No HDR Required

I seem to on a roll this week so I’ll stick my neck out again with another over the top proclamation; You don’t need no stinking HDR to obtain a well-balanced exposure! Boom! There it is. Let the flames begin. 😉

Wow, that was fun. Honestly though, you really can get a well balanced exposure even in bright sunlight. I took this shot last June during an early evening hike in Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the Texas panhandle. I was hiking to find some interesting subjects to shoot later in the evening when I came upon this grouping of rocks framing the canyon rim in the background.

I was facing almost due west and the sun was casting very harsh shadows onto the red dirt. This type of scene is well beyond the dynamic range of any DSLR sensor with the bright sky almost eight stops brighter than the shadows under the rocks. I knew if I had any chance of getting a decent exposure I would have to fool my camera’s light meter and even out the exposure in the scene. Where an HDR expert would take several shots at various exposures and blend them together in Photomatix, I wanted to see if it was possible to do the same “in camera”.

Hiking in Palo Duro Canyon

Hiking in Palo Duro Canyon – Canyon, Texas
Copyright © 2010 Jeff Lynch Photography
Shot taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set on aperture (Av) priority using an EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens tripod mounted. The exposure was taken at 31mm, f/16 for 1/20th of a second at ISO 100 with a Singh-Ray warming polarizer filter and 2-stop graduated neutral density filter. Post capture processing was done in Adobe’s Lightroom 3.

Click on the image above for a larger version.

View Location on Panoramio & Google Earth: Hiking in Palo Duro Canyon – Canyon, Texas

Incident or Spot Metering
My first step was to grab my Sekonic L-358 and meter the background, the rocks and the shadows to see just how far apart they were in exposure. Your Canon DSLR’s meter can also do this when used in “Partial” or “Spot” metering modes. If you try this in “Evaluative” mode your camera’s meter will most likely blow out the background completely.

Aperture Priority
I set my tripod mounted camera on Aperture (Av) priority at f/16 and took a quick shot using Spot Metering mode with no exposure compensation and no filters. I chose a single focus point in the shadow of the large rock to see how much detail I could capture. As I thought, the shadow detail was fine but the blue sky and white clouds were completely blown out.

Next I set my camera on Manual (M) with f/16 at 1/10th of a second shutter speed, again with no filters. Now, the blue sky came back a bit but the white clouds were still blown out and the shadows had darkened only a little. Now, we’re cooking!

Filters to the Rescue?
At this point I had pretty decent exposure of the rocks and shadows but the sky was still too bright. So I added a Singh-Ray circular polarizer to my lens and dialed in about half power by rotating the filter slowly until the clouds showed some detail. I also added a 2-stop, soft edge, graduated neutral density filter angled to match the slope of the canyon rim.

I adjusted both filters and my shutter speed until the blue sky darkened and the white clouds barely showed any detail. This resulted in an exposure of 1/20th at f/16 which evened out the light and dark areas in the shot with one exception. Anyone care to guess?

You’ve got it. The top of the large rock was bisected by the graduated ND filter and became much too dark for the image to look realistic. As one of my readers (and a friend I hope) from the Pacific Northwest points out, this is where graduated ND filters fall down on the job.

Finishing Your Image in “Post”
Luckily, this is where a program like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom really shines. As you can see in the screenshot below, I used Lightroom 3’s “Adjustment Brush” to paint the top half of the large rock to increase the exposure, brightness and contrast until it matched the lower half.

Using Lightroom's Adjustment Brush

Did I cheat to get this shot? That’s up to you to decide. I’m pleased with the results and very pleased that I could do it with 95% “in-camera” techniques and only 5% “post processing” techniques and I did it without resorting to HDR.

Does that mean that I’ll never use HDR techniques in my work? Not at all. Many of my best interior shots were created by blending several exposures together using Photomatix Pro. I may advocate creating images “in camera” but I’m also very pragmatic. I look at software (Lightroom, Photoshop, Photomotix) in the same manner that I look at hardware (camera, lenses, strobes). They are just tools, no different than a typewriter or a monkey wrench. Whatever it takes to get the job done!

7 thoughts on “No HDR Required

  1. So, if I paint the part of the rock that is bisected by the graduated ND filter to look like Nemo, I’m good to go? 🙂

    Thank you for the explanation. I do think HDR is becoming easier with the latest versions out (or soon to be out) now. Yet, I will be trying out your filter stacking technique as I own both a polarizer and GND filter. Time is usually not a factor in landscape photography unless you are chasing a sunrise or sunset.

  2. Nice job of getting as much out of one exposure as possible. I commented on your last post about taking multiple exposures and blending them. In the less time than you used on this photo with the metering and two stacked filters, you could have taken two or three exposures spot metered for the sky, rock and sand. In this case I wouldn’t use Photomatix because the light and dark areas are so easily separated in bands. I would just stack the images on layers and mask through to the appropriate exposure. That would have saved the photo from the slightly washed out look of the large rock that resulted from using Highlights and Shadows.

    I’m in full agreement about not deciding to fix photos in post processing because you’re too lazy to bother in the first place. You didn’t do that here, but consciously worked the image to get as much as possible when taking it. But you still ended up having to fix the image. I have no problem with doing whatever it takes to get the photo you see in your mind’s eye. I believe, though, that there’s a third way of approaching and taking exposures with the express intent of combining them later. That’s expressly not fixing a problem, because there isn’t one. It’s simply using the strengths of digital cameras and Photoshop. It’s just an alternate way of getting the most out of the conditions we’re stuck with.

    • Michael,

      Thanks again for reading and for your comments. I’d blend those multiple exposures in Photoshop if someone would show me how! How about posting a tutorial on your blog and I’ll link to it? I’ve got to tell you however, my skill with a camera far exceeds my skill with Photoshop. I am willing to learn however. Perhaps this old dog can learn a new trick!


  3. I’ve really enjoyed this post, as much as the previous one.
    Good job explaining how to get most of the job done ‘in cam’.

    ‘Over the top’ or ‘under the table’, I’ve liked them both 😛



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