High contrast scenes have always been an issue for photographers. Any scene with a lot of light and a lot of dark in it is hard for a camera to capture correctly. Sunrises and sunsets, for example, have a huge glowing orb somewhere in the photo and inevitably regions in deep shadow. So how do we, as photographers, deal with this?

Well the traditional (National Geographic approved) method would be to use a filter on your camera. An ND Grad filter, for instance, would enable you to darken the bright sky, while leaving the ground untouched, enabling you to expose more accurately. There are a huge variety of these filters which fix to the camera lens, enabling you to artificially darken specific regions of the scene. I use ND Grads myself, though I only have cheap ones that leave a colour cast on all my images and so, until I get some decent ones (made by Lee) I’ll usually opt not to use them.

The other option is to take a bracketed shot and then manually combine it in software.  So you take a standard reference shot (your middle image if you like) and then you take under and over-exposed images and you use the correctly exposed portions of each bracketed image to make one completely correctly exposed image.

There are two ways to combine bracketed images in software. Firstly you can use an HDR style application, such as Photomatix or HDR Efex Pro to do the heavy lifting for you or secondly you can manually combine them in Photoshop. I tried Photomatix but didn’t like the results I was getting with it and had far better luck with HDR Efex Pro. However these days I’m more likely to manually blend my bracketed shots in Photoshop because I simply prefer the results I get. My main problem with HDR is that you have to fight with the software to get a result that doesn’t look like CGI. It is possible, but it’s all too easy to go too far.

Compare manual and HDR bracket blends

The screenshot above (click for a full-size version with better detail) shows the difference between the two techniques. On the left is the Photoshopped version and on the right is the HDR Efex Pro 2 shot. The image on the right was created using a modified version of the ‘Deep 2’ setting in HDR Efex. I further tweaked the image on the right to sharpen it and also to reduce the noise. I have to say I greatly prefer the image on the left, but as I’ve discovered when I upload this, others opinions vary!

Technicalities aside, the big problem with the bracketed approach to high contrast scenes is not that it doesn’t work (it does) but that there’s a very sniffy attitude towards it within the traditional photography scene. HDR photos, in fact any stacked exposure image, are looked down upon. An image that has been retouched digitally will never see publication in National Geographic – I strongly believe that as long as nothing was taken away or added, then it’s fine. Also, if you fancy entering any photographic competitions you should always check the rules first because many of them ban any alteration of the image beyond basic saturation, contrast and sharpening.