Asilomar State Beach HDR

2012.10.15
Day Ninety. I've long been opposed to High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography. HDR, to me, was simply too cartoony and unrealistic to be worth pursuing. That is, until I saw some HDR work that I couldn't tell was HDR. I had no idea that the overblown colours were a choice. I thought it was simply a product of the process. Having had my assumptions turned on their head, I headed to Asilomar to catch the sunset. The entire point of HDR is to capture more dynamic range (i.e. more dark bits and bright bits) than can be captured in a single image with today's sensor technology, and where else can you get more contrast than at sunset? OK, so I just wanted to go to the beach at sunset, but that's not the point ;). I experimented with 3, 5, and 7 stop sequences to see which would come out better. The question turned out not to have an absolute answer. The real answer is, as many stops as are needed to capture the entire scene. In some cases, three was enough. In others, I was glad I went with seven. Though in a few sequences, I ended up tossing the top and bottom exposures because they were so over and under exposed respectively that they were worthless. After playing around (a lot) in post, I discovered that if the sequence was taken with a low ISO (≤200), I could take the -3 (or sometimes -2, if the sky wasn't too bright) exposure, pump it up three stops and achieve a similar and sometimes preferable effect to the HDR composition. I don't know if this will work with other cameras, but there's enough information stored in the D800's 14-bit raw files to easily recover 3 stops worth of detail without introducing significant noise. The best results are definitely achieved at ISO 50, but there's nothing surprising about that. All in all, the experiment was an amazing success and, I'll leave it to you to guess which images in this set are HDR composites and which are single exposures :D
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