HDR at Night

HDR at Night

HDR at Night

HDR at Night

Merchandise of Extinction – © Copyright 2012 by William Beem

I’m becoming a fan of shooting HDR at night. It makes for a great study of contrasts. Light and Dark. Cool and Warm. When I look at the individual photos shot in the auto-exposure bracket for these scene, none really stands out as the right exposure. The shadows are too deep when the lights are exposed well, and the lights are blown out when you get detail in the shadows. Shooting HDR at night gives you the chance to bring out subtle textures in the shadows without overpowering the lights – except where you want them to jump out for a bit of impact.

Creating bracketed exposures at night isn’t without a slight challenge, though. My Nikon D700 can create up to 9 auto-exposure brackets, which gives a lot of range. The problem is that none of those exposures can exceed 30 seconds of shutter speed. If you try shooting more exposures, some of those longer exposures near the end are going to be identical when they hit that 30 second barrier. That’s when you have to switch to Manual mode and do some math in your head to determine if your long exposures are going to roll past 30 seconds. You can exceed that limit by using Bulb mode, which basically lets you leave the shutter open until you release the button to turn it off. It helps to have a watch or timer to know how long you’ve been exposing a frame.

The same issue comes up for some Neutral Density long exposures. I know there are iPhone apps to do the math for you, but it seems like a bit of overkill to me. Each frame needs to leave the shutter open twice as long as the last one. I tend to let the Auto-Exposure brackets work for any shots up to 30 seconds, and then I switch to Bulb mode to get the remaining shots. If the last one was 30 seconds, the next one doubles to a minute, and so on down the line. I’d hate to think I needed an app just to multiply by two.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll always shoot HDR at night. Just more often than I have in the past. After all, photography is just playing with light. We may as well play when the lights suit us.

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  • Scott Baxter September 25, 2012   Reply →

    The issue you describe here is exactly why I wish there were an “HDR mode” option for Auto ISO. In other words, it would be presumed you would use this mode with a tripod, so the ISO would deviate from the nominal level you set only as needed to have your exposures not need to exceed 30 seconds in length, and only to the degree necessary, so that you can avoid switching to manual. If such a mode could be further customized so that you set a maximum exposure length (to be exceeded only when even higher ISO alone won’t give you enough exposure), it would be even better. Sure, higher ISO means more noise, but so does a longer exposure, even at lower ISO. Somewhere along the spectrum, there’s a point at which the two meet, so that setting a lower ISO might not really be giviing you any advantage in terms of noise. And sometimes you just don’t want such long exposures. I’m sure you’ve experienced times at WDW where you prepare to take a bracketed set when the coast is clear, only to have someone stroll into your shot while you are taking your longer exposures (and those people will always stop within the frame, so you can’t hope the long shutter speed will render them invisible). It is at times like that that I wish I could up the ISO for those last couple of overexposures.

    I shoot as much HDR at night as I do sunset and sunrise — at Walt Disney World and in artificially-lighted environments, night is my third-favorite time to shoot, and I run up against the 30-second brick wall ALL THE TIME. I usually either shoot an additional set at higher ISO all the through and pull out the frames I’ll need later, or I’ll stop shooting mid-set and change the ISO for the longer exposures manually. It would certainly be nice to set this sort of thing up and have it available as a single menu setting.

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