High Dynamic Range Imaging has been around for years, but is very “hot” right now. There are a number of good books on the subject, like Jack Howard’s Practical HDRI (Rocky Nook). Some photographers, such as George Fulton, have even made it into a distinctive style I suspect HDR’s popularity will, like a fad, begin to fade as more and more shooters experiment with it. But like everything else, it’s what you do with the technique…where (and how far) you take it and, ultimately, how viewers react to the finished image.
In a nutshell, HDRI requires three or more exposures of the same subject with varied settings from under-exposed to over-exposed. You then combine the images into one and tweak it to produce a rich “dynamic range” impossible to achieve with a single exposure.
At one extreme you can create gritty, comic art, Noir-like effects or more subtle painterly results similar to the work of, say, Richard Estes. I’m a big fan of Estes’ Superrealist paintings and that was what first attracted me to the technique.
But I’m also a dedicated Noirist, so there was additional appeal. Then again, I’m kind of lazy and on the lookout for shortcuts, such as software that simplifies complex tasks.
Enter Lucis Pro 6.0 from Image Content Technology. This is my Photoshop plug-in of choice for creating HDR images. It’s powerful image enhancement aimed directly at artists and scientists, and it has been carefully crafted and coded over years. Lucis guru Barbara Williams told me how the software has evolved, and it’s clear that version 6 makes it the de facto standard for HDR exploration. And Zoom Street was quick to honor it with a Street Smart Editors’ Choice Award.
I should also point out that the plug-in does not call itself an HDRI generator, but rather refers to Differential Hysteresis Processing (yikes!), a patented process originally developed to enhance detail in scanning electron microscope images. But, as with high dynamic range images, Lucis brings to the surface hidden detail in the shadow, light and mid-range areas. Indeed, it’s like finding buried treasure in your pixels.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t just slapping a filter onto an image… it’s an application that must be mastered in order to gain full control over the results. But it saves time in the field (you don’t have to bracket exposures), as well as in the digital darkroom, i.e. you have all the tools necessary within a single panel—no time-consuming menu hopping. Pretty sweet.
The above screen shows the clutter-free interface. Room to experiment without distraction. You have a choice of working in either Single Channel Mode or Split Channel Mode; the latter lets you manipulate each RGB channel separately. You can, of course, switch between the original and the Lucis view to gauge the effect of your custom settings. The main control is the Enhance Detail slider located right below the preview window. it can work in concert with the Smooth Detail slider just below, or can be adjusted independently. You control the number of Scan Lines and can “Mix with Original Image.” You can also assign a percentage of the original image’s colors to the treated version.
You can create your own presets, but I find myself making different adjustments to each image so haven’t needed that feature. I average about 20 minutes working on a photo, such as in the example below and the photos in my previous posts: Benched and Checks Cashed.
While in theory you can transform any photo into a HDR image, be careful. Yes, the subject can be a portrait, landscape, still life, whatever…. but only certain images truly lend themselves to this treatment. In fact, some photographers make the mistake of thinking it’s a good way to mask an inferior photo. Bad call.
A crappy image makes a crappy HDR image. My rule of thumb is this: the original photograph should be visually interesting and stand on its own. Employing Lucis Pro should make the picture come alive, help it find its dramatic footing. The final image should look like it was born dripping detail. If it provokes a “wow” from the viewer it’s a success. But, ideally, the technique will be invisible at first, supplanted by the content.
At it’s best, an HDR image transports the viewer, haunts, and echoes like a floater in the mind’s eye.