Is HDR Mode better than the Dynamic Range Expansion function?

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March 2, 2011 at 10:20 am  •  Posted in Q&A by  •  1 Comment

Most digital SLRs seem to have a dynamic range expansion function but I noticed that some also offer a High Dynamic Range mode and it’s listed as a major feature. What exactly is this mode and how does it differ from the typical dynamic range expansion or optimizer feature? —Connie Jackson

The recent Pentax and Sony DSLRs (and the Canon Powershot G12) do provide an HDR mode, Connie and it’s very useful. When it’s activated, the camera fires three shots—each with a different exposure level—and then merges them into a single photo. The final image exhibits dramatically increased shadow detail. This is quite different from dynamic range expansion, a function which provides greater shadow detail by extra processing of a single image.

For example, imagine a scene inside a cathedral on a sunny day. Small windows allow the sun to enter to illuminate some areas, while much of the interior remains significantly darker. A photo made with dynamic range expansion will exhibit lighter shadow areas than a conventional photo. Of course, the shadow lightening also makes digital noise (graininess or coloured speckles) more obvious. And when a very high expansion level is used, the photo can look unnatural. A camera with an HDR mode can provide a more dramatic improvement in shadow detail and as a bonus, image quality will be better.

An HDR mode is even more effective than DRO in extremely high contrast. Shoot an HDR image and you’ll get a great deal of detail in the shadow areas. The process should also tone down extremely bright highlight areas, but frankly, it’s less impressive in this respect.

Earlier DSLRs with an HDR mode required the user to mount the camera on a tripod when taking the three shots. The more recent Sony a55 and a33, as well as the Pentax K-5, allow for shooting the series hand-held. (The user can set the amount of exposure difference that the camera will use when taking each of the three shots.) Avoid serious camera shake—perhaps by bracing the camera against a solid object—and do not change the composition. As long as the three photos are quite similar in framing, the DSLR’s processor can micro-align them so the final image should look perfect.

One Comment

  1. Phil Bourgeois / March 8, 2011 at 12:06 pm / Reply

    Why do I feel like my D300 is now obsolete? Kidding aside, the ‘old school’ way of taking HDR is, in my opinion, still the best way to do it. I can change the amount of exposure from frame to frame, or take 3-9 shots on cs high. In addition, the exposure will not extend above 30secs on most cameras. Old school will allow you to change to ‘B’ setting and time it yourself to get beyond that shutter speed.

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