How To Shoot HDR Photos on the Prairie

Prairie Gleanings

It's tough to take a photo of a blue sky on a sunny day without making the foreground too dark. Here's some software that alleviates this problem.

Published on: May 16, 2012
During the summer, life on the prairie gets pretty warm. That big ball of gas is great for growing corn, but it can wreak havoc on a photographer. Here’s a new technique for the farm photography enthusiast.

A bright blue sky often produces too many lighting variants for a terrific photo. For example, park the planter on a sunny day and try to take a scenic photo with a nice blue sky in the background. Unless you’re Ken Kashian, you’ll probably end up with a washed out sky. If you want a blue sky, the tractor will be too dark. That was before High Dynamic Range software.

A coworker (thanks Jessie) recently turned me onto to this photography trend. In simplest terms, you’re cheating the sky by combining three photos into one.

In photography, there’s a process called bracketing. This is when the photographer adjusts the aperture opening to produce an underexposure, correct exposure and overexposure. In layman’s terms, it means you shoot on too bright, one dead on, and one too dark.

In the days of film, bracketing was a way to ensure you had the lighting correct. It’s the photography equivalent of putting your eggs in multiple baskets.

When you bracket on a bright day, you’ll notice a few things. On the overexposure, the subject in the foreground will be perfect (image 1). On the correct exposure, nothing will be perfect, but it will be a good average across all lighting (image 2). On the underexposure, the foreground will be too dark, but the sky should be dead on (image 3).

How To Shoot HDR Photos on the Prairie
Image 1

How To Shoot HDR Photos on the Prairie
Image 2

How To Shoot HDR Photos on the Prairie
Image 3

Here’s where the magic of HDR software comes in. The software takes all three photos and combines them into one. The result (image 4) is an image that has the best qualities of all three photos. This image was created with a free version of Photomatix (hence the watermarks). As you can see, the browns of the pavilion come through, without sacrificing the blue sky or the green of the trees. Quite amazing!

How To Shoot HDR Photos on the Prairie
Image 4

Of course, any seasoned photographer will instantly recognize something is a little askew with the photo. It’s well past the point of what a polarizing filter can do. The only way to get close to something of this nature would be to wait until the “golden hour” (as photographers call it), which is the first and last hour of sunlight each day. However, you can usually tell it’s either late afternoon or early morning.

Anyhow, when you bring out those cameras for farm photo contests this year, you might want to give HDR a whirl. Be careful though. Some contests will not accept “doctored” images. Also, I have yet to try this with animate objects, such as a combine rolling through the field. I’d assume the software would be smart enough to rectify the problem of having an object, or person, in three different places in the frame.