The DaVinci Gallery: a Study in High Dynamic Range

Lately I’m working not only on my actual camera ability, but also on better understanding the technology of processing images. Friday I spent a couple of hours in the DaVinci Machines Exhibit in Denver working on both composition and technical skills (shooting in lower light, for instance) and doing so with an eye toward how I’d be outputting the images later. Interesting results.

I bracketed everything I shot (three exposures: -3, 0 and +3) to enable composite High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing. For those who don’t know these terms (an audience that included me three months ago), bracketing is a process where the camera takes three (usually) exposures – with one slightly overexposed and one underexposed – so that the images can then be composited using image processing software (in this case, Photomatix). The result: “a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than current standard digital imaging methods or photographic methods.”

The sequence below comprises five different takes on the same raw image of DaVinci’s inclinometer. First, the basic shot, fine tuned a bit in Photoshop.

Now I started playing in Photomatix. I began with one of the “Painterly” presets and worked the image back toward the raw one a little. As you can see, this process introduced (or, more accurately, reintroduced) a lot of information, particularly in the ceiling. Blues and reds are saturated, providing what I think is an interesting cool/warm contrast between the facility (very blue) and the objects in the exhibit (warm reds in the wood, soft canvas fabrics in things like the glider wing top center). Certainly the focus shifts away from the exhibit in the foreground to the background.

Next I used the much cooler (temperature-wise, not hip-wise) Creative preset as a starting point, again dialing it back a touch. More noisy, more loss of focus on the ostensible subject of the shot. But if you’re like me (ooh, look, shiny!) it might be fun to look at.

This time started with Creative again, but switched to the Surreal lighting settings. Cooler, very contrasty, and by this point many viewers are probably screaming and throwing things at their monitors because the signal:noise ratio is now completely shot.

Finally, black and white. My normal procedure for b/w output (to the extent that anyone as new to all this as I am can be said to have a “normal” anything) is to convert in Photoshop, where I have a lot of control over specific color outputs. Here, though, I worked with one of the black & white options in Photomatix and the result is, like the last couple of shots above, quite noisy.

I’m obviously having a lot of fun here, but I’m also climbing a damned-near vertical learning curve. In one sense, I’m developing some technical capability with my tools, but more importantly, these sorts of exercises are helping me explore who I want to be as a shooter. As a developing writer I had to find my voice, and that involved a lot of experimentation and even a good bit of imitation – I’d see something I liked, so I’d try and do it myself, along the way internalizing lessons and skills and over time making them my own. Tradition and the individual talent, as it were.

I plan on going back to the exhibit, hopefully this week, to reshoot a few shots that didn’t come out how I planned the first time around. I think I’ll reshoot this, too, with a low f-stop. Maybe if I shorten the depth of field I can use more aggressive HDR without sacrificing the focus on the subject.

Let me know if you have a favorite here, if there are things that resonate for you, and of course, what you absolutely hate and hope I’ll never do again….

View the series.

7 thoughts on “The DaVinci Gallery: a Study in High Dynamic Range

  1. This is interesting. I like the fourth image the best, the mixture of warm and cold tones. I’m a snooty purist, or try to be, so I do very little photo adjustment or manipulation after I shoot a picture. But it is fun to play around with what one’s digital camera can do.

  2. The second and fourth shots give me enough warmth to draw my eye to the bell. I have been thinking of trying HDR – just haven’t taken the plunge – this is a great spot to use it on.

  3. I’m surprised to find people liking that fourth one. I mean, for me it’s fun because it has all these contrasts and sparklies, but technically speaking it does deemphasize the subject in ways I expect to annoy most folks.

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