Kings Canyon through HDR Photography




I came over the pass at Grant Grove at about 4 o’clock.  Why is that significant?  I’m well within “crappy afternoon light” part of the day.  What is “crappy afternoon light?”  By no means is this a standard industry term, I just find photos taken in the late afternoon before the golden hour surrounding sunset don’t turn out well.  The reason?

  • Harsh shadows creating strong contrast between dark and light
  • skies usually are white rather than blue
  • photos taken of the western sky never come out well as the sun is usually in the photo

Because I live on the edge of the west coast a good portion of the last day tends to have crappy afternoon light as I’m looking to the west a good portion of the ride going home. I wanted to try something a little different as I wasn’t sure when I get back to Kings Canyon and I have a number of photographs I love of this area. What’s the new idea? Enter high dynamic range (HDR) photography.

HDR Photography

Why HDR? Cameras don’t have as wide of a range to interpret exposure like our eyes do.  For example, if we are taking a photograph of the sunset, we are likely to end up with two types of photos:

The foreground is exposed somewhat well, but the sun is too bright

The sun is correctly exposed, but everything else is too dark

So how can we do better?  Let’s take a look at two HDR examples.

We can see the sun and the mountains are equally exposed in this HDR photograph

I really liked this photograph, but the full color version of the left had some strage artifacts near the sun. Moving to monochrome preserved what I liked about it and got rid of the artifacts.

HDR photography take several photographs of the same scene at different exposure levels. Not sure what exposure is? Check out my understanding exposure blog. Many cameras have a feature called autoexposure bracketing which sets you up for HDR photography quite well. The camera will take several photographs at different exposure levels when enabled. On my camera, if I have this feature turned on holding down the shutter button will take seven photographs of the same scene. I’ve loaded those 7 photos into Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro below.  The exposure data on the two left most photos are similar, so the software is flagging them for review.


Both Adobe Photoshop and Nik Software have solutions to take multiple photos and combine the properly exposed areas in each photo into one HDR photo. I found the Nik Software to be a bit better in the user experience as well as the output. What’s interesting is that Google has recently acquired Nik Software. The acquisition seems a little bit strange as this software seems a bit niche for Google Plus.

Those that do high dynamic range photography regularly recommend a tripod, but these two software packages support ghost removal which attempts to align the photos before merging them together. Former trials with HDR photography and my previous camera have proven unsuccessful as the software I was using was not very good and the camera I had wasn’t near the caliber of the camera I have now.

I set my camera to take seven photographs of the same scene.  Each photograph was the third of the stop lighter than the former one. My camera takes the first photograph at 0 EV, then the rest at -1 EV, -2/3 EV, -1/3 EV, 1/3 EV, 2/3 EV, and 1 EV. Since I had so many photos in a narrow range, the Nik Software package was getting confused when ordering the images for processing. Looking online it appears I could’ve taken less photographs or used a wider exposure band.

There’s definitely an art in taking a good HDR photo. Since the light isn’t fully “natural” many HDR photos have a very strange cast to them. I can remember looking online for houses and the photography was all HDR. Nothing looked real in the photographs. I think I did a bit better here, but there’s definitely some things to learn about how to be even better.

Google is selling the Nik Software package for $149 which is exactly the price Adobe Lightroom. They do offer a fully functional 15 day demo which I made extensive use of. The problem is I only have used the HDR tools as many of the other features come built in with Adobe Lightroom.  Nik Software does HDR clearly better than Photoshop by an order of magnitude.

I think my next step will be to understand how good I can get the HDR feature in camera to work. If it’s good enough, I’ll probably hold off until the next version from Google. If not, I’m feeling a credit card swipe coming on soon.

I was happy though. I did get around the crappy afternoon light problem. There are several photographs in the set I’m happy with. I’m posting the good ones as well as the strange ones so that you, the reader, can get a sense for what works and what doesn’t about HDR photography.

After doing a bit of research online, I found out my camera does HDR photography fully in unit. I wasn’t aware of that mode on the trip, but I’ll have to give it a spin the next time I go out.

Highway 180 – Mid Canyon


Standard. Note the bright sky.




(first row: HDR, second row: left HDR, right, standard )



(HDR, standard, HDR)

Junction View



HDR, standard, HDR

The Spot

I don’t have great name for this place, but it’s the part of Kings Canyon where the road gets super tight and the canyon gets a very deep. I always stop here as the scenery is just breathtaking and it’s always fun to see the river roaring below.


(all photos HDR)


(all photos HDR)

So, I’m curious. How do you, the reader, interpret these photos? Do you find them engaging? Two they look realistic or have a too “edited” feel to them? Let me know in the comments!


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3 responses to “Kings Canyon through HDR Photography”

  1. David Burnham Avatar
    David Burnham

    Beautiful shots! I have, somewhere, my childhood attempts at shooting there, and everything was washed out. HDR FTW! You really have a heckuva gift, brother.

    1. Me Avatar

      Thanks David! I appreciate that :).

  2. […] different, yet they are located just miles from each other with no connecting path. To the west is Highway 180 to the bottom of Kings Canyon. It’s 50 miles of twisty goodness up and over the western side […]

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