I have learned, as a traveling photographer, that no matter how much planning I do to prepare myself for a trip, there will always be unknown factors and surprises, good and bad. Certain factors, such as light, clouds, weather, location, and the time of day may complicate the camera settings necessary to properly expose the subjects I am photographing. My camera may not be capable of capturing the range of light in just one image.
Extreme brightness ranges
For example, at sunrise and sunset the sky is usually much brighter than the landscape below. How much brighter and how the clouds and color of the sky come into play depend on the moment. The narrow, winding streets of a charming village are usually darker than the sky, shadowed by the buildings on either side. The nature of the light may depend on the time of day, weather, and how the light reflects off the buildings and pavement or cobblestones. The mid-day sun, unobstructed by clouds, creates strong shadows and contrast, although my visualization for my photograph includes softer shadows. For these examples, a blending of images bracketed at different exposures may be required to extend the dynamic range of the final image.
HDR photography, the blending together of the bracketed images, provides the means to bridge the gap between huge differences in brightness between shadows and highlights, thus creating greater photographic opportunities. When you are traveling, and only visiting a place for a limited time, it is very important to take advantage of these greater opportunities, expanding your options and in turn your artistic vision.
Minimize camera movement
To create successful HDR photographs, your bracketed images should be sharp and in perfect registration with each other. It is thus essential to put your camera on a support such as a tripod or to use good technique to handhold your camera. When I am hiking a long distance or spending an entire day sightseeing around a city I am less likely to carry a tripod or other support. When my travel companions are not photographers, and I am shooting with a handheld camera, I am less likely to pay close attention to proper technique. Based on my experiences, I recommend practicing handholding techniques for bracketing before leaving on your next trip, so that you don’t have to think about what you are doing. Proper technique should be instinctual. (For further discussion on handholding your camera while bracketing, take a look at my previous article on this subject.)
In the past, I always carried graduated neutral density filters when I traveled. I attached one or two to my camera lens to darken the sky on a high contrast day, particularly for my sunrise and sunset shots. Now, I rarely take the filters with me. I bracket my images to darken the sky and perfectly expose the landscape below. Not only do I lighten my load and create extra space in my bag by not carrying filters, but I have greater flexibility in creating my images. The graduated neutral density filters determine where the gradation of light and dark begins, in a straight line. By blending my images, I can decide where the gradation should begin and end.
HDR photographs can look realistic, or not, depending on the choices made in processing your images and blending them together. It is thus very important to take the time to learn how to correctly use the software necessary to blend your images. I suggest practicing blending techniques before leaving on your travels so that you are aware of the possible results, and the presets available on third-party applications such as Photomatix.
Knowing how your processing methods can affect your final image is part of the pre-visualization process advocated by many photographers. Pre-visualization is imagining what your final image will look like, after capture, processing, and printing, before you have clicked the shutter release button. By knowing in your mind’s eye how you want your final print or digital image to look, you can better adjust the camera’s exposure settings and the composition of your images before you make the exposure. This concept is very important with regard to proper bracketing of your images for HDR photography, as you will need sufficient bracketed images with appropriate exposures to create the final photograph you have visualized.
How you visualize your photographs is a direct reflection of your artistry. Your vision may be a realistic representation of the places you are visiting in your travels, or it may be over-expressive, at times bordering on fantasy. It doesn’t matter what your idea of the reality is if it is what you see as an artist. In this regard, my article on using HDR photography to augment your artistic vision may be of interest to you.
I consider myself relatively new to HDR photography, compared to the number of years I have been doing photography in general. The more I work with HDR imagery, practicing techniques and processes, the greater the improvement I see in my HDR photographs, and the fewer disappointments. I am excited by the expanded opportunities available to me as I create photographs during my travels.