HDR at the Rail Museum


A Day at the Orange Empire Railroad Museum – Perris, California

I’ve toyed with High Dynamic Range, or “HDR”, photography off and on for a few months now, but I’ve resisted fully going down that road. It’s very common now to hear the term “HDR” touted as though it was the latest cure-all for ignoring what used to be careful lighting, thoughtful composition, and the tedium of waiting out, or searching out, a scene that was within the tonal range of the camera’s capabilities.

In the days of film (B&W especially) and Ansel’s Zone System, we could readily hit a 9-stop range, and maybe even push it some. With today’s typical digital sensor limitations of 5 stops, or 5½ at best, those shots we chased or had to wait for are not within the range of the cameras that most of us have today.

Thus opened up the HDR world. I lagged behind for quite a while trying to avoid 8-stop or greater scenes, or more troublesome yet, trying to light interior or wide-range shots with flashes, reflectors or other traditional fill-light magic.

I still find myself bristling when I hear someone say, “Just use HDR and bracket it”, as though tht will magically cure a bad or highly contrasty image. It’s sort of like when a scene didn’t materialize without content conflicts or compositional mistakes, the catch-phrase became, “Oh, just Photoshop it out!” I hated it before, and I hate it now. (And I really hate to hear “Photoshop” used as a verb!)

But slowly, and with no small amount of coaxing and coaching from some of the those whose opinions I value, most notably my good friend and mentor, Robert A. Hansen (, I began to see, like much that I had grudgingly come to accept in the digital world, that HDR is just another of those techniques that can be used either badly or to combat and bend the limitations of our equipment and situation. So, I’ve decided to give it a fair try for a while and see what happens.

I went on out to the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California, home of the world’s largest rail junkyard, to give HDR a good try. I remembered my former trips to OERM from the Ilford and Tri-X days as a great location for details, shapes, forms, shadows and, of course, subject matter that wasn’t everyday. And, I figured that there would be plenty of opportunity to shoot images that were well beyond a 5-stop range and still had plenty of interest in the darker, or highlighted details.

I must admit that I was influenced by Bob Hansen’s work at OERM which has been so successful in shows, and will certainly be so in his upcoming book, Trolley. But this was my first real attempt to give the HDR technique a good try.

Included in this post are a few of the examples that resulted from that first try. I’ll say in advance that none are what I’d rank as really good. And most all violate some of the very suggestions I make below. But, I think some are interesting, instructive, and illustrative of some of the things that both worked and should be avoided.

A few words about what I learned on this trip. First, it is really important to decide ahead of the shoot what your objective is. If you’re shooting a building interior without supplemental lighting and using HDR to produce a realistic final image, then the lighting and metering must be carefully planned to achieve that goal. In that case, you’d better be sure you can reach the ranges from the outside scene creeping through an open window to the darkest corner.

If you are trying to capture and produce a creative piece, then the details, textures, and composition, are even more important. Literal, realistic image results are heavily dependent on a final result that is believable. But, a more creative or expressionistic intent opens up some really creative HDR characteristics. Unfortunately, this often seems to be more problematic and annoying in realistic endeavors. It’s like in the early days when Unsharp Masking was new and the hottest digital tool, and too many over-sharpened images were the result.

I’ve learned that HDR can be the easy approach to “faking” (and usually ruining) and good shot when a shot shouldn’t have been taken in the first place, or it can be yet another very cool tool that has been born of the digital age.

Second, I learned that the specific HDR post-processing application is very important. I’ve tried the bare Photoshop (Merge-To-HDR) method, Photomatix, NIK’s HDR Efex Pro, and OnOne’s Perfect Suite. I personally prefer HDR Efex Pro, having been a NIK devotee for many years and because of its integration with NIK’s other plug-ins. I love OnOne’s Perfect Effects and other parts of their suite (especially Perfect Resize, Perfect Mask and Focal Point) in many ways, but I find that the ability to create “recipes” (composites from multiple filters) yield some amazing and often completely unexpected results.

