UPDATE : A summary of all this website’s reviews of the Sony NEX-5n and NEX-7 is now available.
Continuing my rolling review of the Sony Nex-5N, here are a few thoughts on the HDR capabilities of this little camera. All pictures on this page made with the Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8 or the Leica Elmarit-M 90/2.8 (a lens to die for but unfortunately no longer produced. The bigger Apo Summicron-M 90/2 is apparently even better).
As usual, tiny images show very little. Click any picture for a larger version.
HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography is a technique that combines multiple pictures made at different exposures into a single frame that loses neither the highlights or the blacks. When a very high contrast scene cannot be captured by a single photograph because the sensor cannot cope with the huge amplitude in light between the shadows and the brightest areas, HDR comes to the rescue by making a series of bracketed exposures and using the highlights from the least exposed frame (which are not washed out in to white like they would be in a single frame) and the shadows from the most exposed one (so that they are not completely black as they would be in the single shot).
The talent with which the photographer recombines the variously exposed shots into a single image is what makes or breaks the final image. In my experience, HDR imagery has produced some of the ugliest pictures ever recorded and it’s a wonder that more computers haven’t crashed while displaying them
What gives HDR its special look is the more or less extreme use of Tone Mapping, a technique that boosts local contrast in the final image. When multiple exposures are blended naturally into one, the result can look very flat and uninspiring, so local increases in contrast add liveliness. In small touches, that technique produces painterly images with no glare and plenty of colour. Overcooked, it looks like Technicolor vomit on drugs (to me, at least).This is about as fugly as I’m prepared to go for demonstration purposes without damaging my pride, screen and eyesight But Google the term and, believe me, you will be rewarded by far more offending stuff for which hanging by the lens should be reintroduced.
Inside the camera
The Sony NEX-5N has two modes for capturing high contrast scenes:
- The “purest” mode is accessed via the Brightness/Colour > DRO/AutoHDR menu. This takes 3 pictures separated by 0.6EV and combines them into one using no tone mapping. It produces the -most natural looking picture. The camera actually outputs two pictures : the normal one plus the HDR one. Neat for comparison.
- The more “painterly” mode, actually named HDR Painting, available only in JPEG mode and accessed via the Brightness/Colour > Picture Effect > HDR painting menu. It comes in three strengths (available through the options button) which control the amount of tone mapping going on.
The above and below picture, in Subiacco (Perth, WA) were made using the Auto HDR mode. They both look much more natural, while rendering a very large contrast range. Vignetting was added to the picture below.
Auto HDR is my favourite mode. I’m not sure it wouldn’t be possible to capture the same contrast range from a single RAW file using fill light and highlight recovery, but the pleasure of getting files that are useable immediately and without any manipulation is simply too great to resist on vacation
That being said, it can be tremendous fun to go wild with the HDR Painting mode, particularly to get colours that are already in the scene to pop out like crazy. Overboard ? Maybe. Fun? Certainly Here are a few examples, at the mid setting. Health warning : Watch out for your eyes, colours popping out of the screen.
Notice the difference between this series and the previous 2? The HDR Painting looks less natural, more like dabs our paint on a canvas, with plenty of local retouching and artificial local contrast adjustment. It brings out the colours tremendously by reducing highligh glare and sahdows. A downside is that any colour cast, such as the magenta introduced by my polarizer in the last picture. This is easy to correct and doesn’t show in print, but the sRGB JPEG export bought it out again.
Note that the NEX-5N also offers a B&W HDR mode, though it calls it differently (Brightness/Colour > Picture Effect > Rich tone B&W). It’s not really my cup of tea since for me Black and White is all about tonality and HDR messes that up badly. But it does work if you like the looks.
HDR and the polarizer
Speaking of polarizers, an unexpected result is that HRD pictures taken through a polarizer tend to look more natural than those without. If someone has an explanation, please leave a comment. But the fact is undeniable in my experience.
