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/commentable: Camera settings vs Tone Mapping vs HDR output
Dinarius = digital interest
28 December 2010

Camera settings vs Tone Mapping vs HDR output

Judge for yourself – there are times to use HDR photograph techniques and times when not to use anything but Tone Mapping techniques on a single image. The two terms stand alone and both enhance (for better or worse) a photograph or series of photographs. Photography is Writing with Light – as such, some images are awfully difficult to convey since good photography, like good writing, is a difficult thing to get right all the time.

Black Hill Ducks comparing Tone Mapping single image against camera settings.

Full size image 1200×1200
This is not an article that discusses what Tone Mapping and HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography really are, it shows you, quickly, two examples where the camera’s own settings are pitted against Tone Mapping a single image that the camera determined and the results of HDR software with some slight Tone Mapping to make the image “pop” a little more for illustration purposes.

I shot some ducks in 10-degree windchill yesterday. None of us were happy, so the picture is lop-sided and only good for this discussion though that little bugger is a cutie up above! What you see up above is a cropped pixel-for-pixel result of a portion of the image. I did not scale it; the image size is 3,000 pixels across. It is the Tone Mapping of a single image from the camera beside the single image from that camera. Big difference, eh? Look again at it and note that the camera ignored showing me the trail in the woods in the background, the vertical slats in the dock on the water. Basically, this sunset picture where the duck is lighted from a light bulb near the shore had all of its shadow detail BURIED by the camera although the camera recorded this detail. To me, this is one of the most curious aspects of digital photography today: We’re accepting high-contrast false images from cameras that are capable of more with very little coaxing. I don’t know why manufacturers aren’t tackling this in a $150 Nikon, but we can with a $50 dollar software.

While they are all reduced terribly in size to 500 pixels across, here are two very specific examples of Camera settings straight to viewing, a Tone Mapping of that straight image _ and the result of two and then three images combined to an HDR result. You judge for yourself when _which is best to employ.

Black Hill Ducks camera settings.
Black Hill Ducks single image Tone Mapped.
Black Hill Ducks HDR with two images.

It’s cool to see the picture evolve to a better, more balanced image – the danger of shooting moving objects for use in HDR software is the movement. Using Separation and not using the brightest of three images taken, I found that the ducks and water and dock (which was floating up and down) appeared to be still in the last image.

What I learned above is that sunset pictures are better without using the high values/bright areas. There’s less noise in the shadows and sky and the colors and overall contrast were preserved/presented just fine for mostly default settings.

Since we’re writing with light, I’ve changed the story entirely here by shooting indoors from directly beneath the primary light source. You’ll notice that the shadows aren’t coming sideways at all – so it’s like a fake noon.

Hard Times Cafe salt and pepper camera settings.
Hard Times Cafe salt and pepper single Tone Mapped image.
The flat appearance of HDR images signature look in even light.

In this example, the picture does not evolve at all to the human eye! It appears to get terrible and flat – and this is the nature of HDR. True HDR imagery should flatten a great range of values _ to enable “reading” them in a single, Low Dynamic Range image. When the lighting is so even as our high-noon example, HDR software gets a little bungled up; it shoves all the values so close to one another that the benefit is not seeing otherwise _hidden detail in the shadows and highlights, but the effect of enhanced color that neither Tone Mapping nor the camera convey (although the true, abused nature of that Sugar Caddy is a true testament to HDR’s ability to find what’s otherwise hidden).

True HDR imagery will take some getting used to – we’re accustomed to seeing snappy, high-contrast, “moody” images and while that’s perfectly fine for art and basic illustration, it’s not a properly “written” story with light. In cases like that last, flat, HDR salt and pepper shaker area, we can pass that image through to add some contrast while preserving the enhanced accuracy of color and (you can’t see this in the low-res) every grain of salt! The HDR combination of three images is truly stunning for adding color detail and texture detail – ART 101: Texture detail is known as Chiaroscuro which is shadow and light; shadow and light are what HDR excel at _. So with settings set correctly, each grain of salt _really does show up.

Unfortunately, HDR has made a flat mess of the scene as a whole. So despite the advantage of accurate color and wickedly enhanced textures, we must pass this through IrfanView to snap it up a bit having learned not to rely solely on HDR when the lighting is too uniform. Happy days anyway!

Hard Times Cafe salt and pepper HDR photo popped in IrfanView.
Hard Times Cafe salt and pepper single Tone Mapped image.

HDR snapped up above Tone Mapping alone the camera’s preferred settings.

Favorite's the ARTICLE, not the SITE.