Whatever your application of choice is, plan to learn, experiment, and try all of what you have before simply settling on a popular or easily found preset.

Next, I learned that shooting with HDR can benefit greatly from a hand-held meter. I know, I know. So you say, “Why should I spend upwards from $450 for another meter when my ungodly expensive Nikon D3x or Canon Mark III already has one?” Well, for starters, I don’t own a hand-held spot-meter either (yet). I’ve found that HDR will really expose (pun intended) the limitations of in-camera metering.

It’s true that you can set up a scene, check the in-camera metering, fire off a dozen bracketed exposures, and then hope for selection and post-processing of a group that will yield the “perfect” result. That’s not only putting a huge burden on your post-processor, but it’s also giving whatever application you work with a lot of information to “decide” what is best and putting the whole process more into the realm of chance than I’m happy with.

By using a hand-held meter, I now realize that the three careful readings for the brightest highlights, the darkest detail areas and the middle (not necessarily the arithmetic middle) are all that are really needed in most cases. And aside from giving your application that full-range of information to work with in as few as 3 shots (maybe 5 or even 7 in extremely unusual circumstances), you have a deliberate shot grouping that is based on true extreme ranges.

If, you don’t have a hand-held spot-meter, you can still find the true ranges. But, it means using your in-camera spot-metering, probably by going off-tripod and moving in closer for the readings, making written or mental notations of the results, and then returning to the tripod for the shots. Just remember that your in-camera “spot” is about 4 or 5 degrees and not a true 1-degree angle spot meter. (BTW, my Sekonic 758DL Dual Master meter is due to arrive in 2 days!)

Next, I realize how critical the lack of movement is. I know that sounds fairly elementary. The fact is that I have often fallen into the habit of assuming that still scenes shot at 1/200 is adequate for most lenses in the 50-75mm range. With the high-potency HDR processing algorithms of Photoshop and other specialty plug-ins, even the slightest, and I mean the slightest, movement seems to easily confuse the processing. Finger-triggering the shutter, and even the mirror movement itself, can easily cause enough movement to degrade be visible to the HDR processor.

So, if at all possible, use a remote shutter cable, and if your camera body allows a mirror-up setting, use it! Of course, some scenes involve subject movement that is just not within the photographer’s control (leaves, people, etc.). In that case, either further processing, or impractically high shutter speeds, or waiting until the movement subsides will be necessary. So what if doing that adds a few minutes to the group shooting. Aren’t you out there to have a good time anyway?

Next, understand that most post-process HDR applications have an almost infinite setting capability. There is no way to prescribe how to achieve a specific result without experimenting with your own images. I find that settings which reduce the tonal compression, minimize increase in the blacks, go very softly on the saturation, and have an accurate white balance tend to create much more realistic images. Conversely, going the other direction can result in much more “creative’ composites. A word of warning, though, about the latter. Those can sometimes mimic the “fake” look which has given HDR such a bad name. Unless you are attempting achieve a specifically non-realistic creative intent, don’t expect your result to necessarily be pleasing.

Next, be sure to keep your ISO and aperture the same for all of the shots in the same HDR group. Only vary the exposure by changing the shutter speed. This is very important. By changing the aperture among a bracketed group, you’ll change the depth of field (and thus the focus). And, by changing the ISO, you may introduce digital noise or other artifacts. I go Aperture-Priority and fixed ISO during all bracketing. BTW, that also applies to panorama-stitch shooting as well, but that’s not the subject here.

And last (at least for this rant), don’t forget to expose for the highlights, just like you would in a non-HDR shot. Adjust your brightest frame exposure to no wider than 2 ½ stops (2 stops to retain some margin) than the spot meter reading of the brightest highlights. This will put the highlight at or near, but not over, the upper end of the exposure limit. Otherwise, there is a very strong likelihood that you’ll still get some blown-out areas in the HDR processing.

from the Railway Museum trip.

Hope this is interesting. So, go give HDR a try, and good luck!



Leave a Reply