Family of Elephants
Serengeti, Tanzania, Africa
As this family of elephants walked past us we were ever aware of the impending sunset. I took many photos of the elephants but what stood out were the ones with the leading elephant giving himself a dust bath as the sunset backlit the puff of serengeti ash. It’s these moments that I get very excited, the low golden light is paramount in photographing anything from wildlife and landscapes to portraits. This is where I knew I could get a stunning environmental portrait of this family, scenery and a sunset scene all in one. The major technical problem is the wide tonal range I was trying to capture: the bright highlights of the sun, clouds and landscape to the dark shadows of the elephants and foreground. This would be too much for my camera to take in all at once. I turned on the auto bracketing and multi burst shooting mode on my camera, holding down my shutter I rapidly fired off three exposures, one over exposed by two stops, one with normal exposure and he last under exposed. The three images combined provided me with an extra wide tonal range that captured everything I was looking at, this is what’s known as HDR, or High Dynamic Range. After firing off a few shots I thought, “I justed it”.
Manual HDR version, click to enlarge:
Even before this I have already accepted HDR images as a legitimate photographic technique. A lot of people currently consider it “cheating” or “fake” the irony is that the images come out with a tonal range that more accurately reflects what a person would see in real life.
To me, the fact that I use this technique is personal validation that HDR is here to stay and that this technique is just as good as any other a photographer keeps in their arsenal. This scene begged to be captured in a full range and this was the only way to do it with the available light. My first impression of HDR years ago appalled me, but no more than bad photography might appall me. These days there are plenty of great examples of masterfully processed HDR photos, and these photographers and the community in general is getting better every day. People tend to dislike images that are highly processed on a computer but then don’t complain about techniques that can be employed in camera. New cameras coming out will focus more on performance and image quality including doing HDR in camera, some with specialized sensors do it all the time. What will HDR dissenters think about that? When it becomes more about how the photo is taken it becomes a game, for me photography is about capturing truth and beauty, truly expressing the emotional power of being there, I couldn’t care less if the photography did headstands while doing it, it’s the photo that matters.
HDR Technique: I initially processed this in Photomatix, the de facto HDR processing software as far as I can tell. I like what it does but I don’t love the way it treats all the textures, coming out with too much contrast in unusual places, the software not being aware of the elephants natural smoothness it treats their skin like a texture that needs to be brought out, and it was too much. Other unusual artifacts produced by photomatix cause flaring on highlight edges and the images come out a little softer than I like, losing a bit of resolution.
For this reason my final image was an HDR photo that I manually combined in photoshop. I layered each exposure on top of each other and kept each portion that was properly exposed for the final result. It ended up looking just the way I saw it without unusual artifacts and a more subdued contrast change. It will be interesting to see which image appeals most to people, so comment and let me know.
Photomatix HDR version: