If you want to find something that’s completely polarizing, take a look at the arguments people get into using HDR with pictures. The discussions are often focused on whether individuals are creating true photographs versus creating pieces of painted art. HDR toning allows you to create images that tonally defy what a single image out of a camera would do.
While I was out in the Eastern Sierras teaching with famed wildlife photographer Moose Peterson, the conversation of HDR reared its head again. As I sat looking at the landscape in front of me, I couldn’t help but think of the most famous photographer of this area: Ansel Adams. Staring out, I started drawing comparisons to what Adams was doing during his time, and the software that we use today.
At a very simple level of explanation, Adams would look at a specific scene and address different portions of the scene in different ways. Take a look at the picture of the lake in Figure 1. Perhaps Mr. Adams would say “Ok… see this? This is a rock. This rock should be exposed at this value. See this here? This is a tree. This tree should be exposed at this value. Now, see this. This is ‘Top of Mountain’, and whenever you see this, you should totally expose this at this specific value.”
In short, it could be rudimentarily argued that Ansel Adams was exposing a single image in many different ways, creating an amalgam of exposures. Rather than calling these areas “Top of Tree” and “Rock by Water,” these areas were given “zones.” This gave birth to a systemThe Zone System (see Figure 2). How does this compare with an HDR image? Normally, a photographer makes an HDR image with a collection of brackets, and those brackets prove essential in this black and white process.
What Is a Bracket?
A bracket (or bracketed series of pictures) includes shots taken from a camera at varying exposures. The varying of exposures in bracketing actually was more of a holdover from film-based cameras than it was digital. Photographers at the time did not have access to an LCD to make an image. Staring out at a scene, the photographer needed to make a guess (based on his or her training and experience) as to what that scene should be exposed for at that specific moment in time.
So, the photographer takes the picturepicture 1 of 36 exposures in a roll of film. Processing was expensive, so a photographer was a lot more judicious about how to use that roll of film. It wasn’t uncommon for a photographer to span days before getting to the last frame. From here, the photographer needed to develop the negative, and make the printeither by doing it him or herself, or sending it to a lab to be processed. If you take into account all of this time from the moment that the first picture was captured, one could surmise that a lot of the details of what that seen at that moment in time could be long forgotten.
A photographer needed a way to hedge his/her bets against a possible wrong calculation in the field. Bracketing was then born. By taking an image, and taking another series of images at varying exposures, you had more of a guarantee that one of the pictures would be a winner. While it was costly (three images for every shot), it certainly increased your odds of success.