be great and HDR can suck. I have seen some of both, but again, haven’t we seen ugly color photos or ugly B&W?
    Keep posting! and in the end… it’s all about the emotional impact.


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