HDR ... what is it?
What exactly is this HDR stuff? Let's start by showing the ten (10) things you should know about HDR:
1. HDR is short for "High Dynamic Range", and refers to extending the range from light to dark in an image.
2. It's easy to do! One doesn't need to be an expert these days to use/try it. To add to that, it doesn't take state-of-the-art equipment either.
3. HDR can look natural and doesn't need to have that "in your face" look that to be honest looks awful in my opinion. Yes, awful.
4. There are many ways to achieve it - no single path to HDR.
5. Several automated HDR Software programs exists that do the work for you (e.g. Photomatix). They work well in many cases but one doesn't have to utilize them to create HDR images.
6. HDR images can have very dark shadows and very bright brights.
7. HDR doesn't control the overall greatness of your image - you do!
8. HDR is as pure as any other type of photography.
9. HDR is a tool and a tool ONLY. Picture it as a screwdriver in your toolbox rather than a toolbox itself.
10. HDR opens many visual possibilities - what you do with it is up to you!
I want to say around the 2008 time frame (when HDR software really took storm in the market) is when experimentation really accelerated among photographers. Extremely grungy, over-saturated images literally took over the internet. Overnight. Now art is art, no matter what, so what I consider "awful looking" may be what another considers a masterpiece. That's besides the point. The point was that with these new great software packages, we now easily had the capability (if done correctly) to gather data from our brightest and darkest exposures, blend them together seamlessly to give us a final, composited image that could represent what we actually saw with our own eyes. But, that's where the train derailed. The "if done correctly" part was overlooked, and because of it the term HDR and HDR software packages got a bad rap.
All that aside, how about a few of the many ways to get better tonal range. First is to combine several exposures (photo above). This is cleanest of the options, as you're getting the best quality of each exposure and combining all their data into one file. The downside? More than one exposure means aligning two or more with the possibility of movement in between shots. Software has come a long way though, and this is handled quite well today. An alternate and unique spin-off from this method is to use one RAW exposure, develop it several times, then output it as one. This can be pretty effective but one has to be very careful in creating halos during the process. The nice thing is no alignment is first needed. Some refer to this method as pseudo HDR. I can see (somewhat) where this label comes from. Last but not least is a simple Dodge n' Burn. Yes, this is opening up the tonal range and is considered a method of HDR. I could go on forever here. Want to learn more? I suggest the book titled Creating HDR Photos by Harold Davis. It's an easy read and great place to start in learning about HDR.
Do I use HDR? Yes, occasionally, only when REALLY needed. Does it help for those situations? Absolutely. With the high-flyin' advances in technology today I think it's better to understand the why/where it should be needed in the first place before it's just "used". If not used carefully it could actually work against your images that may have not needed the technique to begin with.