What is HDR Photography? Then & Now - Enlight Leak
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What is HDR Photography? Then & Now

October 29, 2015

The history of HDR photography begins as far back as the 1800s. Since then, it’s gradually developed into the neat function it is today – on your camera, on your iPhone and as a feature in your favorite photo editor. But what does HDR actually stand for and how does it enhance your photographs?

1856: It All Begins

When Gustave Le Gray created the first HDR photograph over 150 years ago, he was faced with the some fundamental problem that exists in photography today. A camera lens is limited in the recording of the broad range of tones, which the human eye can see. With a single shot, your camera cannot capture all the details that exist in wide ranges of brightness to darkness, resulting in a loss of information in the darkest and lightest areas of the photo. This frustrating problem results in photographs that have highlights that come out too white, while the dark sections appear as amorphous black areas.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) addresses this problem, and is the multiple recording of the same image in rapid succession, and at varying exposure and brightness levels.  These recorded images are blended together.  Each image lends its own degree of shadow or brightness, as well as a range of tones to the final picture.  With contemporary HDR photography, computer software is applied which merges the images together into an enhanced image.

Le Gray, the leading technical innovator and pioneer photographer of his time, first tackled this problem by using a technique called combination printing. Combination printing is the use of two negatives of the same image, each taken with different exposure times. Gustave le Gray | The Brig

By combining the two negatives, Le Gray captured the highlights and shadows of the sky, as well as the detailed shadows of the sea. The result was the stunning single HDR composition, entitled ‘The Brig’, which is rich in detail of sky and sea.

1954: HDR Explosion

The next major contribution to HDR imaging came in 1954, when Charles Wyckoff developed the three layered film. Each layer of this film had a different ASA (the American Standard Association definition, which is used to determine film sensitivity and speed) and therefore, a different exposure level. By combining the three films together Wyckoff was able to record the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb detonation. Wyckoff's Ivy Mike | Life Magazine

With this image Wyckoff took  a step closer to tackling the problem that occurs in the shooting of high contrast scenes. His image became world famous after its appearance on the cover of Life magazine on April 19, 1954.

1950’s Manual Tone Mapping: Dodging & Burning

Another development in HDR imaging that took place during the 1950s was Manual Tone Mapping. Through the techniques of dodging and burning, the exposure of different areas of a photograph were either increased or decreased during the printing process. This lent better tonality to the photograph (the range of lightness or darkness).  Dodging decreases the exposure, thereby making selected areas of the print lighter. Burning is the increase of the exposure of light on selected areas of the print, to make them darker. Here’s a close up of a classic car in the HDR tone mapping effect.Classic Tone Mapping

1985: RGBE File Format 

With the massive development in computer technology, the Radiance RGBE file format was developed by Gregory Ward Larson. This RGBE format is still used extensively in file formatting today. Color information is stored in separate pixels and then manipulated, allowing for a far greater dynamic range of exposure.
Spectrum representing RGB color space

In 1993 Steve Mann brought HDR development a step further, with the formation of the light map of a photograph. The light map facilitated the application of tone mapping to selected parts of the image.

1990’s and Beyond: Merging of Images

Through the use of software used to merge images together, Paul Debevec was able to develop more accurate representations of actual scenes. Paul Debevec

The merge function introduced by Photoshop in 2005 made this HDR function accessible to whoever used the program.

2000’s: HDR & the Camera Phone

Since the increase in the use of the mobile phone camera, there has been a rapid development in the quality and capacity of the phone camera. During the years 2000 to 2009, strong commercial competition between the mobile phone manufacturers led to the growth and development of mobile phone camera technology.

When in 2010 a camera with HDR functionality was included in the iPhone 4, HDR became the camera feature of the future. Since then, a large number of applications have been built that use software programming in order to execute HDR functions.

Before/After | Ronen Goldman

These applications have become increasing user friendly.  Through the use of the Enlight HDR feature, the darkness to brightness contrasts are simply improved by swiping from left to right across the image on your screen.  

Before/After | Ronen Goldman

To mirror the effects here, created in Enlight, go to Image > Adjust > select the HDR preset. Tap Filters > Analog > Tools tab > Basic > raise Saturation and/or Contrast.

Before/After | Ronen Goldman

The built-in HDR function on your iPhone or iPad, is best used for landscapes or portraits taken in bright light. If the photographer or the subject of the photograph move once the button of the camera is clicked, the blend of photographs will result in ghost-like images. Taking these factors into consideration when using the HDR function in the right conditions can help you create a beautiful photograph, that accurately represents what your eyes see.


Written by: Rimonah Traub.

Contributing Photographer: Ronen Goldman. Find Ronen on Facebook or check out all his gorgeous surrealistic photos on his website.


Rimonah Traub
Rimonah Traub

Rimonah is an avid culture photographer, whose work has been featured in popular photography exhibitions and appears often in various press publications.

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