Thursday, March 26, 2015

"Here Comes the Sun": How to Create a High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photograph of a Sunrise

"Little darling
It's been a long, cold lonely winter

Little darling

It feels like years since it's been here

Here comes the sun..."

George Harrison
(The Beatles)

Perhaps it was our "long, cold" winter in Bucks County, Pennsylvania that had me itching to take a sunrise photograph. I took the Delaware River and Train Bridge photograph just a few days ago, about a mile from my house.  A beautiful sunrise somehow combines wonderful drama and color with sense of peacefulness. Its the literal and symbolic beginning of a new day. A fresh start. 

Photographing a sunrise can be tricky business.  Once the sun starts to come up, you are faced with a subject with both very bright areas and very dark areas.  While our eyes magically sort this out, the camera has a harder time.  If you take an image with a correct exposure for darker parts of the scene, the sun will be overexposed and washed out.  If you get a correct exposure for the sun, the rest of the image may be nearly black.

There are a few ways to photograph a sunrise in a manner that replicates what our eyes see.  If there is a clear line between the bright area and the dark area, a graduated neutral density filter can be handy. However, often situations are more complicated than that.  For example, in the first image below (Delaware River and Train Bridge) the areas of relative dark and light are juxtaposed throughout the scene.  Its not a simple matter of the top being bright and the bottom being dark.  For situations like this, I like to create a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image from multiple separate exposures. For the Delaware River and Train Bridge photograph, I took eight separate exposures (you can see each of these exposures under the photograph).  If you would like to learn more about the process of creating an HDR photograph, please skip to the bottom of this post.  

Here is a sampling of my sunrise photographs from the past few years.  In addition to a few images near my home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, I have included iamges from The Bahamas, Acadia National Park (Maine), Myrtle Beach (South Carolina), Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.  To see more of my photographs or to purchase an image, click HERE.

Delaware River and Train Bridge
Yardley, Pennsylvania (Bucks County)
March, 2015
Here are the eight separate exposures used to create the above
HDR photograph.  These all have ISO 200 and Aperture of f/16.
The shutter speeds range from 1/2 second (upper left)
to 1/200th of a second (bottom right).
Old Chevrolet Truck
Hopewell, New Jersey (Mercer County)
April, 2013

Delaware River from Lumberton Footbridge
Lumberton, Pennsylvania (Bucks County)
December, 2014
View from "The Cove"
Atlantis, The Bahamas
December 2014
Acadia National Park, Maine
View from Cadillac Mountain
August, 2011
Cherry Grove Pier
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
April, 2014
Cherry Grove Pier
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
April, 2014
View from Mount Washington,
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
February, 2014
U.S. Capital
Washington, D.C.
August, 2014
CREATING A HIGH DYNAMIC RANGE (HDR) PHOTOGRAPH:  For 99% of my images, I prefer to shoot in manual mode.  When I want to create an HDR photograph of a particular scene, I usually place my camera on a tripod. This avoids any blur in your image (i.e. if you are using a slow shutter speed). Also, it insures that each of your exposures has close to the exact same content.  You then take a series of exposures (holding constant the "aperture" - the size of the opening of the shutter), and changing the exposure speed in regular increments.  You want to make sure that you have a correct exposure for each part of the scene - from the darkest part to the lightest part.  

As an example, let's look at the Delaware River and Train Bridge photograph.  To create this, I took eight separate exposures.  For each of them, the aperture  was f/16 (because I wanted a pretty wide depth of field). For the darkest parts of the scene (i.e. the bridge and the ground in the lower right) the correct shutter speed at f/16 was 1/2 second.  I then shot a series of exposures at regular intervals ("full stop" increments) until I reached the brightest part of the scene (the sun needed a shutter speed of 1/200th of a second). I then had eight separate images (you can see each of these exposures above, under the Delaware River and Train Bridge image). Once I returned home, I uploaded all of my images onto my computer. Then I used HDR software (I use "Photomatix") to merge the eight exposures into one image.  This final image has the correct exposure for each part of the picture.  I then used Photoshop and OnOne software to put the "finishing touches" on the image.