HDR from film?

I wondered what would happen if I tried to create an HDR (High Dynamic Range) image – or at least an image that looked like HDR – from a film scan. So I did a quick experiment.  The good thing is that film naturally has a pretty high dynamic range, likely higher than that of most digital camera sensors.  With a good quality scan, there’s a lot of range to work with.  If you were really going to go all the way with this, you could probably make three scans of the same neg, overexposing and underexposing two of them to get the most shadow and highlight detail possible.  I just had one scan of this image, so I exported three TIF files from Lightroom, one with normal exposure, and one each with exposure increased and decreased.  Then I ran those through Photomatix Pro to create the HDR image and tonemap it, then added some editing in Photoshop using OnOne Software’s Phototools plugin.

Original scan of the negative

A lot of steps involved there, but I was able to create something a bit more interesting than the original. I was trying to create a little bit of that ‘grungy’ HDR look without overdoing it, as I’m getting really tired of the way overdone HDR look that’s become so common. Was it worth it?  I don’t know.  I probably could have created something similar with just some Photoshop work, but it was an interesting experiment. This wasn’t a terribly high dynamic range scene, since it was an overcast day, but the sky was still quite overexposed.  It would have been difficult to bring that cloud detail back into the sky without using an HDR approach. I was surprised when I saw the detail in the sky  because I didn’t even think there was any cloud detail there.

I did notice some extreme graininess that appears after running it through Photomatix Pro.  I think by boosting the microcontrast, the film grain in the scan acts a lot differently than a typical digital photo.  It resulted in black spots of grain visible when zoomed all the way in.

Love it or hate it, the ‘HDR look’ is very popular, and when done with restraint it can be a great tool.  Maybe there’s a place for it even in a film-based workflow.  It’s definitely something I’ll experiment with some more.  It was fun to mess around with.

This photo was shot with the Kodak Retina IIIc on Kodak GoldMax 400 film, scanned by North Coast Photo.

Follow-up note:  I got a couple of surprising responses from people who like the original photo better than the pseudo-HDR. I’d probably prefer something that falls somewhere between the original scan and the HDR.  The original needs more saturation and other adjustments in my opinion, and I like the detail in the sky and the slightly exaggerated texture under the building overhang in the HDR version.  The beauty of it is that just by doing some simple adjustments in Lightroom to the original scan, I could easily recover a bit more shadow and highlight detail, adjust color balance, maybe saturate certain color ranges a tiny bit, etc. – stuff you could do with hours of work in the darkroom in the old days, but in minutes digitally.  That’s why I love the hybrid analog/digital workflow. As far as HDR goes, there are times when I love the illustrative look of some HDR images – they sometimes look more like paintings than photographs – but like I said before, I am getting a little tired of it.


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