Compare the two pictures below. The top one is without polarizer. The one below is made through the filter. To me, the tampering of tone mapping is less obvious.
Most of the sea pictures on this page were taking in HDR Painting with a polarizer.
Comparing all the modes
Here’s a morning scene with the sun just out of the frame on the left. The contrast range is quite high but there are no deep shadows and a RAW file can capture it whole. Here’s how the camera renders it in the various modes.
First, the out of the box JPEG:
Next, the Auto HDR: the effect is subtle, but the image is lighter and more alive.
Next the RAW file with gentle massaging of the highlights and a boost in fill light: the sunlight entering from the left is clearly visible.
Next, Painting HDR, low setting: depending on your taste this may be pleasant or not. It’s vibrant and detailed without going overboard. But much of the subtlety of the morning light has been lost (see the houses, in the larger versions) I would have reduced clarity and vibrance slightly in LightRoom for a more natural effect (see below).
Next, HDR Painting MID: going over the edge.
And, finally, “Mirror mirror on the wall, which is the ugliest of them all ?” HDR Painting HIGH:
Thorns in the rose bed
As amusing and time-saving as in-camera HDR can be, it is not without its technical issues. In my hundreds of HDR attempts, most failures were aesthetical, as below:
I have found this to show up most in low light situations. In HDR Painting mode, this is very rare and the camera is so quick that it has successfully made many HDR pictures from a fast-moving car (!!), as below:
But the Auto HDR is much more twitchy and even slow-moving elements such as human figures have ruined countless attempts. This is baffling as 3 pictures are taken in either case, but it’s very evident when you use the NEX. See an example below (a car turning at a corner is not a fast moving object):
Ghost images aside, another problem encountered was the appearance of fuzzy squares in HDR Painting pictures (Auto HDR was immune):
A more frequent artifact is the halo that appears around sharp tonal transitions. See the mast below (click for larger picture):
And finally, note that HDR can be very unkind to human skin. Avoid this mode for portraits unless you are picking a fight. Here’s a sample:
Taming the beast
When you’re using in-camera creative modes, it isn’t to have to alter the images later in software. You’re much better off with a RAW file if you intend to do any manipulations. But one technique that did prove useful when some of the HDR pictures came out a bit over-cooked was the reduce vibrance and clarity slightly in LightRoom. See below:
After minor lowering of contrast and vibrance (and a gentle push in saturation):
What is it for?
All in all, this will probably just pass as a gimmick, just as partial colour and Toy Camera (don’t get me started on Toy Camera, it’s GREAT!! But it’s very interesting to use if you know where you’re heading. Yes, it can and will produce ghastly images in the wrong conditions. And yes (unfortunately, most pictures will still need a bit of retouching to look more natural (non have been altered on this page, unless mentioned). But in the end, it’s a brilliantly implemented and very useful feature on this type of camera (remember this is not your Pro or penile-distrophy-compensating amateur Nikon D3s, we’re reviewing here).
What I think it does best, is bring out the colour qualities and the atmosphere that are already in a scene. It should be looked at as a creative tool, not as a work around for poor lighting. When light is flat, it will only look worse (get dodging in LightRoom instead). Avoid contrasty skies on dull landscapes. Avoid dull scenery. Think of it as a polarizer with a twist. By removing highlight glare and black shadows, it flattens the view into 2D and brings out the atmosphere. It will kill off glow and atmospheric subtleties, keep if for bright landscapes.
I love it ! As many other features of this wonderful little camera, HDR encourages experimentation and fun. As for panoramas, it will not replace tripod-based multiple exposures in a hurry. But for learning and creative thinking, it is perfect and will produce very high quality results when the conditions are right.
For a more elaborate presentation of HDR, switch to Luminous Landscape’s recent article. But be sure to be back for more And please press the buttons below It helps.
I’ll leve you with a few more samples. Hope you like them. Please share.