Old Havana, Cuba. This is what most of us associate with HDR imagery; surreal colors and exaggerated saturation. A taste embraced by some and reviled by others.

Whenever I teach an HDR (high dynamic range) photography workshop, the first thing I do is ask my students to type a Google search for 'I hate HDR'. More than a million results pop up, most of them bemoaning the damage that HDR images have wrought on photography. 

I actually think there's a place for surreal HDR imagery and that when it is done well, it's as valid as any other creative approach to photography. I'll be the first to agree, however, that there are plenty of HDR images out there that are an over-sharpened, hyper-saturated mess.

Oregon coast: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 15mm fisheye (3x exposures combined)With skillful processing, HDR composite images can take on a much more natural look.

But even photographers who wish to create more traditionally-photographic types of images can benefit greatly from capturing wide dynamic range scenes. After all, we see the world around us in a very wide dynamic range, so why shouldn't we take advantage to photograph it that way as well? And at its core, that's really what HDR photography is about.

In this article, I'll share some of my HDR images that were created using the in-camera processing of the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. On the following page I'll  talk about the need to take more control over exposure bracketing and use HDR-specific software. All in the service of creating images that seek to emulate the world we see with our own eyes.

In-camera HDR

My guess is that if I did not tell you, you would not know that the image above is an HDR image, created by merging three exposures (0, +2 and -2) together in the Canon EOS 5D Mark III with the HDR mode set to Art Vivid. The separate exposures used to create the composite are shown below.

Here you see the three raw files used to create the in-camera JPEG using the Canon 5D Mark III.

 You may be wondering why the three shots above are all tilted. Here's why.

To achieve the shooting angle I desired, I had to kneel down in the sand and cold water and shoot very low to the water at an awkward angle. Very cold water was leaking into my boots as I was shooting. Brrrrrrr! But I had to get the shot.

Due to the awkward position I was in, it was obvious the resulting shots would be tilted, so I shot extra wide knowing two things: 1) I'd crop and rotate my picture in Photoshop. 2) When the 5D Mark III merges images together, some image area is lost at the top, bottom, left and right of the frame.

Although the in-camera processing did a reasonably good job, I still brought the image into Photoshop.  After checking the histogram I used a Levels adjustment layer to make sure the blacks were black and whites were white. I then boosted the saturation a bit. Next I  added a blue gradual filter in Nik Software's Color Efex Pro and then as a final step, sharpened the image using Photoshop's Covert to Smart Filter > Unsharp Mask  in order to make selective sharpening edits.

Here is another example of in-camera HDR processing, followed by some additional edits and a crop in Photoshop.

Oregon coast: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 17-40mm lens. HDR was needed to capture the entire dynamic range of this scene.

Below is the middle exposure from the three-image sequence used to generate the HDR composite.

Original image with no exposure compensation adjustment. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 17-40mm lens.

Okay. I know what some of you guys are saying. The contrast range in this middle exposure does not look to be too extreme in the first place. And a skilled digital darkroom expert could have simply used a single raw file to pull out the shadow detail and tone down the highlights.

Well, I made another attempt doing just that using Photoshop's Adobe Camera Raw 6.7.

ACR 6.7 Basic panel adjustments to recover shadow information and maintain highlight detail.

In ACR, I was able to greatly enhance the image, but to achieve the precise result I envisioned, I knew some Photoshop work was needed. So yes, the image might have looked similar to my HDR composite, but it certainly would have taken more time to create.  And when given a reasonable choice, I prefer to spend my time shooting and not processing. So in-camera HDR can be a time-saver.

Something else to consider, particularly when making more aggressive adjustments, is that noise can become more prominent in shadow areas as you brighten them. With a multi-shot HDR option, you can often end up with a cleaner image with regard to noise.

HDR Panoramas

Oregon coast: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 14mm lens. A four shot HDR panorama created initially from raw files captured at different exposures.

Speaking of saving time, in-camera HDR can sometimes be very helpful when shooting a panorama. Above is an HDR panorama I made from four JPEG files (below). Each JPEG was created from a composite of three raw files captured at different exposures. Below is a screen grab from Adobe Bridge that shows the four files.

Four HDR JPEGs created from 12 raw files. Processed in-camera with the Canon 5D Mark III.

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