This photograph, Medicine Bow Peak Trail, nicely illustrates one of the uniquely powerful capabilities of digital photography. The large image on top depicts the scene as it appeared to my eye. However, owing to the extreme tonal range in this scene (very bright tones near the sun on the right, deep shadows in the pine trees), it was not possible to capture the information necessary to take an acceptable photograph of this scene in a single shot. The bottom left image is the result of letting my camera's exposure meter "guess" at the optimal exposure. As you can see, the sky is washed out, the shadows are too dark, and the photograph is hardly worthy of a second look. If I was restricted to taking a single photograph of this scene with either a film or digital camera, this would be the result. In fact, I wouldn't have bothered to take a picture of this beautiful scene with my large format camera because I know that, owing to the limited tonal range of the slide film I like to use, the result could not do justice to the beauty of this landscape.
Digital capture offers a unique way of coping with the challenge of capturing scenes with extreme tonal range. "Exposure blending" allows the photographer to combine multiple exposures into a single composite image. Using this method, the photographer can take one image that properly exposes the highlights (bottom center), another that properly exposes the shadows (bottom right), and one or more images in-between these extremes (bottom left). Specialized photo editing programs like Photomatix allow multiple exposures to be combined into a single, high dynamic range (HDR) photo. The result of this exposure blending process is an image that overcomes the limitations of single-shot capture and is able to represent the incredible tonal range of the human eye. Put another way, HDR photography allows one to capture images that depict the natural world as we see it.
Does this process represent "digital manipulation?" Of course! Have I "enhanced" these photographs? Absolutely! So what? It is precisely because of digital manipulation and enhancement that I was able to faithfully depict the beauty of the Medicine Bow Peak Trail with this photograph. Blind adherence to the notion that the final print must match the film or original digital capture would ensure that a scene like this could never be properly photographed.
Photo © copyright by Brett Deacon.