Black and white in HDR (Dennis Aubrey)

This is a technical discussion on the use of HDR in our church photography. High Dynamic Range Photography (HDR) is a post-processing method of combining multiple exposures of a shot in order to provide a more balanced image and capture more of the contrast. We have examined in detail in a previous post but today we are examining a specific use of HDR – conversion to black and white.

We are beginning with a shot of the nave in the Collégiale Saint-Yrieix in the Limousin town of Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche, photographed in the late afternoon with the sun was pouring in from the exterior windows on the south in the nave. I tried to conventionally develop the shots into a satisfactory black and white version but nothing seemed to work. The contrasts were too extreme and I could not find the proper balance. This would be a good candidate for HDR.

I selected four widely different exposures to create the HDR image in Photoshop with the intention of capturing all the details of each in the combined final exposure.

Saint Yrieix composite
Saint Yrieix composite

The result of the base HDR is the following, which is unsatisfactory as any kind of finished image but it looked as it would be very good for the conversion to black and white. All of the windows were properly exposed; we can even see the mullions in the large nave windows as well as the detail in the stained glass of the apse. The colors and contrast are not very good, but that won’t matter in the conversion.

HDR master, Collégiale Saint-Yrieix, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
HDR master, Collégiale Saint-Yrieix, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In Lightroom I made the adjustments to the HDR master image. First I converted it to greyscale. The result is a clean neutral image that has little relationship to the feeling of the church at the time of photographing. The representation is simply flat and listless.

Greyscale version, Collégiale Saint-Yrieix, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Greyscale version, Collégiale Saint-Yrieix, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

At this point, I a made a series of manual adjustments including increasing the contrast, lowering the highlights and punching the shadows a bit. This is mostly done by “feel” to get to the look that was originally in my mind when beginning the process.

Black and white version, Collégiale Saint-Yrieix, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche (Haute-Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Black and white version, Collégiale Saint-Yrieix, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche (Haute-Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The result is a satisfactory black and white image of a difficult original composition. Conventional developing techniques combined with Photoshop’s HDR processing got me the image I was seeking.

17 thoughts on “Black and white in HDR (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Make no apologies for using HDR. Technology is perfect for helping us capture the effect we saw with the naked eye, which is impossible to capture on a single exposure. Can you imagine what Ansel Adams would have done with this technology?

    1. Vann, my problem is not with HDR as a technique, but more of HDR as a “style” – I’m sure you know the hypersaturated images that often result. In some worlds, it provides an interesting counterpoint to the “natural” look, but in architecture I find it annoying. As for Adams, isn’t it really what he was working towards anyway? Thanks for the commentary.

  2. You’re so right about Ansel. He spent hours and hours in a darkroom to achieve what a computer might accomplish in five minutes. I admire him all the more for what he was able to do. Remarkable work!

      1. I could never approach your camera skills! But both of you have an eye for light and how it plays across and enhances architecture….which is part of why I love your work and it shows in your method.

    1. Eric, one thing that we try to do is to capture the purity and elegance of these churches – often black and white is the way to accentuate the form. We stare for a long time at these churches looking for these architecture forms and volumes. We’d be foolish to gild the lily!

  3. This is how HDR should be used. There are so many who seem to find they just can’t do without it even when they should. The gray skies and washed out but detailed buildings or landscapes, are simply not something that appeal. I don’t have a really good camera, or software, however, for what photography I do, it’s okay and maybe someday I’ll get that DSLR I’ve drooled over. I won’t be using HDR for every image. To accomplish something like this would be worth the effort.

    1. Aquila, so nice to hear from you again. There is one fellow in England who used to use these “over-HDR’d” images to good effect, but he had a unique perspective on the world, where color was the primary visual element. There was a certain naivete to his work, but it was quite fetching. But there is definitely a place for HDR. In our work, however, it is just a background tool that in itself almost never yields good results.

      1. I’ve used the pseudo HDR in Pixlr to pop the detail in a closeup of moss and lichen on a dead tree which made the image for me. I agree, there certainly is a place for HDR, it just doesn’t need to be used on everything. There’s been a trend of doing it on some of the real estate listings, occasionally with the use of a fisheye lens – makes the interiors look very strange. In an odd way it reminds me of the people who would have a print of a landscape or floral painted over to match their living room.

  4. Very interesting. The technology (and its discussion) is a foreign world to me, but I’m intrigued how close you can make your final image look as it were at least a century older – and that’s a compliment!

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