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Downtown Lens: High Dynamic Range (HDR) Part 1 -- Camera and Tripod

By Dave Bullock
Published: Thursday, September 11, 2008, at 11:59AM

For those new -- or not so new -- to photography, it can be quite frustrating to take a picture and find that what looks like a perfect scene simply doesn't show up in the camera. This happens because the human eye is able to record a much wider dynamic range than is your camera. High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography helps to bridge that gap.

While the technique has been around for decades, HDR photography has become quite popular in the last few years as new technology has brought it within reach of everyday photographers. An HDR image can be easy to spot with its surreal, almost cartoonish tones and seemingly impossible range of detail. Combined with tone-mapping, HDR has an amazing ability to expand the limited tonal range of your camera's sensor.

In the photo above you can see detail in the clouds as well as in the shadow below the bridge. If you only took one picture with a digital camera you would have to choose between seeing detail in the mid-tonal ranges, in the shadows or in the highlights. HDR allows you to get all of that information into your final image.

HDR photography is not hard to do, you just need a few pieces of equipment, some software and a little bit of knowledge.

For the next few weeks, Downtown Lens will focus on helping you get started with HDR. In this first part I'll look at a set of tools most photographers already own, a camera and tripod.

Almost any camera will do. Even film cameras will work to shoot HDR images. The only requirement is that the camera have either a manual exposure or exposure adjustment feature. You will need to be able to speed up and slow down the shutter speed without changing the aperture. Ideally your camera will also have an auto-bracketing feature, allowing you to take multiple photos in quick succession at different exposures.

Once you have a camera that will work, you will need a tripod. Keep in mind that it is possible to set your camera on a solid surface and shoot multiple photos, but a tripod will be much more convenient. You don't want your camera moving around when you change your settings.

I've always been a fan of buying the heaviest tripod you can afford. These days there are nice carbon-fiber tripods which seem great, but I still use an aluminum one. Go for whatever fits your budget, but try and avoid the cheap freebie tripods camera shops often throw in with your camera purchase. I personally recommend anything from the Bogen Manfrotto line.

Once you have a tripod you will need a tripod head. There are tons of different heads available, but I prefer a ball-head. I think these are the easiest to use and allow you to quickly lock or move your camera into any position. I use the Rolls Royce of ball heads, the Arca Swiss.

If you don't have a tripod or a camera, go down to your local camera store and play around with what they have before you make your purchase. Putting your hands on equipment before you buy it is always a good idea.

Once you have your setup you're on your way to creating amazing HDR images. Go out and shoot some photos with your camera and tripod to get a feel for it. The next installment of Downtown Lens will cover the technique of actually capturing your exposures you will use to create and HDR image. Until then, have fun and happy shooting!

This post is the sixth part in a weekly series entitled Downtown Lens in which I will discuss a photograph and the technique that relates to it.

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