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Are Cameras With Built-in HDR the Future of Photography?

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Read Time: 12 min

High Dynamic Range photography is one of two things: something that will be as commonplace as a built-in flash in ten years, or a silly fad that will soon die and fade away. One interesting facet of this debate is that camera manufacturers are beginning to embrace HDR so much that they're actually building it straight into cameras as a way to get more detail out of your images.

Today we'll go over what both what HDR is and what it isn't. You'll learn the difference between the core technology and the popular resulting effect that perhaps takes it too far. We'll also take a look at the camera market to see which manufacturers are fully embracing in-camera HDR and which ones are hesitantly testing the waters.

Your Camera Vs. Your Face

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Have you ever wondered why you can't really shoot what you see? No matter what camera you have, from a cheap cell phone to a 5D, the images that are produced are notably different than what you're perceiving in the real world.

There are several reasons for this: the fact that you have two eyes and one camera lens, different focusing mechanisms, etc. One of the most limiting of these factors is dynamic range, which, loosely defined, refers to the scope of lighting conditions in which we are able to perceive the world around us.

Your eyes have a much higher dynamic range than most or all commercial electronic sensors. The best of these sensors have dynamic ranges of about 13.5 stops of light, while human eyes are closer to 18-24 stops.

What this technical babble means on a practical level is that you possess the amazing ability to see well on a dark night, a bright sunny day and everything in between. In other words, your "range" of perception is quite broad.

Your camera, by contrast, isn't quite so gifted. As you well know, it struggles with both shadows and highlights. If you set the exposure settings so that the details in a dark room are clearly shown, any points of light present in the image will be completely blown out.

Similarly, if you adjust your exposure for a sunny day, most or all of the detail present in a shadow will be completely lost. Digital photography is a constant game of juggling tradeoffs and it's literally impossible with the current consumer-grade technology to capture the full range of detail that you see before you with a single image.

How HDR Works

So why use a single image? This was the heart of the question posed by the pioneers behind HDR imaging. The idea is actually extremely simple. By combining images taken at different exposures, you can meet or even surpass the range seen by the human eye. This is where bracketing comes in.

Bracketing involves setting your exposure down a given number of stops, taking a photo, then upping the exposure and snapping another shot of the same scene. This process is repeated until the photographer is satisfied with the range captured. It's fairly typical for a photographer to use a three image system: one shot underexposed, one shot properly exposed and one shot overexposed.

Odds are, your DSLR already has this feature built into it in an automated fashion. This means all you have to do is click a single button, after which several photos are taken automatically at different exposures.

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After this, the images are transferred to a computer where they are compiled into a single end product. By utilizing multiple images taken at multiple exposures, you're able to create one final image containing all of the image detail from all of the photos. The end goal here is of course capturing a striking image that is much closer or even better than what you personally see.

The benefits here are clear but there are limitations and hurdles as well. The most significant of these is the fact that not everything you photograph will stay perfectly still as you take three to five different photos!

Addressing this problem is something that many applications like Photoshop and others are currently tackling and improving all the time, but there's still plenty of progress to be made.

The HDR Taboo

HDR is a touchy subject. Many photographers absolutely hate the entire idea of HDR for several reasons. First of all, it admittedly feels a bit like cheating. However, there will always be purists who make this claim regarding any new photographic technological advancement.

Film fans descried the end of the art of photography when digital came along, digital post-processing of any kind (Photoshop, Lightroom, etc.) was and still continues to be something that is scorned by those that prefer to brag about the superiority of straight-from-camera shots.

HDR is simply another step on the same staircase. Technological geniuses will continue to invent amazing tools for photographers and we'll continually reject them until the fad of doing so wears off and the benefits are too enticing to pass up.

A slightly more legitimate critique in my mind is the HDR craze that has resulted in endless roundups of photographs that look like something you might see on an acid trip at Disneyland.

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Some people love this particular style of photography, others abhor it. Regardless of where you fall, you have to admit that this is simply a niche within the greater HDR field and not a legitimate reason to reject the entirety of HDR as a useful technology.

This would be similar to rejecting the incredibly useful RAW image file format because certain people use RAW Lightroom presets that you don't like!

Built-In HDR: The Next Step

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HDR is a fascinating technology to me because it represents a clever software-driven way to get better photos out of hardware that is otherwise much more limited. Simply put, who wouldn't want the option of more detail in their photos?

However, on a practical level, there's no way I'm ever going to manually combine exposures for every photograph I take in a shoot. My current post-processing procedure is quite lengthy as is and I have no intention of tripling it. And I think a lot of photographers are with me on this. This puts HDR technology more in the realm of an occasional fun experiment than something used by most photographers in every day work.

The only way I see HDR ever breaking out into widespread use by just about every photographer is automation. It has to be something that doesn't add significant amounts of time to our current workflows.

One of the best possible scenarios for this is to have HDR as something that our cameras do for us behind the scenes as a feature that can be easily switched on and off, just like flash or auto-focus. This way it becomes just another pre-shot setting that I have the option to play with. We photographers hate extra work but we love extra buttons!

If you think automatic HDR inside a camera is a pipe dream, think again. Currently, one of the world's most popular, ever-present pocket-sized cameras has this very feature: the iPhone.

Apple's touchscreen wonder phone has a simple HDR on/off switch which causes the camera to take multiple shots and combine them in seconds with zero effort on your part. If a tiny cell phone can do it, why not a big, powerful DSLR?

Cameras with Built-In HDR Functions

Armed with the knowledge that the technology does in fact exist, we had a look around to see what camera manufacturers are doing about it. It turns out that there are indeed a number of cameras on the market today that possess built-in HDR functionality!

