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Tips and techniques

NATURE’S VIEW: High Dynamic Range, The Natural Way, Story and photographs by Jim Clark

By August 5, 2014No Comments
Marsh Landscape, Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, Maryland

Marsh Landscape, Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area, Maryland

Or, why I never get to take an afternoon nap during my photo shoots

In the film days of yore, I always counted on an afternoon nap during my photo shoots on nice sunny days. The high contrast of a sunny afternoon proved too much for film to capture details in both the highlights and shadows. Since I didn’t want to shoot under those conditions, what else was I to do but check the inside of my eyelids?

Thanks to digital technology those napping times are over, but I can’t complain about this new digital stuff. The one advancement I love that has raised the playing field in nature photography is high dynamic range (HDR).

Seneca Rocks, West Virginia

Seneca Rocks, West Virginia

HDR enables digital cameras to capture details throughout the range of light to dark tones. The process involves taking a series of images of varying exposures and using software to combine these images to produce a picture that shows details in all tones.

HDR software offers many options in how the final image appears, from a natural look to the more extreme, surreal dreamscapes. It remains a personal choice as to how the final image appears, but as a nature photographer, my preference is to use HDR to achieve as much of a natural look as possible.

The one constant that hasn’t changed from film to digital capture, even when using HDR, is using the proper field techniques. HDR is only as good as the composition of your image.

Some field techniques I employ when using HDR to photograph nature include:

Tripod: HDR photography requires a set of images of different exposures taken in rapid sequence, so it’s important to use a sturdy tripod. I know of one student who can do the HDR sequencing by handholding his camera, but he’s a freak of nature.

Manual Focus: Subtle movements of clouds or something else in the scene can cause auto focus to switch focus, so set the focus to manual.

White Balance: Avoid using auto white balance. Set white balance to be consistent throughout the exposures.

Frame Rate: Use continuous high. You want to take the sequence of images as fast as you can to avoid shifts in lighting and movement of clouds.

Aperture Priority, ISO and Auto-Exposure Bracketing: I want everything sharp from the front of the composition to the back, so I use Aperture Priority to lock in on an f-stop between f/11 to f/22. I also go for the lowest native resolution on my camera. Some cameras have an auto-exposure bracketing function. Use it if you have it.

Sunset, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland

Sunset, Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Maryland

Exposure Series: Expose a series of images above and below the camera’s exposure reading. I usually go for three to seven images (e.g. -2, -1, 0, +1, +2) in full stops.

Back in my digital darkroom, I start the magical transformation with HDR software programs, such as Nik HDR Efex Pro or Photomatix Pro, to combine and process the images. Whatever software program used, some final adjustments should be made in your editing program of choice.

Add HDR to your toolbox of techniques to showcase your images of nature. You won’t regret it.

A past NANPA President, Jim is the nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia, and is a contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer magazine. Jim currently serves as photographer in residence at the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve near his home in Leesburg, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son, Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at, blog at or like him on Facebook.