Though many of these are small and cheap, some of them are serious professional cameras with specs that will blow you away. Let's take a look around too see who is doing in-camera HDR and how.

Pentax K-5

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Amazon Price: $1,599.95

Surprisingly enough, Pentax seems to be one of the camera companies really at the forefront of this wave. Not only do they have several cameras with built-in HDR, it seems like it's quickly becoming a standard feature.

The Pentax K-5 shown above boasts some really impressive specs, including 16.3MP an impressive ISO range of 80-51200, and full 1080p HD video at 25fps. This model features an upgraded HDR system designed to be used without a tripod. You just flip on HDR, point and shoot.

The camera does everything else and what you get is a JPG image (no HDR RAW option) with an impressive range of highlights and shadows. Check out a complete breakdown and review of the Pentax HDR system here.

Pentax 645D

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Amazon Price: $19,995.95

Not sure that cutesy HDR features will ever make it into serious high-end professional cameras? Think again. Pentax is pushing HDR all across the board and the whopping $10,000 645D is no exception.

This beast boasts 40MP and ultra-high resolution images at 7264x5440. It's interesting that Pentax saw HDR as an important enough feature to place in here, but left out the video capability present on many of their other SLRs. Someone is certainly putting a high priority on this technology!

Sony a550

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Amazon Price: $599.95

Sony is another camera manufacturer jumping on the HDR bandwagon. A few of their cameras, like the a550 shown above, now have an on-board HDR system. It's important to note that the a550 pulls detail from only two photographs while the Pentax system uses three. However, this is a much more affordable camera.

Also, Sony has another system called the "D-Range Optimizer" that isn't true HDR, but does attempt to optimize a photo's dynamic range. D-Range Optimizer is designed to work with moving subjects and therefore fills in where HDR falls short.

Canon Powershot G12

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Amazon Price: $414.95

Canon hasn't fully embraced in-camera HDR technology to the extent that the some of the other manufacturers have. One of the few places you can find it in the Canon line is on the Powershot G12, which is obviously more of a point and shoot consumer camera.

However, this does indicate that Canon is indeed working on the technology. And it's not unheard of for them to figure something out on low end models and then bring it up to the big cameras like they did with video capability.

Furthermore, many tech blogs recently shot up a red flag when Canon filed a very interesting patent relating to HDR. It seems they might be trying to change the game completely before they get into it! Canon's patent outlines a system whereby the camera alters exposure on a per-pixel level. Sound too crazy to be real? Check out more here.

Nikon Coolpix P100

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Amazon Price: $399.95

Nikon seems to be taking the same road as Canon by tipping their toes into the HDR water and waiting to see how it pans out before taking the dive. Again we see this manifesting through introduction of a special HDR system in a low end camera: the Coolpix P100.

It is interesting to note however that higher end Nikon DSRLs have a special mode for combining multiple exposures. Though it's not necessarily the intended purpose, photographers are increasingly starting to use this feature to create HDR images.

Casio EX-ZR100

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Casio Price: $299.99

Casio is gradually introducing in-camera HDR features across their Exilim series of products. It definitely makes sense that cheaper cameras are embracing HDR technology first (iPhone, Coolpix, Casio, etc.). Many of these products simply don't have the expensive hardware necessary to create professional quality images and HDR provides an easy way to boost the quality without changing the hardware and adding production costs.

Casio is actually embracing this technology on multiple levels. Like the other cameras that we've seen, the EX-ZR100 has a standard HDR mode that attempts to mirror reality but they've also included an HDR-ART mode that makes combines the images to look like the popular over-processed HDR fad mentioned above.

The Future of Photography?

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The products above prove that there is hardly a camera manufacturer out there that isn't experimenting with in-camera HDR capabilities. Pentax is by far leading this rush by including its HDR system in several different high and low end models. The others are a bit more hesitant but you can bet the threat of competition will continue to push Canon and the others further and further with their own systems.

The big question now becomes "Is it all just a fad?" Big dogs Canon and Nikon sure seem hesitant about jumping in and some find it hard to consider anything a professional feature until it's on the 5D. Further, there are plenty of skeptics, like Aaron from Social Photo Talk, who think that real professionals won't go near an HDR feature whether it's there or not, similar to the "Auto" mode on modern DSLRs.

However, I definitely disagree and think that it's not a far-fetched scenario that many or even most new professional DSLRs will have an in-camera HDR feature within the next few years, and we'll all use it. The reason that I believe this will happen is because image quality isn't a fad.

It's true that cartoon-land HDR tricks have already overstayed their welcome (sorry Casio) but technology that improves the overall look of our photographs in a way that mirrors reality is something that photographers will continually pursue and appreciate. We're never going to wake up and suddenly not want better photographs.

Simply put, if there's a button on my camera that will pull more detail out of a tricky scene, you can bet I'm going to press it with zero concerns about the purity of the art of photography. Honestly, the biggest downfall I see at this point is that I would have to give up RAW, which I'm not willing to do in many circumstances.

It will be interesting to see if Canon or anyone else comes through with the promise of truly High Dynamic Range technology that utilizes only one image. This would certainly make in-camera HDR infinitely more convenient and usable.

What Do You Think?

Now that you've heard our spiel on in-camera HDR technology, what are your thoughts? Do you wish your Canon T1i had the same HDR feature as your iPhone? If it did would you use it? Most importantly, is HDR just a passing fad or are we seeing the tip of the iceberg in a long-term improvement of the dynamic range of our photographs?

Also be sure to let us know if you've tried any cameras with built-in HDR, what you thought of them and how you think they should improve.

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